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.
The list of Ireland’s scientific greats include: Ernest Walton, born in Dungarvan, that built the machine, using odds and ends, on a shoestring budget that split the atom in 1932. John Holland, born in Liscannor that designed the world’s first combat submarine. Annie Maunder, born in Strabane, who described the link between sunspots and global warming, and cooling, and Robert Boyle, the Lismore born 17th century genius who established experiment at the core of the scientific method.
John Tyndall born in Leighlinbridge, discovered greenhouse gases, defended Charles Darwin and produced best selling books of what we would call popular science today. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, born in Armagh, and the only living scientist in the book, discovered a new type of star called pulsars, which were the signature of the slow death of a giant star, larger than our Sun.
There are three big scientific names, all Nobel winners, that the book lays claim to on behalf of Ireland. Guglielmo Marconi, the father of radio, whose mother was from Enniscorthy, Maurice Wilkins, one of three people awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the DNA double helix had two Dublin-born parents, and Ernest Schrodinger, one of the greatest physicists of all time, and one of the great names of ‘quantum mechanics’ – the science of the very small – became an Irish citizen.
There is lots more to discover in the book, and many surprises along the way. I have attempted to bring these scientists to life, to describe their science, and their legacy to the world, and illuminate their often very colourful private lives.
“I urge everyone to buy this book – whether it’s science you want, or the lives of geniuses, it’s a great read” – Professor Patrick Prendergast, Provost Trinity College Dublin.
“The best book I have read this year by far” – Terry Flanagan, Mooney Goes Wild, RTE Radio 1.
“If you have teenage family members who are doing the Leaving Certificate but are struggling to find inspiration, they’ll enjoy this” – Sunday Business Post .
“Irish scientists deserve much more recognition than they traditionally receive and, happily, this book is an important and enjoyable way of understanding and celebrating their work” – Irish Medical Times.
“Scientists will enjoy learning about the private lives and anecdotes surrounding their champions, while non-scientists will easily delve into scientific topics such as global warming, wireless technology and electricity” – Trinity News.
“This is a fascinating book, with gripping accounts of these seventeen scientists. I would love to see young scientists reading it.” – Sherkin Comment.
If you have any comments or queries about the book, send me an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Parson’s yacht Turbinia, pictured here, was powered by his steam turbine. He dramatically demonstrated its speed at the British Navy Review before Queen Victoria in 1897 when it was easily the fastest vessel on view. The British naval establishment was impressed and soon adopted the turbine in its latest battleships (credit: Wiki)
A plentiful supply of cheap electricity, and much faster passenger steamships and military battleships. These were some of the things made possible by Charles Parsons, who grew up in Birr, and invented the steam turbine in 1887.
Charles was born in 1854 and came from a brilliant scientific lineage. His father was the famous astronomer, William Parsons, who had built the world’s largest telescope on the grounds of Birr Castle in the 1840s.
The steam turbine invented by Charles, hugely increased the power that could be harnessed from a steam engine. The invention made him a rich man, and it changed the world.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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.
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.
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