Robert Mallet – the earthquake detective

Science Spinning

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…

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The incredible story of the “immortal” Henrietta Lacks

Interview with Myles Dungan on The History Show, RTE Radio 1, 22nd January.

The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks based on the book written by Rebecca Skloot in 2010 will appear on our cinema screens this year, with Oprah Winfrey in the role of Henrietta.

But, who was Henrietta Lacks, what was her story, why is her life described as “immortal” and how has it influenced the lives of millions of people around the world since her death in 1951?

henrietta-lacks-pic

Henrietta Lacks, pictured, died from cervical cancer in 1951, aged 31. Cancer cells removed from her body without her knowledge or permission were used to produce the polio vaccine Credit (Henrietta Lacks Foundation).

Old South

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman from the tobacco fields of the state of Virginia, USA, part of the old South.

She has made a huge contribution to mankind, because of the cells she unwittingly gave to the world, so called ‘HeLa cells’ which were taken from the cancer that killed her in 1951 and grown in labs around the world to combat disease, and help scientists develop techniques like cloning and I.V.F.

The cells have been used to produce a vaccine for polio, leading to its eradication in the USA and most parts of the world, but they have also been used to produce commercial revenue. Henrietta didn’t provide ‘consent’ for her cells to be used in this way, but in 1951, consent was not a requirement for doctors to remove cells or tissues from patients for research purposes.

Henrietta was born with the name Loretta Pleasant on the 1st August 1920 in Roanoke, the biggest town, but still a small-ish city, in southwestern Virginia. At some stage, for reasons not clear, she became Henrietta, a name that was shortened to ‘Hennie’ after the death of her mother.

Henrietta’s mother died when Henrietta was 4 and ‘Hennie’ and her nine siblings were sent to live with various aunts and uncles and cousins in the little farming town of Clover, Virginia.

Hennie ended up with her grandfather, who was also trying to raise one of Hennie’s first cousins – David. They lived in a two-story cabin built of hand-carved logs, and held together by pegs that was once the slave quarters of their ancestors.

In 1924 rural Virginia, black people were no longer slaves, but their social, economic and living circumstances, even the actual buildings that that lived in, hadn’t changed much since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on 1st January 1863. This executive order changed the federal legal status of some 3 million black slaves trapped in the Confederate south from ‘slave’ to ‘free’.

Slave quarters

The former slave quarters that Hennie found herself living in with her grandfather and cousin David looked over the family cemetery where Hennie’s ancestors, who were black, but some of whom were also white, including one of her great grandfathers, were buried.

All around the slave house, or ‘home house’ as its residents called it were hundreds of acres of tobacco fields. The area was, and is known as Lacks Town, as many of the people living in and around the tobacco fields were ‘kin’ to Henrietta.

Hennie had honey coloured skin, a round face, and an attractive, welcoming smile. After a time, according to cousins accounts, Hennie and David, who was called ‘Day’ became an item, even though they had been raised like a brother and sister.

Children followed. Lawrence was born in 1935, and Elsie, who was “deaf and dumb”, and ended up later in a home for the Negro Insane, was born in 1939.

In 1941, Hennie and Day got married, and made plans to get out of Clover, forget the tough life of tobacco farming, and join the many black people that were heading for Baltimore and Washington DC to get jobs in the booming wartime shipyards and steel mills.

Hennie, according to accounts, settled into her new life as housewife in a brick city apartment, but she missed the country and would often grab her kids, and pile them onto a bus for a trip back to Clover.

It seems Hennie loved being a mother, and more children came with Sonny born in 1947, and Deborah in 1949. Their fifth child, Joe, was born in 1950.

Henrietta’s illness

A few months after Joe was born Hennie shared a secret with her cousin Sadie, Sadie later recalled. She started bleeding, even though it was not her time of the month, and one morning when she was taking a bath she felt a lump.

Hennie decided to attend the outpatient centre at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore – a renowned centre for medical excellence in February 1951 and the gynaecologist on duty when Henrietta came in was Dr Howard Jones. Dr Jones examined Henrietta and found something remarkable: a glistening, smooth growth that resembled what he called “purple Jell-O” (jelly).

The growth was about the size of a US quarter, and positioned at the lower right of Henrietta’s cervix. The growth bled easily when it was touched.

