Archive for the ‘Irish Scientists on East Coast FM’ Category

Charles Parsons – faster sea travel faster and electricity for the masses

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Irish scientists, episode 3: Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine engine was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 26th November 2016

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Charles Parsons’ Turbinia yacht, pictured here, outpaced the assembled British navy at Spithead in 1897 with its steam powered turbine engine (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Parsons is considered to be in the top five of Britain’s greatest engineers of all time, by virtue of his enormous contribution to sea travel, and the shipbuilding industry, and making electricity available to the masses.

Parsons’s huge impact on the world has been far less heralded in Ireland, his native land. Hew grew up and spent his  early adult years at his family’s residence in Birr Castle Co. Offaly before moving to England.

The greatest achievement of his stellar engineering career was the invention of the steam turbine engine in 1884, an entirely new type of engine, which extracted thermal energy from pressurised steam in an ultra-efficient manner.

This thermal energy could be converted, through a series of intermediary steps, into electrical energy in such an efficient manner that, it became possible, for the first time, to generate enough electrical energy to make it available to the wide mass of people, not just the well-to-do elite.

Today, 90% of the electricity in the USA is still generated through steam turbine engines.

This engine also transformed the nature of sea travel, as steam turbines could provide the power necessary for large ships to cross the Atlantic far quicker, and for passengers to travel in comfort without rattling, shaking and noise.

The steam turbine was famously put into Parsons’s yacht, the Turbinia, and used to outpace the assembled British naval fleet at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead in 1897.

After this unsolicited, but powerful demonstration of the power that a steam turbine could provide, the British navy decided that it would commission the turbine to be used in its new generation of battleships, the Dreadnoughts (launched in 1906)

This helped to provide Britain with an edge in its naval arms race with Germany in the run up to World War 1.

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

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

curiosity-rover

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.

 

 

 

 

‘Irish Scientists’ on East Coast FM reviewed by Irish Independent

‘Irish Scientists’ the six-part radio series currently running on Saturday mornings (7:30am) on East Coast FM was reviewed in the Irish Independent on Saturday by Darragh McManus. The relevant sections are in bold.
One slight quibble with any otherwise very positive review; the piece should have mentioned the show’s award-winning producer, Colette Kinsella, Red Hare Media.
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Since Donald Trump’s election there have been thousands of words written about “culture wars”, in the US and around the world. The soul of a nation, or a people, is expressed in its culture, I suppose.
Here in Ireland we consider certain things to be an intrinsic part of ours: the music, the language, Gaelic games, that fabulous literary heritage. There is another, unheralded one, though: science.
In a recent interview, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin lamented how the Irish scientific tradition isn’t celebrated as much as the arts, and it should be: this country has produced a great number of scientists whose work has been truly pivotal.
One of those is John Holland, who made for a fascinating documentary, How Irish Scientists Changed the World, on East Coast FM (Sat 7am). He’s the first of six subjects explored by documentary-maker Sean Duke: others will include mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered pulsars, and the first person to split the atom: ETS Walton.
Born in Liscannor, Co Clare, John Holland is now known as “the father of the modern submarine”. As Duke pointed out, Holland didn’t exactly invent the idea of a fully submersible vessel – that concept has been around since Ancient Times – but he was “the first to come up with a design that actually worked”.
After school with the Christian Brothers, he had quit Ireland for the US in the late 19th century, where he fell in with the Fenian Brotherhood while pursuing his Icarus-in-reverse dreams of creating a boat that could travel underwater. After a few false starts and some hair-raisingly courageous (even reckless) experiments, Holland succeeded in his mission.
In 1900, the US Navy bought Holland’s design to produce the world’s first combat submarine. Other countries, including Britain and Japan, quickly followed.
This was a riveting, rollicking story, parts of which came across as more like a work of fictional Victoriana than real history. Man, they really bred them differently in those days.
Another side of Irish culture, of course – possibly its greatest expression – is music, be that in terms of what we produce here or the Irish influence globally. Sin-é: Jeff Buckley’s Irish Odyssey (Radio 1, Sat 7pm) looked at the latter through the prism of the late singer, who would have been 50 this week if he hadn’t tragically drowned in 1996.
Buckley was of Irish stock on his father’s side, and got his entrée into the music business at Sin-é, the semi-mythical (and now defunct) Irish café which caused a storm in New York’s East Village during the early nineties. Steve Cummins’ documentary unpicked the threads of Buckley’s other Irish links, including friendships with musicians like Glen Hansard and Mark Geary, and a trip to Dublin to play, rather amusingly, the Trinity Ball.
Buckley came across in contributors’ reminiscences as a sweet-natured guy, though naturally what strikes you most is that absolutely incredible voice. It might seem a bit wrong to say this, in the immediate aftermath of Leonard Cohen’s death, but Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah is not only the song’s finest iteration – it’s one of the most spine-tingling vocal performances ever committed to record.
A third side of this week’s cultural triangle is the GAA, which featured on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 9am), broadcasting from the 2016 Science Summit at Croke Park. Pat spoke to stadium director Peter McKenna and Dublin football hero Philly McMahon. McMahon was an intelligent, perceptive and very interesting interviewee, especially when talking about the scourge of illegal drugs in Ireland. 

