This year the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition celebrates its 50th year. Dr Tony Scott, retired UCD Physicist, and co-founder, along with Fr Tom Burke (deceased) has many cherished memories of the show down the decades.
“The first one was held in January 1965,” recalled Tony. “We had about 220 projects – with Aer Lingus’s support we booked the round room of the Mansion House. Then based on the projects we picked judges and just told them to judge. The projects were divided into boys and girls and they were all individuals.”
It’s a long time ago. Some of the stories making news in January ’65 were the death of Winston Churchill; the first meeting (in 43 years) of an Irish Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, with a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill; and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson for a second term as the President of the US.
The idea for the Show followed a 1963 visit to New Mexico by Tony with Fr Burke – his mathematics teacher at Terenure College and by now his colleague in the UCD department of Physics. ‘Fr Tom’, as Tony called him, had gone out to the US first, and reported back to Tony on something interesting he saw there.
The two UCD researchers had been invited to visit the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology, based in Socorro, a small-ish town in the Rio Grande Valley, 74 miles south of Albuquerque. The Americans wanted the Irish to build a replica of something that was called ‘the Nolan Photoelectric Nucleus Counter’.
This device had been named after its inventor, Professor Patrick Nolan – the Chair of the UCD Geophysics Department up until his 1964 retirement. It was, and is, the standard instrument used around the world to measure condensation nuclei – the tiny particles upon which vapour condenses during cloud formation.
Fr Tom went out to New Mexico first, Tony recalls jokingly, because “I had more exam papers to correct than he had”. Before long, Fr Tom was in touch with Tony about something that he had seen that engaged his keen interest. “He got back to me and said there is a young man out here who is building a rocket,” said Tony. “It will go up one mile and he wants to demonstrate it. The morning after I arrived we went to the schoolyard of the local primary school in Socorro.”
At the school, the Irish scientists met a young man called Gary, recalls Tony, who was setting up a rocket. They started chatting, and he said that he planned to enter his rocket project into a science fair that was being held in Albuquerque. Fr Tom stayed on to attend the fair. He arrived back at UCD in September 1963, talked to Tony and asked: “Could we do it here in Ireland?” It was agreed that, yes, it could be done, but that a sponsor was needed. Tony had a contact in Aer Lingus, and they presented the idea to the General Manager JF Dempsey. “He took to it immediately,” said Tony. Thus began a fruitful 32-year sponsorship.
“For the first 10 years or so until 1975 we never had group projects,” said Tony. “It was all individual. Fr Tom wanted individuals because I think that’s what he saw in Albuquerque.” Tony, however, put the case for group projects. “I said Tom, we are doing research together, we are publishing together, therefore, aren’t WE a group?” Tony’s point was taken and from 1976 onwards group projects were taken. One other big development in the 1970s came in 1973 when projects from Northern Ireland were first accepted. Up to, it was Republic only.
The Show was growing – slowly – but it was still felt that it needed the official ‘imprimatur’ of a big scientific name to back it. The biggest name of all in Irish science in the 1970s was Ernest Walton, TCD’s legendary atom splitter, and Nobel laureate. Walton, who was in the twilight of his career, supported the show by just being there. “He was an incredibly shy man,” recalls Tony. “He wouldn’t push himself forward as a Nobel Prize winner, he was a modest man. He would drift in, walk around and people would say – look, he split the atom!”
In the 1980s, the Show hit a milestone when it surpassed 400 entries, which at the time was the limit that the RDS could comfortably accommodate. This meant that, for the first time, it would be necessary to ‘screen’ entries for quality. Tony, along with Professor Sean Corish, Head of the Chemistry Department at TCD, acted as the first screening judges. The need for screening has increased over the years, as the number of entries has increased. These days, the RDS can manage to accommodate 550 projects, but, this year, there were some 2,000 entrants.
The Show has become so successful that only about one-quarter of the entrants now make it into the hall. This is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand it means that all the projects on exhibition are of high quality, but those that don’t make it – an increasing number – are left disappointed. Of course, everyone could be accommodated in a larger venue, but, Tony believes, the Show gains a lot by its association with the RDS. “The venue is one of the best in the country, in terms of hotels and transport available,” said Tony. Furthermore, he said, BT are now offering E200 bursaries for exhibitors that live more than 75km from Dublin. This pays for the train up and down and for Bed and Breakfast.