Dr Jones thought it might be an infection and tested for syphilis, but the results came back negative. He ordered a biopsy and got the diagnosis: sadly for Hennie, it was cancer.

Henrietta came back for treatment 8 days later, and another doctor took another slice off her tumour. Henrietta wasn’t told about this, but, at the time, that was normal medical practice.

Capsules of radium were placed around her cervix to try and kill the cancer cells and she was released from hospital and went home. Henrietta didn’t tell anyone about her illness, and continued with home life as normal.

She came back regularly for treatment, but the cancer cells were growing faster than radium could kill them and it was difficult for her now to hide her pain.

She was admitted to hospital for the last time in August 1951, for what would be the last time. A few months later, on 4th October 1951 Henrietta died, aged 31, with an autopsy showing that she had cancerous lumps in her chest cavity, lungs, liver, kidney and right through her bladder. The cancer had been relentless, and grew and spread at a pace that proved uncontrollable.

Henrietta was buried in an unmarked grave her the ‘home house’ in Clover. Her children remember it as a day when the rain poured from the sky as though heaven were weeping for ‘Hennie’.

Family devastation

The death of Hennie was devastating to Henrietta’s family, her husband Day and their five children. This is apparent, as even all these years later they get upset talking about her death, it seems.

Her death was something of a taboo subject, and no-one was comfortable talking about it, as it affected them so deeply.

Day tried to keep the show on the road by working shifts at the shipyard, while minding his three youngest children. Elsie was now in a home for the Negro Insane and family visits were not as frequent was when Henrietta was alive, as she visited Elsie regularly. Lawrence, the eldest left to join the Army.

Two relatives moved in to live with Day and the three children, one of which was described as ‘evil’ and life became brutal and horrible, with the children being beaten for no reason and having little food to eat.

As the children grew older, they – understandably – wanted to get away as much as possible from the nightmare house in Baltimore and they regularly returned to Clover to work on tobacco, as their mum had done, keeping their abuse a secret.

Elsie died in 1955, aged just 16, and it appears that sadly she had been abused, and she may even have had holes drilled in her head for some kind of human experimentation.

When Henrietta’s children had their own children, it seems that – perhaps sensing something from their parents – they too avoided the subject of their grandmother, how she lived and how she died.

Medical legacy

Henrietta’s family knew nothing until the early 1970s when family members received phone calls from researchers asked for them to donate blood samples. The researchers said that they wanted to find out more about their mother’s genetic make-up.

Naturally, the family members wanted to know why they were interested in this, now, many years after Henrietta’s death. They were then told – and this must have been utterly shocking to them – that part of their mother, some of her cells, were still alive and growing now, more than 20 years after her death.

The Lacks family finally learned that tissue from their mother’s second biopsy in 1951 had been given to Johns Hopkins researcher Dr George Gey, who was searching for a cure to cancer, and had, towards this end, but trying – unsuccessfully – to grow human cells outside the body, so that they could be closed studied in the lab.

Dr Gey’s lab technicians got Henrietta’s cells, but – by now programmed for failure – expected them to do what many previous cell samples had done – live for a short time, a few days tops, then die. Yet, what happened astonished them. Henrietta’s cells multiplied in petri dishes, uncontrollably spreading and piling up on one another.

On the very same day that Henrietta died, 4th October 1951, Gey was appearing on a TV show called ‘Cancer Can be Conquered.” On the show he held a bottle close to the camera, and in it he said was the first human cell line ever grown. This was Henrietta’s legacy.

The cells were called “HeLa cells” by Gey, to acknowledge the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names. He then gave samples out to other researchers around the USA. The idea was that HeLa cells would work enough like normal cells so that doctors could test, probe and unlock their secrets and weaknesses in the lab. This new knowledge, it was hoped, would lead to a cure for cancer.

HeLa cells

The biggest impact, without doubt, that HeLa cells have, so far at least, made on the world is by helping Jonas Salk create a vaccine which has almost eradicated – worldwide – what was a crippling disease affecting children.

Salk infected HeLa cells with the poliovirus – something that could easily be achieved – and studied how they reacted. After a number of years of work, in 1955, he had created a working vaccine.

This received huge attention because polio mainly affects children under 5 years of age, so young children had been dying and the name polio was a terrifying one until Salk came along.