John Philip Holland – inventor of the modern submarine

The first episode in a six part radio series on Irish scientists began yesterday morning on East Coast FM (7:30am), featuring John Philip Holland, inventor of the modern submarine

The series is presented by myself and written and produced by Colette Kinsella, an award winning independent radio producer with Red Hare Media.

LISTEN:

John Philip Holland, pictured below, from Liscannor Co Clare, was not afraid to test and pilot his own submarines designs for the Fenians and the US navy.

johnphilipholland

Robert Mallet – the earthquake detective

The first photographs ever taken of the aftermath of an earthquake were taken of the Great Neopolitan Quake of 1857, which destroyed the village of Pertosa, pictured here, and many other towns and villages in southern Italy. The pictures were taken by a Frenchman called Grellier, and commissioned by Irish scientist and Dubliner Robert Mallet who was the first to determine what caused earthquakes such as this one [Credit: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies].

Listen here to the story of Robert Mallet

First broadcast on East Coast FM in December 2017 as part of the Irish Scientists series produced by Red Hare Media.

The science of seismology, which studies the power and energy unleashed by earthquakes, began life on a south Dublin beach in 1849 with an ingenious experiment carried out by one of Ireland’s greatest scientists. That scientist was Robert Mallett – a Dubliner widely recognized as the ‘father of seismology’. Widely recognised that is, outside Ireland, where he remains largely an unknown figure outside the scientific community.

A true blue Dub you might say, Robert Mallett was born on Capel Street, on the banks of the Liffey, on the 3rd June 1810. His father owned a successful iron foundry business. The legacy of this foundry’s success can still be seen today, on the iron railings around Trinity College, which are inscribed with the name R&J Mallett.

From an incredibly early age, Robert was interested in science, and in particular chemistry. From the age of perhaps two, or three, he had his own small laboratory set up in the family house, where he played with chemicals. Such was Robert’s enthusiasm for spending time in the lab, the story goes, that his parents used to lock him out of the lab in order to punish him for some misdeed.

Later, in his teenage years, he went down the road to TCD to study science. The science course at TCD at that time – the early part of the 19th century – was more like what we would recognise as engineering today – very technical. After his studies were complete he went back to work in the family business. He continued to have a fascination with all things science, and began to conduct experiments on how sound or energy moved through sand and rock.

KILLINEY

In October 1849, aged 39, Robert, and his son John, who was a chemistry student at TCD, decided to carry out a remarkable experiment on Killiney Beach. They wanted to prove that energy moved through sand and rock in waves that could be measured, and they designed a ‘controlled’ experiment to prove this was so.

The two Malletts buried a keg of gunpowder in the ground, and detonated it. They measured the energy wave that traveled through the sand at a distance of half a mile away, with a seismoscope. The experiment worked, and a seismic reading was generated that showed clearly, energy moved through sand in waves.

Robert also worked closely with William Rowan Hamilton, another great Irish scientist and mathematician. William had suggested to Robert that he might apply the laws of physics, as they apply to light, in order to describe how the energy generated by the explosion would pass through sand and rock (for the rock measurements he set up a seismoscope on nearby rocky Dalkey Island, rather than the sandy beach). Robert took William’s advice and Robert’s report on his experiment became the foundation of modern seismology.

