What is Life? Celebrating Erwin Schrödinger and the science collections in the Library of Trinity College Dublin

In 1943, Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), Nobel-prize winning physicist and Director of Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), delivered three public lectures entitled What is Life? at Trinity College Dublin as the DIAS statutory lecture. The lectures were published as a book in 1944 and had an immediate and powerful impact on the development of molecular biology including inspiring the discovery of DNA.

To mark the anniversary, and to coincide with the major international conference ‘What is Life?’ Schrӧdinger at 75 – the Future of Biology, Archivist Estelle Gittins has collaborated with Professor Luke O’Neill, one of the conference organisers, to curate an exhibition now on show in the Old Library of Trinity College Dublin. The exhibition, and accompanying online exhibition, showcase some of the Library’s most significant scientific and mathematical collections.

At the outbreak of World War II, Schrӧdinger was invited to Dublin by President Éamon de Valera to become Director of the School of Theoretical Physics at Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, where he stayed until 1956. The exhibition examines what attracted him to Dublin; one of the reasons was the chance to walk in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Ireland’s most renowned scientist Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865).

Hamilton made numerous advances in maths and science reflected in the vast collection of his papers held in the Library, but he is most famous for developing Quaternions, the mathematical notation for representing orientations and rotations of objects in three dimensions. Quaternions are essential for calculating orbital rotation in space flight; they are routinely employed by NASA, and are also relied upon by the computer gaming industry. The exhibition includes the tiny notebook containing Hamilton’s first scribbled recording of the Quaternion equation made as he walked by the Royal Canal at Broome Bridge in Dublin. The display also includes poetry and sketches that provide a glimpse of the private man as well as the genius. Schrödinger has been described as the scientific heir to Hamilton and made use of the Hamiltonian operator in his wave equation.

Whilst in Dublin, the sociable Schrödinger joined a circle of intellectuals sheltering in neutral Ireland including Irish physicists Shelia Power and Kathleen Lonsdale who had returned from Edinburgh and London respectively. The exhibition includes the papers of some of those friends and colleagues, including a first edition of What is life? inscribed by Schrödinger for his close friend and Trinity College Provost Albert McConnell (1903-1993). Schrödinger also spent time with fellow Nobel-prize winner, Ernest Walton (1903-1995). Walton, a Trinity graduate and lecturer, is most famous, (along with John Cockcroft), for the splitting of the atom in 1932, which constituted the physical demonstration of Einstein’s law E=mc. On display is Walton’s first communication of the breakthrough, an understated letter to his fiancée Freda Wilson confiding, ‘Cockcroft and I made what is in all probability a very important discovery in the lab … It opens up a whole new field of work which may go a long way towards elucidating the structure of the nucleus of the atom’. This is displayed alongside Walton’s Nobel medal. Ernest Walton very generously donated his scientific and personal papers to the Library in 1993.

The exhibition also looks at the important academic and cultural legacy of the What is life? lecture series including the 40th anniversary commemorations where an older Professor Walton met a younger Professor Hawking. There is also a selection of the literary and artistic works inspired by the notion of ‘Schrödinger as a Dubliner’ such as the musical Improbable Frequency produced by the Rough Magic Theatre Company, whose own archives were donated to the Library in 2017.

The conference Schrödinger at 75: the future of Biology will be streamed live on the website https://www.tcd.ie/biosciences/whatislife/

The exhibition What is Life? Celebrating Erwin Schrödinger and the science collections in the Library of Trinity College Dublin will be on display in the Long Room of the Old Library until 31 October and the online version can be accessed here http://www.tcd.ie/library/exhibitions/what-is-life/

Estelle Gittins

With thanks to Prof Luke O’Neill, Prof David Wilkins, Dr Jane Maxwell, Aisling Lockhart, Gillian Whelan, Greg Sheaf and Clodagh Neligan