Polio is highly infectious. It kills when some infected children become paralysed and their breathing muscles immobilised. It is still a threat in certain parts of the world, according to the WHO, but the number of cases, worldwide have decreased from 350,000 cases in 1988 to just 74 reported cases in 2015.

It is estimated that the polio vaccine, and, thus, HeLa cells that helped created it, have saved the lives of one million people, many of them young children, around the world since 1955, who would otherwise have died of polio.

In 1952, just three years beforehand, there was a polio outbreak in the USA which killed 3,145 people, including 1,873 children. At that rate, some 192,000 Americans would have died if the polio vaccine had not been available there from 1955.

The HeLA cells were ideal for developing a polio vaccine because they could be easily infected by poliomyelitis, which caused infected cells to die. However, a large volume of HeLa cells were needed to test Salk’s vaccine, and this led to the mass production of HeLa cells from 1953 in a cell culture ‘factory’ at Tuskegee University.

Controversially, however, companies also used HeLa cells to test cosmetics, and to measure the effects of radiation on human cells. They were used to test how human cells responded to other viruses, and were used in a number of cancer trials.

HeLa were the first ‘cell lines’, they stored well, were robust and could be sent out to laboratories all over the world. They replicate very fast, which is useful, but can also cause problems for scientists in terms of contamination of the lab.

HeLa cells have been used to study all kinds of viruses, and helped in the creation of a vaccine to HPV, the human papillomavirus, as well as to act as a testbed for new medications for cancer and Parkinson’s disease. They have also been used to test how certain products, such as cosmetics, affect human cells.

Because some HeLa cells behave differently to others, it has been possible for scientists to isolate a specific cell type, multiple it, and start a new cell line. This method of isolating a cell and keeping it alive is the basic technique behind I.V.F. which is so much part of our world today.

One discovery from HeLa cells has big potential in the fight against cancer. It was found that HeLa cells used an enzyme to repair their DNA and keep functioning when other cells would have died. Anti cancer trials against this enzyme are currently ongoing.

There are some who would say that the importance of HeLa cells in saving lives has been overstated. For example, saving one million lives with the polio vaccine, is small potatoes compared to, say the Measles vaccination, which has saved about 17 million lives since 2000.

Family anger

Henrietta’s family were angry when they finally heard the full story of the HeLa cells. They felt that Johns Hopkins Hospital had removed Henrietta’s cells without permission. The hospital had done that, they didn’t deny it, and neither did they deny that they hadn’t asked permission. Permission to do this wasn’t required back in 1951.

The Lacks family were also confused by all the scientific jargon that started to come their way. I think they their initial reaction was that their mother, and themselves had been exploited by researchers. For instance, they said that they gave blood to the researchers when asked, but the researchers did not bother to follow up with them when results came out or to explain results.

None of the children have developed their mother’s aggressive cancer, so Henrietta left no deadly legacy to her children.

There was a financial issue also, as far as the Lacks family were concerned because biomedical companies in the decades since their mother’s death had been mass producing HeLa cells, like a license to print money, and sending them out all over the world.

Fortunes were being made on the back of their mother’s cells, while they themselves, could even afford health insurance.

They were also apparently hurt that so many people, researchers, scientists and doctors, appeared to know so much about their mother, and that they, her children, knew very little.

Their father Day died in 2002 (41 years after his wife Henrietta) but the family only managed recently to pool together money for a headstone for his grave.

Johns Hopkins have honoured the contribution of Henrietta, and others like her, to their research, but they remain sensitive to criticism of their role in the Lacks’ story. They made the point that the hospital as it was in 1951 can’t be judged by today’s standards, and that patient consent, now a basic standard, wasn’t even considered in 1951.

The HeLa cells, Johns Hopkins state, were given away by their researcher Dr Gey, acting on his own and the hospital never patented the HeLa cells or sold them to make money. Dr Gey, they add was acting with good intent as he passed the cells on in the hope researchers could develop a module from which scientists could learn more about human cell function (and by corally, cancer cell function).

Immortal future?

HeLa cells have today multiplied to the point where they weigh some 20 tonnes, all together, while, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office there are close to 11,000 patents that involve HeLa cells. The cells are so widely available that they can be ordered for delivery on the Internet.

The words on Henrietta’s gravestone, composed by her grandchildren reads:

“In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Atom Splitter: Ernest Walton

ETS Walton featured on Irish scientists, the six part series on East Coast FM, presented by myself, Sean Duke, and produced by Colette Kinsella, Red Hare Media

Science Spinning

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…

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

O

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

turbinia

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.