ITALY

Robert is not well known in Ireland, except amongst the small community of geologists and earth scientists that would appreciate his importance in the advancement of our understanding of earthquakes.

However, in southern Italy Robert is well known, due to his role in studying the after affects of the ‘Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857’. This earthquake – which was the third biggest in recorded history at the time – struck in deadly fashion on the 16th December, and killed in the region of 20,000 people.

Robert reacted quickly and wanted to go to the earthquake zone and record the devastation, using the new technology of photography. Two powerful friends, Charles Lyle, a famous English geologist, and Charles Darwin, helped Robert to get a grant from the Royal Society to travel to Italy and carry out this work.

Robert arrived in Italy and worked right through Christmas and into the New Year, diligently recording the devastation along with a French photographer. This was the first time ever that photography had been used to take images of the after affects of an earthquake. It was a revolutionary approach at the time.

Robert’s report entitled ‘Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology’ was published by the Royal Society in 1862. It remains as ‘seminal research’ into seismic hazard and seismic risk, said Tom Blake, experimental officer in the geophysics section of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS).

The bicentenary of the birth of Robert Mallett was held in 2010 and the DIAS and the Royal Dublin Society had joint celebrations. This was done, said Tom Blake at the time, “so that, at least, once and for all, Irish people will understand, and know, that the father of controlled-source seismology is an Irishman – Robert Mallett”.

SEISMIC SCIENTISTS

In 132 AD, in China, a man called Zhang Heng, invented the world’s first seismometer – an instrument capable of measuring ground movements due to earthquakes. The machine Zhang invented enabled him to determine the direction and occurrence of the epicenter of an earthquake. For example, his device could pinpoint an earthquake occurring at a location 400 miles away, long before horse-bound messengers could bring the Emperor the bad news. This enabled the Emperor to quickly dispatch help to the afflicted area.

The west was far behind China in seismic studies. As late as 1755, more than 1,600 years after China had invented the first seismometer, people believed that the Great Lisbon Earthquake of that year, which killed 70,000 with an accompanying tsunami, was God’s punishment for the sins of mankind.

Not everyone in the west believed in the ‘God’ explanation for earthquakes in the 18th century. One of those was John Mitchell, a clergyman, and academic at Cambridge University. Mitchell proposed that earthquakes caused by energy waves originated below ground. At the time, his theory was largely ignored.

In 1795, Ascanio Filomarino devised a seismograph similar to the one Zhang had invented centuries before. It had a part that would stay stationary while the rest of the instrument would shake when an earthquake was occurring, and ring bells and set off a clock. Poor Ascanio was murdered on Mt Vesuvius by an angry mob that didn’t like his work. They also burned his workshop and destroyed his seismograph.

Another early ‘seismograph’ was developed by Luigi Palmieri, in 1855. Palmieri was the director of an observatory near Vesuvius. An instrument, designed by Palmieri, could measure small tremblings in the ground around Vesuvius, and recorded such movements on a paper strip – like later seismographs.

The big contribution of Robert Mallett to this emerging field came in 1857 when he examined the damage caused by the earthquake in Italy of that year. He generated isoseismal maps, which displayed contours of damage intensity. He also published a world map that revealed the clustering of earthquake incidences in specific locations around the planet. Thus, Mallett, was the first to see the ‘big picture’ with regard to earthquakes.

First published in the September-October 2009 edition of Science Spin

The Pulsar Superstar – Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Listen below to the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell as part of the Irish Scientists series which was broadcast on East Coast FM in December 2016

Jocelyn BB Pic

Jocelyn Bell Burnell from Lurgan Co. Armagh discovered a new type of star, called pulsars in the 1960s

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, pictured on the right, who grew up and was educated in Lurgan, discovered pulsars, a new family of incredibly compact tiny stars back in 1968. It was a discovery that many astronomers believed merited a Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee agreed and a Prize was duly awarded for the discovery in 1974. The problem was the Prize went not to Jocelyn, but to her supervisor.

