• Paul Fingleton

This day in History: 5 February 1943: Erwin Schrödinger’s ‘What is Life?’ lecture in Dublin

"One of the most important scientific lectures of all time."

On 5th February 1943, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Professor Erwin Schrödinger, then Director of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), delivered the first of his renowned ‘What is Life?’ lectures. He delivered further lectures in his ‘What is Life?’ series over the following month.

Collectively, the lectures which were hosted by Trinity College Dublin, are credited with transforming our understanding of genetics and inspiring the discovery of DNA.

Schrödinger in Ireland

Professor Schrödinger had been brought to Ireland by Éamon de Valera on the eve of World War II. As an outspoken and high-profile critic of the Nazi regime, he had been forced to flee his native Austria.

De Valera, who was Taoiseach at the time, was determined to establish a high-level research institute in Ireland – the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies – and approached Schrödinger to be the first Director of its School of Theoretical Physics. Schrödinger remained in that post until his retirement in 1955, when he returned to Austria.

Commenting today, Dr. Eucharia Meehan, CEO and Registrar of DIAS, said: “We are immensely proud to have had Professor Erwin Schrödinger as the first Director of DIAS’s School of Theoretical Physics.

“DIAS is home to a rich treasure trove of historical artefacts from Schrödinger’s time in Dublin. Along with lots of fascinating photographs of Schrödinger with Éamon de Valera, we have a letter to Schrödinger from Francis Crick crediting ‘What is Life?’ as an influence in his and James Watson’s discovery of DNA.”

‘What is Life?’

The lectures delivered by Schrödinger 75 years ago dealt with the physical aspects of living cells; specifically, with the bearing of quantum theory on the structure of chromosomes and the nature of mutation. They presented an early theoretical description of the storage of genetic information and have been credited as a source of inspiration in the discovery of DNA and subsequent decoding of the human genome.

“At the DIAS School of Theoretical Physics, we are very proud to celebrate the 75th anniversary of this hugely influential lecture series, delivered by our first Director.

“Schrödinger’s ‘What is Life?’ lecture series not only brought a broad range of theoretical physics concepts to the non-expert but have also been widely credited with inspiring the discovery and decoding of DNA, our genetic building blocks.”

- Professor Werner Nahm, Director of the School of Theoretical Physics

The lectures were public lectures addressed to a general audience. The requirement to give such lectures was written by de Valera into the act establishing DIAS.

The ‘What is Life?’ lectures were subsequently published in a book of the same name and translated into German, French, Swedish, Japanese, Italian and Russian.

At the time, the lectures were covered by international outlets such as Time Magazine, as well as Ireland’s national media.

Further information about DIAS and Erwin Schrödinger is available at the DIAS site.


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