What Is Life? is a 1944 non-fiction science book written for the lay reader by physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The book was based on a course of public lectures delivered by Schrödinger in February 1943, under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. The lectures attracted an audience of about 400, who were warned “that the subject-matter was a difficult one and that the lectures could not be termed popular, even though the physicist’s most dreaded weapon, mathematical deduction, would hardly be utilized.” Schrödinger’s lecture focused on one important question: “how can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?”
In the book, Schrödinger introduced the idea of an “aperiodic crystal” that contained genetic information in its configuration of covalent chemical bonds. In the 1950s, this idea stimulated enthusiasm for discovering the genetic molecule. Although the existence of DNA had been known since 1869, its role in reproduction and its helical shape were still unknown at the time of Schrödinger’s lecture. In retrospect, Schrödinger’s aperiodic crystal can be viewed as a well-reasoned theoretical prediction of what biologists should have been looking for during their search for genetic material. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, credited Schrödinger’s book with presenting an early theoretical description of how the storage of genetic information would work, and acknowledged the book as a source of inspiration for his initial research.