At the time she made the discovery, 67-year-old Jocelyn (who is still an active researcher) was a 24-year old post-graduate student. She was also a woman. Those things still mattered in science in the 1960s, and might have helped explain why the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded for the pulsar discovery, went to Jocelyn’s male supervisor, Antony Hewish and his senior colleague Martin Ryle. Many astronomers are still unhappy about this decision and have openly suggested that Jocelyn should, at the very least, been a co-recipient of the Prize. That the two prize winners never felt the need to recognise Jocelyn’s work, is a scientific scandal.

Obstacles

It was far from certain that Jocelyn would attain the heights she has attained in science, and she had to overcome many obstacles in her path. She was born inBelfast, but spent most of her first 13 years in Lurgan. She failed the ’11 plus’ exam, the test that children take inBritainandNorthern Irelandbefore entering secondary school. This exam is crucial as it usually determines whether a child is admitted to a ‘grammar school’ where the focus is on getting students to university. Her failure at the 11 plus wasn’t fatal, as she had been attending the Grammar School in Lurgan, and the school agreed to keep her on for a few years before she went off to a boarding school inEngland. However, she did admit much later that the failure ‘shook her’, and she didn’t chose to mention it until she attained the status of Professor.

Looking back today, Jocelyn believes that the 11 plus curriculum at the time didn’t suit her, as she said there wasn’t any science in it. Her scientific ability was certainly obvious when she came top of her class in her first term in secondary school at Lurgan Grammar. However, before that, there was another hurdle to cross. That came when the girls and boys were segregated into two groups in her first year of secondary school. Jocelyn thought that the separation might have ‘something to do with sport’, but was horrified when she realised that the boys were being brought to the science lab, while the girls were being packed off to learn about domestic science. It was the1950s and girls in Lurgan, and all overIreland, north and south, weren’t given any encouragement to do science. Jocelyn’s parents decided to ‘kick up a fuss’ and, as a result she was permitted to join the boys doing science, along with the daughter of a local doctor, and one other girl. It was a close call, andIrelandalmost lost perhaps its most accomplished ever female scientist before she even had a chance to show what she could do.

She finished out her two remaining years in Lurgan Grammar and then it was off toEngland. Jocelyn’s family were Quakers, and there was a family tradition of sending the children to Quaker schools inEngland. Jocelyn attendedMountSchool, inYork. She recalls that it was good to get away from home, though traumatic to begin with. In England, in the Fifties, girls were not discouraged from doing science, so it was a different atmosphere to Ireland. Jocelyn did very well in her studies, despite what she recalls as a mixed standard of science teaching.

She made it through the roller-coaster of her primary and secondary school education to get accepted into Glasgow University to study science. There she did well enough to be accepted to do a PhD in the University of Cambridge, a truly world-class university, choc-a-block with Nobel prize winning scientists, then and now. She began her PhD in 1965, working under the supervision of the aforementioned Hewish. The aim of the research project she was involved with was to find quasars. Jocelyn describes quasars as being “big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot of radio waves”. The idea was to search for quasars by looking at natural sources of radio waves in the cosmos using a telescope array.

An array is a group of linked telescopes, and a special array was constructed for the project at a four-acre site at the Mullard Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge. Jocelyn got stuck into the nitty-gritty of getting the project up and running, and spent her time initially banging stakes into the ground and connecting miles of copper wire. Finally, in July 1967, the array was ready.

Accidental

Jocelyn began the job of monitoring the sky for rapid fluctuations in radio waves that might indicate the presence of a quasar at a particular location. She had to read through literally miles of paper, and wade through mountains of data, searching for tell-tale signs of a quasar.

On the 6th August 1967, a few weeks after the array came online, Jocelyn noticed something. She described the discovery that would change her life to this reporter in an interview in 2010:

“It was totally accidental. I was doing the research project I had been set very conscientiously and happened across something unexpected. The analogy I use is imagine you are at some nice viewpoint making a video of the sunset and along comes another car and parks in the foreground and it’s got its hazard warning lights, its blinkers on, and it spoils your video. Well my project was looking at quasars, which are some of the most distant things in the universe. [quasars] are big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot

of radio waves, which is what I was picking up. [I was] studying these distant quasars and something in the foreground sort of went ‘yo-hoo’! – not very loudly shall we say it was a pretty faint signal, but it turned out after a lot of checking up, and a lot of persistence to be an incredible kind of new star, which we have called a pulsar – pulsating radio star.”