Ireland and the Race to Mars

First broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke (23-11-2016)

mars

The Martian landscape as depicted in The Martian, a film by 20th Century Fox (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Both NASA and China have announced plans to land rovers on Mars in 2020, while a number of ambitious non governmental organisations also joining the dash to the Red Planet. It is anticipated that a manned mission from Earth to Mars and back will take five years, and Irish researchers and companies are part of global efforts to make sure that a manned Mars mission is a success.

The ‘Race to Mars’ has well and truly started, and, it’s about time some might argue, as it is now 47 years since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and those of us around back then might have expected to see more progress by now.

Unlike the 1960s, when the technology was really being stretched to the limit to get to the Moon, there are far less technical obstacles in the way of us reaching Mars, and the reason we haven’t done so is due to US politics and money.

That said the scientific challenges of getting humans to Mars, establishing a permanent presence there, and returning them safely to Earth are enormous. In October, President Obama set a goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s, and commented that he expects to be still around to see it happen.

But, what drove NASA on in the 1960s, of course, was fear of the Soviet Union and the militarisation of space. There is no Soviet Union threatening US existence anymore, but China is showing signs of emerging as viable new rival. The emergence of China as a space rival can only help efforts to get to Mars.

Challenges

Mars is 34 million miles away, and that is more than 140 times further than the Moon. The entire duration of the mission to the Moon in 1969 was just over 8 days, but getting to Mars safely, spending time there and returning safely to Earth will take in the region of 5 years.

On the journey to Mars, the craft must be designed so that it protects the astronauts from cosmic radiation, while providing them with healthy food to eat, and a means to exercise and stay physically and mentally healthy, and prevent the muscle and bone tissue wastage that will impact astronauts living in microgravity.

NASA are planning to have a habitat module where astronauts will eat a healthy diet from crops grown on ‘green walls’ inside the craft. The air and water will be constantly recycled, and the people chosen will be individuals with a high level of psychological resilience who can endure boredom and are not prone to conflict.

The NASA timeline is that Mars astronauts will spend one year preparing for the launch, one year travelling to Mars, 18 months orbiting and then landing on Mars, and 18 further months on the surface of Mars. They will come home when the Earth and Mars are again favourably aligned to make the return trip home.

This will be a space mission like none in human history requiring a lot of material, some experimental, some to sustain life, some of which would be sent ahead of the crew, such a descent vehicle which would await the astronauts while in Mars orbit, and a shelter on the surface of Mars, assembled by robots.

Cost

There are some who doubt that NASA will be able to get humans to Mars by the 2030s, or even 2040s because of some financial realities. It is estimated that the Apollo moon landings cost $140 billion in today’s dollars, while the realistic price tag to get humans on Mars is somewhere around $450 billion.

NASA’s annual budget for human spaceflight is currently around $9 billion, which is a long, long way short. There needs to be another JFK figure to set out the vision, and secure the budget, but the US has little competition, and there is no ‘clear and present danger’ such as the old Soviet Union to give it a push. That said, ‘Red’ China is creeping up again as a threat to the US psyche.

Will it happen? It is probably unlikely that the US taxpayer will be prepared to pay the entire $450 billion bill to do something for the vague good of mankind.

Commercial 

The answer might come from NASA taking on Mars as a kind of joint venture with commercial companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This can help secure private investment and access to potential useful new technologies. For example,

SpaceX are working on cheaper rockets, costing about $1 million to launch.

Some other companies involved are Inspiration Mars, which is a non profit company founded by Dennis Tito the first space tourist. He is planning a trip for a select crew of Americans, who will travel to Mars, orbit, but not land. The plan here is to leave Earth in 2018, or failing that to try again in 2021. The estimated cost of this flyby mission is between $1 and $2 billion.

Then there is the Mars One mission, the one way trip, proposed by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. This is regarded by some as a ‘suicide mission’ as once people are there, there is no way home. Despite that, there were 2,782 applications to be astronauts on the trip, some of which came from Ireland, including Trinity College astrophysicist, Dr Joseph Roche. The plan is that these applicants will be whittled down six groups of four astronauts, and the first crew of four will leave Earth in 2024. Mars One plan to document the trip on a reality TV show, which they hope will provide much of the finance for the trip.

