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Watson and Crick 1953
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?What is life? 2013
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vert bar What is Life?
by Erwin Schrödinger

Watson, Crick and Wilkins have all written that they were inspired to study DNA by this historic book.

Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939, Schrödinger had been invited by the then Taoiseach of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, to help establish the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. He moved to Clontarf, where he lived until 1955. In a series of lectures at the Institute, Schrödinger addressed the phenomenon of life from the point of view of physics, and from first principles explained how genetic information might be stored in a molecule, and how life in many ways appeared to defy the second law of thermodynamics - unlike everything else in the universe life somehow becomes more ordered rather than the other way round.

The lectures were published in 1944 in a small booklet (right), and presented a physicist’s view of life. Maurice Wilkins, who was later to be awarded the Nobel prize for elucidating the structure of DNA, wrote “I was attracted by Schrödinger’s thinking in What is Life? He wrote about a gene being an aperiodic crystal, and that connected directly with my PhD research where electrons moved freely in perfect crystals. Schrödinger used the language of physicists and that stimulated me, as a physicist, to persevere with his book and its introduction to genetics, and to decide that this was the general area that I wanted to explore as a ‘biophysicist’”

Schrödinger, in war-isolated Dublin, did not know that excellent evidence that DNA was the genetic material had been produced by Oswald Avery and colleagues in New York. He argued from first principles that genes had to contain information, and they had to replicate. His idea of the aperiodic crystal is realised in the form of the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick sent a copy of their paper describing the Double Helix to Schrödinger in 1953 saying how they had been influenced by him.



Download a pdf version of the text of
What is life ?
by Erwin Schrödinger