“They are tiny as stars go, they are only about 10 miles across, but they weigh the same as a typical star so they are very, very compact. The radio waves were coming naturally from some kind of star. We picked up these pulses and they were so unexpected that the first thing you have to do is suspect is that there is something wrong with the equipment, then suspect there is interference and then suspect something else, gradually force yourself to believe that it is something astronomical and it’s out there in the galaxy. The excitement came when I found the second one, because that really then begins to look like this is a new population we’ve discovered and we’ve just got the tip of the iceberg.”

Inside a few weeks Jocelyn had discovered three more radio wave sources that were behaving in the same way. This proved beyond doubt that here was a new, real and probably entirely natural phenomenon, though there was some talk – only partly in jest – about the possibility that these pulsating radio waves were being sent across the Universe by an alien intelligence.

A paper in Nature, the renowned scientific journal followed and it was published on the 24th February 1968. The press interest was huge after the paper came out, and Jocelyn and other people in the lab did a series of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Somehow she managed to get back to finishing her PhD, which she did in September 1968. But her life had changed, and she had become an overnight scientific celebrity, still only in her mid twenties.

Jocelyn said that the practical importance of her new found fame was that she never found it difficult to pick up a job when she was travelling around Britain with her husband, Martin Bell. He was a civil servant that regularly moved from city to city. Jocelyn followed him and worked part time for many years raising their son Gavin, who was born in 1973, and is also a physicist.

The down-side of achieving fame and success at an early stage was – as Jocelyn said to this reporter – that people expected her to come up with amazing discoveries all the time. A discovery such as finding pulsars comes only about once per decade in the astronomical community as a whole, and so it is a bit hard, she suggested, to live up to such expectations.

These days she continues to work as a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University where she is free to conduct research without too many other duties being imposed on her. Whatever she might do before she retires, her scientific legacy is secure. In 2010, a pulsar conference was held in Sardinia to honour her 45 years in science and to ‘christen’ a new radio telescope. A long-time colleague Australian pulsar researcher, Dick Manchester, was asked to deliver a speech at the conference, detailing Jocelyn’s contribution to science.

He said:

“I think Jocelyn’s fame is greater because she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize in 1974 than it would have been if she had. I believe that the furore that her lack of recognition caused resulted in a change of attitude by the Nobel Committee and I’m sure more widely as well, with a heightened awareness of the role of students in projects and the role of women in science.”

First published in the July-August edition of Science Spin

How Irish Scientists Changed the World, by Seán Duke, is due for publication by Londubh Books in 2012.

ETS Walton – Ireland’s atom splitter

Broadcast on East Coast FM on 03-12-2016 as part of a six-part series on Irish scientists, produced by Colette Kinsella, Red Hare Media, and funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
walton

ETS Walton, the Irishman who split the atom in 1932 at the age of 29

In 1932, aged 29, Waterford-born Ernest Walton, pictured here on the right, did something remarkable – he split the atom, or the atomic nucleus to be more precise, and the news stunned the world.

This colossal event in the history of science took place in Cambridge, UK, in the Cavendish Laboratory, a world-famous laboratory run by Lord Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealander. Rutherford had won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1908 and was a huge figure in science in general and nuclear physics in particular.
Walton, meanwhile, was a brilliant apparatus man, a hands-on physicist, and he had personally built the particle accelerator machine that enabled the nucleus to be split.
Walton worked closely with John Cockcroft, who was a theoretician. They were a perfect team. Cockcroft proved it could be done, and Walton then went and did it.Newspapers around the world reported the news, and the Albert Einstein himself called to the Cavendish Lab to congratulate Walton and Cockcroft.

For Einstein, this experiment was the first solid evidence to support his famous equation e = mc2 which held that energy and mass were linked, and that it was possible to release enormous amounts of energy – if mass could be split apart.

