Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Search of Greatness

There has been much debate in Irish scientific circles lately as to why no scientists had made it into RTE's much hyped list of the Greatest Irish People. I've made the point that instead of bemoaning the fact that the public have snubbed us scientists in favour of some worthy and some (arguably) less worthy individuals, Irish science should be asking itself why it has come to this?

Why don't the general public consider Irish scientists worthy of this title? Do they know enough about them? Do they really value their work?

On the back of this assault on our collective egos, launched a poll to find the Greatest Irish Scientist. Robert Boyle (of Boyle's Law fame) was the most popular with almost two thirds of the vote (32.2%). William Rowan Hamilton (21.2%) and Ernest Walton (17.8%), a mathematician and nuclear physicist respectively, came in next.

The full top ten is as follows: poll results – top 10 Irish scientists:

1. Robert Boyle, who turned chemistry into a science
2. William Rowan Hamilton – the algebra he invented in 1843 helped to put a man on the Moon more than a century later
3. Ernest Walton, whose pioneering work began the atomic era
4. Kathleen Lonsdale, the X-ray crystallographer who revealed the structure of benzene and diamond
5. Dorothy Price, instrumental in the fight against tuberculosis, introducing the BCG vaccine to Ireland in the 1930s
6. John Tyndall, the first person to answer the question “Why is the sky blue?” successfully
7. Harry Ferguson, who revolutionised farming when he invented the modern tractor
8. Sir George Gabriel Stokes, for his important contributions to fluid dynamics, optics and mathematical physics, including Stokes’ theorem
9=. Fr Nicholas Callan, who invented the modern induction coil, still used in car ignitions
9=. Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine
9=. William Thompson, who formulated the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics

No room it seems for George Boole, Br. James Burke or Br. John Philip Holland.

Boole was the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College Cork (now UCC), where the library is now named in his honour. He invented Boolean logic which formed the basis of modern computer logic and makes him, in hindsight, a founder of modern computer science.

Burke was a Christian Brother who taught at the North Monastery in Cork City and was renowned for his work in developing practical scientific and technical education in Ireland during the late 19th century. Amongst his achievements includes bringing electric light to Cork in 1877, two years before Thomas Edison invented the electric bulb. He was a pioneer and advocate for practical, scientific education in Ireland and represented Ireland at the World's Fair in St Louis, Missouri in 1904.

Writing in The Glamour of Cork, Daniel Lawrence Kelleher (1919) describes an aging Burke as:
"This big, slow-footed, heavy, smiling, half-blind old man [who] has put into practice the most enlightened methods of education.
"Behold him in his class, a combination and anticipation of Montessori, Pearse and a hundred others, a curious wheedling old fellow, the father, uncle and guardian of his pupils, and no master at all in the narrow sense; or another time at the Trades Hall talking to workers back to childhood by his overflowing interest.
"A teacher out of a million, his lesson a preparation for life rather than for any examination test, his shining spirit a light always for any who saw the flame of it, alive".

Holland, a Christian Brother colleague of Burke at the North Monastery, is credited with developing the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy (USS Holland), and the first Royal Navy submarine- the Holland 1. The first image in this post shows Holland standing at the hatch of a submarine.

Thanks to North Monastery Past Pupils Union for permission to use photos from their collection. Expect to hear much more about both Burke and Holland in 2011 when the North Monastery schools celebrate their bicentennial.


okeeneil June 25, 2010 at 8:47 PM  

How can you put a tractor engineer ahead of Nicholas Callan? The induction coil, in its various forms, is absolutely central to electrical engineering and electronics. Saying that it is "still used in car ignitions" is a bit like saying that computers are still used for solving Sudoku puzzles!

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