In 1943, the Nobel prize-winning Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger gave a series of three public lectures in Trinity on the nature of life, information, consciousness and the mind. The series, entitled “What is Life?”, was delivered in the lecture theatre that now bears his name in the School of Physics and, without exaggeration, went on to inspire some of the greatest scientific advances of the last 75 years. To mark that historic address, four scientists affiliated with Trinity have organised a conference for this September, to be held in the National Concert Hall and called “What is Life? 75”, to discuss the future of biology with some of the brightest minds in the field.
Speaking to The University Times, Prof Cliona O’Farrelly, one of the organisers and a researcher in the Trinity Biomedical Science Institute (TBSI), explains how the conference is unprecedented, as the first of its kind in Ireland. The event has six Nobel Prize winners and a host of distinguished scientists and philosophers, such as cognitive expert Daniel Dennett, lined up to address a thousand-strong crowd.
But the story of how an Austrian physicist came to address an audience in Trinity, in neutral Ireland during the height of World War II, is worth examining in its own right. Schrodinger had become unwelcome in his native Austria for his criticism of the Nazi Party’s treatment of Jews and, in 1938, he lost his position teaching at the University of Graz as a result. That same year, on the invitation of then-Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, he came to Dublin to set up the Institute for Advanced Studies for the sciences. He stayed in Ireland for 17 years, residing in Clontarf.
Adam Rutherford, a broadcaster and science writer from England, has labelled the conference ‘the Davos of Science’
His lecture series in 1943 dealt with what he saw as the most pressing questions in biology at the time. Speaking to The University Times, Dr Mike Murphy of the University of Cambridge, another of the organisers, stated that Schrodinger was particularly interested in “the nature of the mind”. As O’Farrelly adds, the human brain is just a collection of cells, like every other organ in the body. Individually, the cells are similar to a bacterium. So why is it that their configuration inside of our heads gives rise to self-awareness? To music, art and literature? The very act of conscious thought, of comprehension, is almost magic, considering that the brain is, on a basic level, “mush”, to use O’Farrelly’s term.
A philosopher as well as a scientist, Schrodinger’s exploration of human consciousness was seen by several priests who were in attendance as potentially blasphemous. He saw, as one of the philosophical implications of his work, that God had no role to play in the development of the human soul. It wasn’t long before his words were reported to the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. As William Kingston writes in Hektoen International, a journal of medical humanities, it was McQuaid’s response that led to a revolution in the field of genetics, a revolution that altered the course of history. According to Kingston, McQuaid put pressure on local publishers not to print copies of the lectures, but Schrodinger, rather than “remove the new material… stood firm and offered the book of the lectures to Cambridge University Press”.
From Cambridge, the book found its way into the hands of some of the most important scientists of that generation, including one James Watson. One of the predictions Schrodinger had made was that hereditary information, what we now call genes, must be stored in some sort of crystalline structure within our cells in order to pass down through generations. Watson knew this was a hugely significant development: “From the moment I read What is Life? I became polarized towards finding the secret of the gene.” He and Francis Crick later did just that, with their discovery of DNA in 1953 ushering in a quantum leap in the field of biology.
As Kingston puts it: “If Schrödinger’s ideas had been published in neutral Ireland in wartime, they could have had only local and limited circulation, probably with correspondingly little influence.” McQuaid had unwittingly advanced the cause of science, a neat demonstration of the law of unintended consequences in action that would no doubt have pleased Schrodinger.
Both Farrelly and Dr Tomás Ryan, a neuroscientist in the TBSI who is heading up a team to study how specific memories are encoded in the brain, are excited to see the latest, most groundbreaking work in neuroscience. Murphy sees the conference as an opportunity to explore the unexpected interactions between people from different fields and how they feed off one another. As in Schrodinger’s day, the themes for discussion will include the origin of life, the origin of energy and the nature of aging. The hope is that cross-pollination between disciplines will drive new discoveries or novel technologies. Murphy also hopes that “it will inspire young people to take up these challenges, so that in 25 years, we’ll have some of those people coming back with their Nobel Prizes to say what they did to change the world”.
Rather than limit attendance to those with a scientific background, Ryan is keen to see more engagement with the wider public: “It’s my view that we need to have a more serious public communication of science. The publication of science is not about entertainment, and it’s not about getting more money for science from grants, it’s about having a real conversation about what’s important in science. About what we know about the world and what we don’t.”
The organisers of this conference hope to demonstrate that science isn’t just an avenue to a good career. It is a pursuit of truth
To hear Ryan expound his views on the future of neuroscience and his hopes for the communication of science on the whole, one is surprised by how accessible he makes it all sound: “In my experience, there is no member of the public who is not interested in major scientific questions, if you talk to them in a serious way and don’t condescend to them.”
Not only is the communication of scientific discoveries advantageous for society in the traditional sense, in that an educated workforce typically earns more, it is also essential that the public is able to separate assertions grounded in evidence and research from that which is not. For Ryan, some of the distortions that have become commonplace on social media are incredibly dangerous. The conference will seek to reach those with even a passing interest in science and engage them in some of the most pressing questions of our time.
Irish people are already proud, and rightly so, of their grand literary and sporting traditions. Ryan argues that it is time now to place our scientific achievements on the same pedestal, in order to make science part of our cultural identity. The organisers of this conference hope to demonstrate that science isn’t just an avenue to a good career. It is a pursuit of truth, for truth’s own sake.
During our interview, at around the halfway point, Ryan made an assertion that struck me. It felt like a neat summation of the purpose behind such events: “Trinity students should not be thinking about their starting salary, but about how the world is going to be different after they’re dead because of them.”