EXPERIMENT 
The key to the success of the famous atom splitting experiment was perhaps the inspired decision by Lord Rutherford, Head of the Cavendish, to pair the hands-on Walton, with the theoretician Cockcroft.

Rutherford, recognised the talents of the two young geniuses at his disposal, and put them together. They were very different, but complimented each other.

At this time, The Cavendish and other labs, particularly in the US were in a race to see who could split the atomic nucleus first. The general thinking at the time was that particles, protons would need to be accelerated to very high speeds, at astronomically high electrical voltages – perhaps as high as one million volts – to make it possible for them to slam into atomic nuclei and split them.

Walton had done his PhD in the generation of high voltages and this was a continuation of that work. He got the voltage up towards 800,000 volts and they decided they would try and experiment and see what happened.

Walton got the machine going and crawled back across the floor of the lab towards a lead-roofed observation box – to protect against x-rays and high voltages. The protons were being slammed into a piece of lithium metal and he took at look now at the impact. He immediately began seeing little flashes.

He was elated, as the flashes, he knew could be an indication that the lithium atoms were being split into two helium nuclei, also known as ‘alpha particles’ which had been first discovered by Rutherford himself three decades earlier. Walton immediately called Cockcroft to come, he knew something was happening. He later described what looked like ‘twinkling stars’ – lots of them.

Cockcroft arrived, and Rutherford then appeared. The two younger men manoeuvred Rutherford into the small observation hut, which wasn’t easy, as he was a big man, it was a tight space, and, at this stage, the great man, wasn’t young either.

Philip, Ernest’s son, and himself a Professor of Physics at NUI Galway (recently retired) recalled what his father told him happened next. “He (Rutherford) was shouting out instructions – ‘turn up the voltage’, ‘turn down the voltage’ and whatnot. He got out, and without saying anything at first, he walked across the room, perched himself on a stool and said: “Those look mighty like alpha particles to me – I should know, as I was in at their birth.”

The atomic age had begun.

FIGURE 
Walton was an unlikely figure to be thrown into the media maelstrom that occurred after the 1932 experiment. It changed his life forever, and at a time when most scientists are only getting their careers started he had reached his pinnacle.

He was a strongly religious man all his life –  the son of a Methodist preacher who had travelled all over Ireland and lived in many towns on both sides of the border, including Cookstown, Bambridge, Dungarvan, Armagh and Drogheda.

Sunday’s were for religious service and nothing more, whereas every other day was all about work. He was also a non-drinker, with a few close, loyal friends.

He had attended Methodist College in Belfast as a border, where he was ‘Head Boy’ and he had developed a strong affection, which was returned for the school’s ‘Head Girl’, Breda. After they left school they went their separate ways, but after a chance meeting the relationship was re-ignited and the letters flew back and forth.

He returned to Ireland in 1934, not least because he wanted to marry Breda, who was working as a teacher in Waterford. They were duly married in Dublin, and set about raising a family from their home in St Kevin’s Park, in Dartry, Dublin 6.

Walton returned from Cambridge to head up an ailing Physics department, with just three staff. His workload was huge in terms of administration, and teaching. This all mean that from the time he returned Ireland, to TCD, he did little research.

He died in 1995, aged 92, and is remembered fondly by his colleagues and family as a quiet man, who had no interest in the limelight. Often he would sit in the staff room at TCD quietly humming a tune, when a visitor would come in, and be stunned to be introduced to Ernest Walton, the giant of Physics that split the atom.

Many students will remember him as a brilliant teacher, who often performed experiments on the bench, in front of the students during a physics lecture. His son Philip, the recently retired Professor of Physics at NUI Galway, recalls that his father spent many long hours in the attic at home, after dinner, preparing his lectures.

Others will remember him at the Young Scientist Exhibition in the RDS for many years, when he could be found in teacher mode surrounded by an enraptured audience. For ETS Walton, teaching was a very important part of the scientist’s job.

To this day he remains the only Irishman who has been awarded a Nobel Prize in any field of science. That was in 1951, 22 years after the atomic nuclei was split.

This article was first published in the May-June issue of Science Spin

For more, see ‘How Irish Scientists Changed the World

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