William R Hamilton – Dubliner whose maths navigated spacecraft to the Moon

This was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 19-11-2016


The Mars Curiosity Rover, pictured here, navigated its way to the surface of Mars in August 2012 thanks to equations invented by an Irishman in 1843 (Credit: NASA)

This episode covers the story of a Dubliner born in 1805, who became one of the greatest mathematicians the world has ever seen.

Hamilton invented mathematical equations, called quaternions, in 1843 which are still used today to navigate and land spacecraft (eg the Moon in 1969 and Mars in 2012) and as software ‘under the hood’ which depicts the relative movement of figures in 3D space in the top selling computer games.

GPS in cars, is largely based on Hamilton’s mathematics, and radio waves were predicted by James Clarke Maxwell before they were invented based on Hamilton’s totally unconventional, brilliant new mathematics.

Hamilton was  objects rotate in 3D space, dared to imagine it. Came up with quaternions, totally unconventional and knocked traditional mathematics on its head. Thinking about this problem for years.

Mathematicians thought he was crazy, didn’t accept it, but then came to be called the ‘liberator of algebra’ – new way of thinking of mathematics.

Hamilton connected to fact we can hear audio on the radio, James Clark Maxwell predicted oscillating waves of energy traveling at speed of light – radio waves were detected, used by maxwell to predict these waves exist before they were found.

Hamilton was a brilliant, popular scientist. He was moody; a romantic, with a dark side, who survived an early crisis in his life to go on achieve great things.

This is his story.





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