But, Space X is a serious, space exploration company founded by Elon Musk, a billionaire, playboy who has also made a success out of Tesla electric cars. He is working on developing a fleet of reusable rockets, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and back again. He wants to build a self sustaining Martian city of 80,000 people, which could be a bolt hole for humanity in the event of some natural or manmade catastrophe here. The plan is to have a human step on Mars by 2026 (10 years!) and for it to be a round trip.

Musk may charge people as little as $0.5 million for a round trip to Mars.

Ireland 

There are a surprising number of researchers and companies based in Ireland doing work that can help make the mission to Mars a success.

For example, the work of Brian Caulfield, Professor of Physiotherapy at UCD, has led to the design and development of a device that can enable astronauts exercise properly so that their physical and mental health can be maintained on the long voyage to Mars. The work has been funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The device stimulates the large muscles of the legs to produce aerobic exercise training and muscle strengthening effects in space. This ‘Neuromuscular Electrical Muscle Stimulation Technology’ has been successfully tested by the ESA and was developed as a collaboration between UCD and researchers at the Galway based Biomedical Research Limited.

Research by Trinity College’s Mary Bourke, and Ulster University’s Derek Jackson has investigated Martian wind patterns and how they shape the giant sand dunes that can be seen on the surface of Mars – like a red Saudi Arabia.

Scientists know that Martian weather can be volatile and potentially very dangerous for a Martian landing as well as for human colonists, with huge sandstorms from time to time, for example.

The research is of potential value to NASA and others planning to go to Mars as it shows how the enormous sand dunes on mars influence the local wind speeds on the planet, and how these wind speeds, then in turn shape the sand dunes.

It is like developing a Martian wind and weather forecasting ability on Earth.

In Athlone Institute of Technology Dr Diana Cooper is working on the effects of microgravity on human physiology. The insights gained from this work could be crucial to developing methods to ensure that humans can survive long periods in space, travelling between Earth and Mars, without their bone tissue being reabsorbed back into the blood, or losing significant muscle mass.

Mathematics 

Something less obvious and immediate, but of enormous importance to the success of any space mission to Mars concerns something invented by an Irish mathematical genius in 1843. These are quaternions, which are mathematical equations, which are used to represent the relative movement of 3D objects in space, and the man that invented then was called William Rowan Hamilton.

A few years back, after the NASA curiosity rover landed on Mars, I spoke to one of the mission controllers, a man called Miguel San Martin. He told me that the incredibly precise landing of the car sized curiosity, near an area which NASA believed may show former evidence for life on Mars, was only possible because the precise navigation of curiosity was underpinned by quaternions.

So, incredibly, something invented by a Dubliner, while walking along the banks of the Royal Canal in 1843 with his wife, will be vital to ensure that any future Mars mission lands close to a pre-planned safe, and viable landing site.

Industry

There are a number of companies in Ireland who are doing work which feeds to the development of the technology required to get to Mars.

For example, A specific type of engine, called a Mars Apogee Engine is under development at Moog, Dublin, in work supported by Enterprise Ireland.

This engine is a liquid propellant engine capable of providing more thrust, with less fuel, than is possible with existing propulsion systems. The idea is that these new engines will be efficient enough to save 150kg of propellant on a Mars mission, which will make space available for other things, such as scientific instruments, which will give any Mars mission more ‘bang for its buck’.

The Curtiss-Wright Aviation and Electronic company, which has its origins all the way back to the Wright brothers, has a branch in Dublin. The people here are working on launch vehicles that can take payloads into orbit and build the Martian ‘in orbit’ infrastructure that will be required to supply and sustain human missions to Mars. This will build a supply chain if you like.

Curtiss-Wright are also developing technologies to enable the safe re-entry of spacecraft through planetary atmospheres including Mars, as well as technology that will be central to sustaining life & generating fuel for human explorers on the surface of Mars

Danny Gleeson, Chairman of the Irish Space Industry Group, said that development of human missions to Mars will take decades and that it was unlikely that the human mission  to Mars will be a single shot but rather a choreographed series of missions that build the necessary infrastructure in Earth orbit and Mars orbit & surface to sustain human missions.

“The good news is that there is a plan to get to Mars and back again and the technologies required are almost all available now,” said Danny.

Can the next JFK please step up.

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. 
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