Tag Archives: botanic gardens

Erwin Schrodinger – Nobel Physicist who lived in Dublin

Erwin Schrodinger

Erwin Schrödinger

For a man interested in colour and who published scientific papers on the subject, the adjective colourful applies to Erwin Schrödinger who lived on Kincora Road, Clontarf  for seventeen years and certainly left his mark. Among his many achievements here was a series of lectures given in Trinity College in February 1943 on ‘What is life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell.’ This was inspirational to many scientists, most notably James Watson and Francis Crick whose work led to the discovery of DNA in 1953. A sculpture commemorating the achievement was unveiled on its 60th anniversary in the Botanic Gardens which James Watson attended.

Schrödinger was an only child born in Vienna in 1887 to middle-class, educated parents and was tutored at home until the age of eleven. Later he attended school, then university where he excelled and gained a PhD in Physics. World War I interrupted his progress and he spent it as an officer in the Austrian army.

DNA sculpture in Botanic Gardens

DNA sculpture in Botanic Gardens

After the war he had a number of different positions, married Annemarie (Anny) Bertel in 1920, before he was offered the chair in Theoretical Physics at the University of Zürich in 1921. He stayed there for six years, probably the most productive time in his career, before being offered the post of Max Planck’s replacement at the prestigious University of Berlin. And it was during his time in Zürich that he became interested in wave mechanics after reading a paper by Albert Einstein. Thinking about how to explain the movement of an electron as a wave his 1926 paper provided a theoretical basis for the atomic model. His groundbreaking work is hailed as a masterpiece, and one of the greatest accomplishments ever in in science. It subsequently led to new insights into quantum mechanics and other areas of chemistry. In 1933 both he and Paul Dirac (Cambridge University) were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ is his famous thought experiment that illustrates the problem of the interpretation of quantum mechanics when applied to everyday objects.

DIAS - Burlington Road

DIAS – Burlington Road

By that time he was aware that many of his Jewish colleagues were being dismissed from their posts and he decided to leave Hitler’s Germany. He went to Oxford University for three years before returning to Austria in 1938. The following year he accepted Eamon de Valera’s offer of coming to Ireland and helping establish the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). De Valera, himself a mathematician, got ‘his man’ and made sure that Schrodinger’s visa arrangements were processed speedily. For Schrodinger’s needs were indeed complicated and had previously stymied him at both Princeton and Oxford, as he lived with his wife and his lover, Hilde March, with whom he had a daughter. Of his relationship with the fairer sex he said: ‘Poor things, they have provided for my life’s happiness and their own distress. Such is life.’ Colourful indeed.

Plaque in Kincora Road, Clontarf

Plaque in Kincora Road, Clontarf

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The art of the matter

The day was warm, the sky blue – a perfect day to visit the Sculpture In Context in the National Botanic Gardens. The exhibition series that began in 1985 has been held in various places around Dublin; namely, Dublin Castle, Farmleigh and Kilmainham Gaol to mention a few. But since 2002 it has found a home in the Gardens, and a most suitable home it is too.

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The Gallery

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Sun Offering

In the Visitor Centre I got a Map & Guide to the Gardens, and then went upstairs to the Gallery where a number of  small exhibits are on show. The room, with a long wave-like glass wall looking onto the Gardens beyond, is a real treat  and a wonderful space for an exhibition. And the sun streamed in showing the exhibits ‘in the best light’. There are just enough pieces on show to make it comfortable to move about easily and view all the exhibits. Some rest on window ledges, some on small stands like Sun Offering by Eamonn Ceannt which might the smallest piece on show. Everyone will find something of interest and the colours are intriguing.

Bling-fisher!

Bling-fisher!

 Outside, check your map and head off on botanical mystery tour. Every path leads to something interesting, and you should keep your eyes wide open so as to spot the exhibits in unexpected places. It’s fun, a long way away from the small galleries where they are usually shown. Children, especially, love the colours and the playful, entertaining settings. Pieces can be found in trees, gardens, the Great Palm House, ponds and lawns. 

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Pack of Packmen!

 At the end of the Gardens, near the ponds, a number of ‘fishy’ exhibits are not to be missed. Also, there is the recently unveiled ‘What Is Life?’ piece by Charles Jencks. It celebrates the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, for which they won the  1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Watson, who was on hand when the piece was unveiled in April, said he was inspired to study chemistry when he read Erwin Schrödinger’s famous paper What is Life? in the 1940s. The great Austrian scientist, who was living in Dublin at the time, presented his groundbreaking work during a series of lectures in February 1943 in Trinity College.

So, if you go down to the Gardens today there is much to see and enjoy!

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What Is Life?

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Secret Garden

Palm House - step

Palm House – the write place!

Serendipity, what a lovely word, and it immediately came to mind when I stepped on one of the 20th century’s greatest  philosophers. Well, I didn’t actually stand on him, but I did put my foot, accidentally of course, on a plaque in his honour in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin. It was quite a surprise, completely unexpected as far as I was concerned, as I never knew that the great Austrian thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had lived in Dublin, and spent many hours upon a step in the Palm House whiling away his time in quiet, warm contemplation. What a surprise!

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the youngest of nine children, into a family that was one of the richest in Europe. His father, Karl, was a shrewd and successful businessman who by the late 1880s had a virtual monopoly of the Austrian steel industry.  The family owned numerous properties, 13 ‘palaces’ in Vienna alone, and Karl was a sponsor of the arts with Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler regularly giving concerts in the family’s various music rooms. In 1905 Gustav Klimt painted his sister Margaret’s wedding portrait.

After private schooling he joined a local school where he was ridiculed by classmates for his elegant clothes and unfortunate stammer. For someone who later in life became such an original thinker specialising in, among other things, the philosophy of language, the irony of his early speech impediment would not have been lost on him. He studied and then lectured in Trinity College, Cambridge before returning to enlist in the German Army at the start of WW1. He saw action on both the Eastern and Western fronts and won numerous medals for bravery.

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Ashling Hotel – plaque to Ludwig Wittgenstein

After numerous teaching posts he returned to Cambridge at the encouragement of Bertrand Russell, the eminent British philosopher. It was here that he became friends with Maurice O’Connor Drury who was one of his students and who invited him to Ireland. He visited many times and in the autumn of 1948 Drury arranged for him to stay in Ross’s Hotel on Parkgate Street (now Ashling Hotel). Drury had not continued with philosophy and was now working as a  psychiatrist in St Patrick’s Hospital, directly across the Liffey from the hotel. The two men met most days and often spent time in the Phoenix Park discussing the great philosophers and, no doubt, other serious issues. A plaque on the Ashling Hotel says that ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher,  lived and worked here  November 1948-June 1949.’ Now, as to what ‘worked’ means in this context is something the great man would be interested in. If he was working I like to picture him pulling a pint and, watching the dark liquid roll and tumble in the cold glass, consider its rhythm and place in the world before declaring in a eureka-like moment ‘It is done.’ Oh, to have been there!

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Mind your step!

And as the winter of his stay in Dublin was particularly cold, it is no surprise that he went to the Palm House in the  Botanic Gardens, the warmest place in Dublin to sit and write. At this time he had begun writing his Philosophical Investigations (which was published in 1953, two years after his death) a book that is considered by many as one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century. So, the next time you are in the Botanic Gardens mind that you don’t stand on the Philosopher, he might just be writing something really important!

LW: The limits of my language means the limits of my world – now there’s something to think about!

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Palm House – National Botanic Gardens

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