Science week 2017 - Top 5 Irish Scientists

15 November 2017

To celebrate Science week 2017 we wanted to share with you our top 5 Irish scientists that have made their influence known, not just in Ireland but throughout the world. Science week is part of Science Foundation Ireland’s work to promote the potential that science and discovery offer Ireland, today and in tomorrow’s world. 

Robert Boyle (1627 –1691) born in Waterford 

Widely known as the Father of Modern Chemistry and also considered a big influencer to physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton. Robert Boyle, in the 17th century created Boyles law which has become the basis of modern scientific calculations. Boyle was also a natural philosopher, chemist, physicist and inventor.

Boyle’s law describes how the pressure of a gas tends to decrease as the volume increases, and this inversely proportional relationship is still learned by heart in science classrooms. Boyle discovered that air has weight and exerts pressure which led him to believe that it is made up of minute particles which helped identify some of the properties of air. An interesting fact about Robert Boyle is that he had a fascination for alchemy and would worked to discover the secret of transmuting base metals into gold.

William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1864), born in Dublin

Educated by his uncle James Hamilton, William Rowan Hamilton by the age of 12 knew 13 languages. Hamilton entered Trinity College Dublin in 1823 where he studied mathematics, physics and also classics. While still an undergrad, Hamilton was appointed professor of astronomy at TCD.

In 1835 Hamilton was knighted by the lord lieutenant of Ireland in the course of a meeting in Dublin of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Hamilton served as president of the Royal Irish Academy from 1837 to 1846.

Hamilton also had an interest in the fundamental principles of algebra. For many years Hamilton sought to construct a theory of triplets, analogous to the couplets of complex numbers that would be applicable to the study of three-dimensional geometry. On the 16th of October 1843, while walking with his wife beside the Royal Canal on his way to Dublin, Hamilton suddenly realized that the solution lay not in triplets but in quadruplets, which could produce a noncommutative four-dimensional algebra.

Quaternions became the first significant number system that did not obey the laws of ordinary arithmetic. Their application to three-dimensional rotations proved extremely useful in physics and was also included in Erwin Schrodinger’s construction of the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Relating to our everyday lives, quaternions are also widely used to model three-dimensional graphics and systems in sat-navs and computer games.

Ellen Hutchins (1785–1815), born in Cork

Hutchins was an early Irish botanist. She is known for her botanical illustrations in contemporary publications as well as collecting and identifying hundreds of specimens.

She focused on botany and spent much time out of doors accompanied by the indoor occupations of identifying, recording and drawing the plants she collected. Nearly all of her collecting was undertaken in the Banty area and County Cork. Her ability to find new plants, and the quality of her drawings and specimens drew admiration from the leading botanists of the day, and her work was featured in many publications.

Although she never published under her own name, she was a major contributor to the new and developing plant sciences of her era. Her specimens are in the most significant collections in the UK, Ireland and the USA.  She bequeathed her collection of plant specimens to Dawson Turner and many are now in the Natural History Museum, London.

 George Johnstone Stoney (1826 – 1911), born in Offaly

Offaly’s George Johnstone Stoney was one of a group of Irish scientists who made significant contributions to the study of spectra, that is the light of various colours emitted or absorbed by different substances.

Stoney’s most significant scientific work involves the conception and calculation of the magnitude of the atom or particle of electricity, for which he coined the term "electron". He also estimated the number of molecules in a cubic millimetre of gas, at room temperature and pressure, from data obtained from the kinetic theory of gases. Stoney also established ‘Stoney units’, which were the fundamental measurements of mass, length and time, as well as measuring the energy behind bicycle propulsion.

Stoney's work set the ball rolling for other great scientists such as Larmor and Thomas Preston who investigated the splitting of spectral lines in a magnetic field. Stoney partially anticipated Balmer's law on the hydrogen spectral series of lines and he discovered a relationship between three of the four lines in the visible spectrum of hydrogen. George Johnstone Stoney was an educationalist and a physicist, whose ideas and conceptions were far ahead of his time.

Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (1903 – 1995), born in Waterford

Walton is most famous for the first disintegration of an atomic nucleus by artificially accelerated protons which is more popularly known as “splitting the atom”. In his youth Walton won scholarships to TCD for the study of mathematics and science and later moved to Cambridge as a researcher.

It was in Cambridge that Walton and John Cockcroft split the atom. They were recipients of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the transmutation of the atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles. They are credited with being the first to disintegrate the lithium nucleus by bombardment with accelerated protons (or hydrogen nuclei) and identifying helium nuclei in the products in 1930. More generally, they had built an apparatus which showed that nuclei of various lightweight elements (such as lithium) could be split by fast-moving protons.

Walton and Cockcroft received the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1938. In much later years – and predominantly after his retirement in 1974 – Walton received honorary degrees or conferrals from numerous Irish, British, and North American institutions.

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Posted on: 15/11/17