Erwin Schrödinger changed the course of modern biology with a series of lectures in Trinity 75 years ago. That series of lectures was commemorated on September 5 and 6 at Schrödinger at 75—The Future of Biology in the National Concert Hall.
Schrödinger, having been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1933 and published the thought experiment on his eponymous cat in 1935, was invited to Dublin by Éamon de Valera in 1943.
De Valera was establishing Ireland’s first advance research institute, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and he approached Schrödinger to be the first director of its school of Theoretical Physics. Schrödinger remained in the post until his retirement in 1956.
Schrödinger marked his arrival in Dublin with a lecture series entitled What Is Life? In the series, he wanted to outline how physics can help us understand biology’s most fundamental question—the origin of life. He sought to show that if life follows the laws of physics and chemistry to which our universe is subject, it should follow that physics can be used to explain life.
The following year, these lectures were published in a book of the same name.
The questions asked by Schrödinger in Dublin in 1943 became foundational, inspiring fellow physicist Francis Crick and zoologist James Watson when approaching their discussion of the structure of DNA.
At the time of Schrödinger’s lectures, it was not yet accepted that DNA was the carrier of hereditary information. Schrödinger however suggested that a hereditary molecule must contain a “code script”, thus giving us the blueprint that continues to instruct contemporary research.
At Schrödinger at 75—The Future of Biology, that blueprint was examined by five Nobel Prize winners—Bernard Feringa, John O’Keefe, Susumu Tonegawa, Ada Yonath and Michael Rosbash—along with many other world-leading scientists.
The two-day event encompassed neuroscience, zoology, genetics, immunology, plant sciences, and biochemistry, and was attended by senior academics, undergraduates, members of the public and secondary school students.
Highlights include the keynote delivered by philosopher professor (and one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism) Daniel Dennett, Trinity’s Dr. Lydia Lynch discussing the future of immunology, and the address given by Springer Nature editor-in-chief, Sir Philip Campbell.
Campbell discussed his belief that research papers need to not only consider academic impact but also societal impact. He said that editors and publishers will begin to not just consider a given paper’s academic content, but also the outcomes and impacts of the research undertaken.
This will require editors to be open minded and to recognise the value in papers whose conceptual novelty may be low but whose impacts might be high.
“Citations don’t necessarily mean societal impact,” he said, going on to discuss that funders such as governments and foundations will increasingly want to track longer term impacts, which in turn may result in researchers adding more weight to the applications of their research.
On October 5, the students who shadowed the speakers at this conference will be reflecting on the talks at a mini symposium in the Schrödinger Lecture Theatre in Trinity College Dublin.
It will be an opportunity to hear from the students who may well be future leaders of the field and hear their thoughts on Schrödinger at 75.
The event was organised by Trinity’s Luke O’Neill, Cliona O’Farrelly, Tomas Ryan and Zhanna O’Cleary, along with Cambridge’s Mike Murphy.
By Gemma Mortell, General Manager Vol IV