Groupe d’études et de recherche en analyse des décisions

Schrödinger’s Legacy and the Systematization of Biology

Peter Wellstead Professeur honorifique, Hamilton Institute

Our command of the laws of physics and their use with computers to simulate how things work is highly advanced. It has reached a stage at which even the most detailed behaviour of complex machines and physical systems can be reproduced within a computer. For example, automotive engineers work with system models that enable them to (almost) completely specify and validate the vehicle within a computer before there is need to construct prototypes or cut metal in a factory. This lecture is about how science aims to do similar things with living organisms. I use the contributions of Erwin Schrödinger during his 16 years in Ireland as an initial point from which to describe how scientists are setting about this huge task. Starting with the scientific sense of inquiry that led Schrödinger to ask `What is Life?', I sketch out the scientific developments that are beginning, at least in part, to provide an answer to this question, and the radical changes that this implies for the life sciences as a traditional science undergoes systematisation and ultimately industrialisation. I conclude by describing a particular research project in which the components of life are mathematically modelled, simulated, and studied in a computer, in a manner that echoes the way in which computer-aided design is used to develop and analyse complex engineering systems.