Crick writes to Schrödinger, 1953

by Matthew Cobb

This letter from Francis Crick was just retw**ted by a pal, @rmathematicus. It was originally tw**ted by the Royal Irish Academy (yes, it does exist, even though it is the Republic of Ireland) last August:

Scientists and historians argue over whether Schrödinger’s 1944 book, What Is Life?, which referred to genes containing a ‘code-script’ and being made of an ‘aperiodic crystal’ had any influence on the race to crack the genetic code. What is certain is that Watson, Crick and Wilkins were all inspired by the book to use physics to study biology.

This letter – which I am embarrassed to say I was unaware of – shows that Crick certainly realised the link between the double helix structure of DNA and Schrödinger’s ideas. I wonder what – if anything – Schrödinger replied?

This will require a further edit to the proofs of my book. I sometimes (= often) wish that things would just stop happening – no more scientific research, no more historical discoveries. If they would just stop finding things out, I could get on top of things. But no, the horizon of knowledge is just endlessly expanding.

[EDIT: As I thought, there is no mention of this letter in Robert Olby’s biography of Crick (Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets), but it is mentioned on the Nobel Prize website, which has a useful piece on the influence of Schrödinger’s ideas.]


  1. Jonathan Dore
    Posted January 5, 2015 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    There’s also a Royal Irish Yacht Club.

  2. Posted January 5, 2015 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    How awful for you Jerry. And you haven’t even mentioned the frantic pace of New Theology (TM), of which you about to become an acknowledged master.
    Incidentally, did you watch Buñuel’s searing anti- theological masterpiece “The Milky Way”? Every crap argument, and the realist Jesus ever….

    • Posted January 5, 2015 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Matthew, not Jerry; Matthew has his own book coming out soon. Nothing on his Amazon page yet, though….


      • Posted January 6, 2015 at 3:33 am | Permalink

        Realease 5th March on Amazon UK it said (I pre-ordered it)…

        • Posted January 6, 2015 at 3:37 am | Permalink

          a) Don’t believe everything you read! It’s out in June-July
          b) Support your local bookshop!


          • Posted January 6, 2015 at 3:46 am | Permalink

            I usually do & ONLY reserve Amazon for the used or second hand things, or books I cannot find on the shelf. Often they are from second hand bookshops who use that as a ‘shop front’ – whether that is good or bad for them though is debatable I suppose. There is a very good second hand bookshop called Skoob in Brunswick Square, near Russell Square in central London, & I spend tooooooo much in there!

        • Posted January 6, 2015 at 3:38 am | Permalink

          Realease? Sorry…

          I have seen this with so many people – usually Phd students who cannot draw a line under what they have written.

          Ridley wrote a short biography of Crick a few years ago & I recall him saying that someone was writing a full length detailed biography… I will see if I can find out who unless one of you knows?

          • Posted January 6, 2015 at 4:50 am | Permalink

            It’s the Olby book referred to in the edit above. M

            • Posted January 6, 2015 at 5:11 am | Permalink

              Ah! Thanks! Makes redundant what I added below… thought I had imagined it.

  3. Ken Pidcock
    Posted January 5, 2015 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful artifact. There’s something of “Well, yeah, of course” to it (the influence of Schrödinger being, if you’ll forgive, gospel), but it’s still really cool to see.

  4. Posted January 5, 2015 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    I heard once (can’t remember where) that there was a period just after movable type came into use in Europe, that you (assuming you were literate and wealthy) could read every book and know everything. Then, knowledge just exploded…

    • compuholio
      Posted January 6, 2015 at 1:12 am | Permalink

      This is what really blows me away about our time. Nowadays there are so many people producing so many papers that it is hard to keep up. And that is only within my own narrow field of study. Of course not every paper is a world changing idea (those only happen about once every two to three years) but it is an idea nevertheless

      On the one hand it is a great thing. If I am interested in something it has never been easier to educate myself about it. You can sometimes even take free video lectures from the top people in the field. But I think it has become a lot harder to figure out what is worthwhile to become interested in.

      • bonetired
        Posted January 6, 2015 at 3:11 am | Permalink

        It is an academic version of the Red Queen effect. You have to study all the time to stay in the same place.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted January 6, 2015 at 4:38 am | Permalink

          To slide away from Red Queen and the traditional fire-hose metaphor, I feel I have been washed off a sandbank into a deep channel. No idea if there’s any place to stand any more, and the waves are getting bigger.

    • philfinn7
      Posted January 6, 2015 at 2:35 am | Permalink

      Know everything? Highly unlikely. That assumes everything knowable was in the first printed books. This completely ignores parchment, papyrus, stone tablets.

  5. Kevin
    Posted January 5, 2015 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I too looked through What is Life in high school. Very interesting and inspirational work.

  6. MAUCH
    Posted January 5, 2015 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I first learned about the idea of the aperiodic crystal from John Maynard Smith’s popular science book, The Origins of Life…” He acknowledged that Schroader showed incredible incite in foretelling what would be the basic biochemistry that would be the basis of all life. I have always been thankful to Smith in helping me to have at least a laymen’s understanding of the theories of how life began and has been transformed to be life as we see it today.

  7. Matti K.
    Posted January 6, 2015 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Dr. Cobb: “But no, the horizon of knowledge is just endlessly expanding.”

    I’m a bit more pessimistic. I’m afraid there is a limit, which nears asymptotically.

    Progress might be eternal, but increments in knowledge become more marginal and require ever increasing investments.

    But then again, revolutions are impossible to predict.

    • Posted January 6, 2015 at 3:50 am | Permalink

      Doesn’t it depend on the field? The more that is known, the more is forgotten & mis-remembered or hidden under the growth of new knowledge.

