This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.
Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.
William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.
Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.
In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”
Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.