From "Birds and Frogs" by Freeman Dyson [Notices of Amer. Math. Soc. 56 (2009) 212--223]:
One of the most profound jokes of nature is the square root of minus one that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger put into his wave equation when he invented wave mechanics in 1926. Schrödinger was a bird who started from the idea of unifying mechanics with optics. A hundred years earlier, Hamilton had unified classical mechanics with ray optics, using the same mathematics to describe optical rays and classical particle trajectories. Schrödinger’s idea was to extend this unification to wave optics and wave mechanics. Wave optics already existed, but wave mechanics did not. Schrödinger had to invent wave mechanics to complete the unification. Starting from wave optics as a model, he wrote down a differential equation for a mechanical particle, but the equation made no sense. The equation looked like the equation of conduction of heat in a continuous medium. Heat conduction has no visible relevance to particle mechanics. Schrödinger’s idea seemed to be going nowhere. But then came the surprise. Schrödinger put the square root of minus one into the equation, and suddenly it made sense. Suddenly it became a wave equation instead of a heat conduction equation. And Schrödinger found to his delight that the equation has solutions corresponding to the quantized orbits in the Bohr model of the atom. It turns out that the Schrödinger equation describes correctly everything we know about the behavior of atoms. It is the basis of all of chemistry and most of physics. And that square root of minus one means that nature works with complex numbers and not with real numbers. This discovery came as a complete surprise, to Schrödinger as well as to everybody else. According to Schrödinger, his fourteen-year-old girl friend Itha Junger said to him at the time, "Hey, you never even thought when you began that so much sensible stuff would come out of it." All through the nineteenth century, mathematicians from Abel to Riemann and Weierstrass had been creating a magnificent theory of functions of complex variables. They had discovered that the theory of functions became far deeper and more powerful when it was extended from real to complex numbers. But they always thought of complex numbers as an artificial construction, invented by human mathematicians as a useful and elegant abstraction from real life. It never entered their heads that this artificial number system that they had invented was in fact the ground on which atoms move. They never imagined that nature had got there first.