What Is Life?

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What is life? The physicist who sparked a revolution in biology

Erwin Schrödinger introduced some of the most important concepts in biology, including the idea of a 'code' of life

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Insights from biology and computing built upon Schrödinger's genius, changing our view of life forever. Photograph: Rick Sammon/AP

Seventy years ago, on 5 February 1943, the Nobel prizewinning quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger gave the first of three public lectures at Trinity College, Dublin. His topic was an unusual one for a physicist: "What is Life?" The following year the lectures were turned into a book of the same name.

One of Schrödinger's key aims was to explain how living things apparently defy the second law of thermodynamics – according to which all order in the universe tends to break down. It was this that led my colleague Professor Brian Cox to use Schrödinger as the starting point of his BBC series Wonders of Life, leading to What is Life? shooting up the Amazon sales chart.

But Schrödinger's book contains something far more important than his attempt to fuse physics and biology. In that lecture 70 years ago, he introduced some of the most important concepts in the history of biology, which continue to frame how we see life.

At a time when it was thought that proteins, not DNA, were the hereditary material, Schrödinger argued the genetic material had to have a non-repetitive molecular structure. He claimed that this structure flowed from the fact that the hereditary molecule must contain a "code-script" that determined "the entire pattern of the individual's future development and of its functioning in the mature state".

This was the first clear suggestion that genes contained some kind…...

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