      By the way, can you imagine this sort of thing now – ‘We have just uncovered an email by X stating Y…’ – it does not really work as well as a letter. Where we can look at a writer’s manuscript & see crossing out & re-writes it may illuminate our understanding of the writer & the process of writing, whereas scolars of the near futurew will need to disect old hard drives!

      • Posted January 6, 2015 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        SCHOLARS! What a word to mis-type…

      • Posted January 6, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        There’s a team at the British Library IIRC set up to handle “digital estates” already for this sort of reason. I remember meeting one of their staff at a Computing and Philosophy conference. Incidentally, this is a great use of emulation software, even “third party” stuff.

      • Posted January 6, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Spot on. I have for years called this the “de-Gutenbergization” of knowledge…shaky though the footings of parchment are, they withstand time and are readable by all with literacy, in a way that decoding an ancient DVD-ROM may mot be possible a few centuries hence.

        (I registered my Kindle device as DieGutenberger)

    • marvol19
      Posted January 6, 2015 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      But isn’t that almost true “by definition”?

      The asymptotic limit is “knowing everything”. It’s just that we right now don’t know exactly how close we are to it.

  8. StevenH
    Posted January 6, 2015 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, future biographers will likely be deprived of this type of information because it would have been in a long-deleted email.

    I am not decrying progress in communications but when value of writing on paper to the historian is enormous.

    I was recently gifted Walter Isaacson’s most recent book on Einstein. It is full of facsimiles of communications which today would just have been once on a server or PC.

    Does anyone have a copy of the Scientific American article many years back in which the author posited that his great-grandchildren, finding a small silver-covered disc with a label “On this disk you will find the secret to the hidden family fortune”” would probably only be able to read the message on the label?

    He goes on to make the point that in museums you can see original letters written by Mozart, manuscripts by Haydn and Beethoven and, I expect notes written by Darwin, Faraday, Maxwell et al. But of our modern researchers there may well be nothing.

    Oh, I see Dominic beat me to it.

  9. Posted January 6, 2015 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    I was sure Matt Ridley said there was a forthcoming biography of Crick when I heard him give a talk on his short biography in 2008… I cannot see anything. There is one of Sanger that came out in November –
    Fred Sanger – Double Nobel Laureate: A Biography, 2014
    by Edwin Southern and George G. Brownlee

    Ridley says in his book p.24-5
    “Wilkin’s goal at this stage [1946]
    was to induce genetic mutations with ultrasound and hope thast they would shed light on what genes were. Harrie Massey, Crick’s wartime mentor, had set Wilkins on this path while he was at Berkeley by giving him a little book bt Erwin Schroedinger called What is Life? This book, a series of lectures delivered by Schroedinger in Dublin in 1943, influenced a whole generation of physicists to go into biology, Crick among them. Read it today, and you will probably wonder what the fuss was all about: Schroedinger argued that argued that because genes must be very small, they must be subject to quantum uncertainty {etc…]
    This was enough to get Wilkins intrigued. (Crick was somewhat less impressed by the book.)”

    So I suppose that is the Dublin connection.

  10. Posted January 6, 2015 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Speaking of using physics to explain evolutionary biology, have you seen this [new?] theory yet? I’d be interested in Jerry’s or Matt’s thoughts on it sometime in the future.

    • bonetired
      Posted January 6, 2015 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      Interesting ( even if the article is a year old!).Ideas like that are beginning to swarm around the origin of life. Addy Pross published something similar in his book, the title of which reflects Schrödinger’s, “What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology”

      • Posted January 6, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        I’ll have to add that one to my reading list.

      • Posted January 6, 2015 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        Pross has produced an explanatory framework that is not at all simply speculative, as has Jeremy England in manipulating a mathematical model. Pross sees the process of how life “complexifies” instead of breaking down (as the Second Law demands) can be achieved via a “system based mechanism” – dependent on the chemistry of mutually catalysing components forming an overall dynamic system with positive feedback. This creates a basis of competition and natural selection for the chemical sub-components that ‘feed” the overall process – thus establishing the Darwinian process and allows for complexification itself. The dynamic nature of the system is essential. This sounds very difficult to comprehend but Pross explains this far better than I do. I really recommend the book. I believe it provides an even more profound insight into the nature of life and evolution than Schrödinger.

    • Posted January 6, 2015 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      I second this request for commentary by one of our hosts. Interesting article!

    • peepuk
      Posted January 6, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Very on topic.

      Seems Schrödinger speculates in “What’s Life” about the connection between “The Second Law” and life. Maybe these ideas will get finally some legs.

      The meaning of life:
      dissipating energy as much as you can?

      In about 20 years we’ll know.

      • Posted January 6, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. I was excited to read it as it seemed to predict a path to fill in the period including “primordial ooze” through to the fossil record. I’m really tired of seeing the “something from nothing” meme. This seems to fit the bill.

  11. W.Benson
    Posted January 6, 2015 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    History is too often treated as “the science of reconciling fact with fiction” (W. Sonneberg, 1906). Its rewriting, with more facts and less fiction, is well worth the effort.

  12. Posted January 6, 2015 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on My WordPress Notepad.

  13. Posted January 7, 2015 at 12:33 am | Permalink


  14. Posted January 8, 2015 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    John Gribbin recently published a new biography of Schrodinger, with a chapter on “What is Life?” Although Gribbin doesn’t mention the letter you cite, he does point out that Watson and Crick were very much influenced by Schrodinger’s ideas. They were also strongly influenced by the work of Linus Pauling (another physicist), who had demonstrated that a number of proteins exhibit a helical structure.

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