Aer Lingus ended its sponsorship of the Show in 1997 because they wanted to put their money into something that better reflected the global reach of the airline. For the first time in decades, Tony and Fr Tom had to go looking for a new sponsor. Aer Lingus had been brilliant, said Tony, and they provided flights home from Rome for Fr Tom, when needed, and cabin crew to ‘work the floor’.
In 1998, Esat Telecom came in as a new sponsor; in 1999 it was Esat Fusion, and then in 2000 BT came onboard. “BT bring 150 staff, out of 800 in Ireland, so it’s not just the money – it’s the money and the infrastructure of the people that’s crucial. The BT ‘red coats’ are there to help the students and public during the day, and the young people at nighttime when they have discos. The Show is one of biggest that BT’s is involved with – impressive considering BT was the official communications partner at the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The way that projects are judged has changed over the years. In the beginning the judging process was far less organized, but the overall winners were still outstanding. These days the judges mark projects under specific headings including originality, scientific content, and communication ability. These days some projects are so sophisticated that outside experts are called in to judge.
However, Tony, despite the growing complexity of some projects, said he always uses the same basic approach when judging projects. “I sit down with them, – that’s very important – I’m not towering over them,” said Tony. “I always ask the same three questions: What did you set out to do? How did you do it? What did you find? I may interrupt you from time to time – tell me your stories!”
The quality of the winners has remained consistently very high. This can be judged by the success of winners of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) at equivalent European and international young scientist competitions. “If you take the last 24 years, we have got a first in Europe on 15 occasions,” said Tony. That’s impressive even given that there are three winners in Europe each year, in different categories. Ireland also does well, said Tony, at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) each year, which involves entrants from all the US states, and 49 countries, including the giants – Russia and China.
This success of BTYSTE has attracted international attention, and the UK has imitated it with a similar – though not identical – show called ‘The Big Bang – UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair’. In an interesting recent development there is now a Tanzania version of the Show, and, if that works, there is the possibility that it could be expanded into other African nations, said Tony.
The Tanzania connection grew out of the work of the Combat Disease of Poverty Consortium based at NUI Maynooth. This led representatives of the Tanzanian government came to have a look at the Show and they liked what they saw. They came to the Board of the BTYSTE and asked for help setting something similar up. The Board gave the Africans everything, materials, forms, judging materials, and the Irish government, through Irish Aid, also came in behind the venture.
The first YS Tanzania show was held in October 2012 and the winners were three girls, Monica Shirima, Nengai Moses and Aisha Nduka from Kibosho Girls Secondary School, situated in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. The girls and their teacher visited the 2013 BTYSTE in Dublin. They got a warm welcome – and that helped them adjust from temperatures in the 30s Celsius to below 10C values.
The January 2014 show – the 50th – will be visited by the vast majority of previous winners stretching back to the first winner John Monaghan, the biotech entrepreneur now living in California, and several will this year act as judges. Some past winners remain prominent on the Irish scientific landscape. Professor Luke Drury (1969) is the Director of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies; Professor Ronan McNulty (1985), is a leading particle physicist based at UCD; and Patrick Collison (2005) who became a millionaire, aged 19, when, along with his brother he sold his software company, Auctomatic for E3 million.
As the show reaches its half century milestone Tony is glad that it is doing so well, with an excellent sponsor in BT and numbers of project applications growing each year. It has been a remarkable success story, and that success has meant that Irish science, for one week at least, always gets the nation’s attention.
Tony’s one regret is that Fr Tom is not around to celebrate the 50th. However, in Fr Tom’s memory, a special prize, the Fr Tom Bursary, has been established to recognise the best communicator in an individual project. This is in recognition of the fact that Fr Tom always judged individual students, rather than groups.
As for the future of the Show? Tony says that another exciting development that has proved successful is the addition in recent years of primary school projects. This has grown and grown and last year 120 schools took part. Meanwhile, he believes that despite all the success and the growth that not too much should be done to alter the special chemistry that makes the show at the RDS so popular.
There are 550 entrants each year, which is the optimum number, considering the space constraints and the time demands on the judges (which are all voluntary). If the show got any bigger, or was to be held at a venue outside of the RDS, it might “suffer” said Tony. “It works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
This article was first published in the Jan-Feb 2014 edition of Science Spin