Daedalus in Dublin: A Physicist’s Labyrinth

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  • The Physical Tourist

    Daedalus in Dublin: A Physicists Labyrinth

    Thomas C. OConnor*

    I describe some of the rich physical and natural-philosophy heritage of the urban center ofthe Irish capital Dublin (first tour) and its environs (second tour), in a two-part excursionthat could take between two and eight hours in toto. In terms of history, both tours centeraround the nineteenth century. The first tour is located in and around Trinity College, andwe encounter such personages as William Rowan Hamilton, George Fitzgerald, ErnestWalton, and Erwin Schrodinger, among others. Moving away from Trinity College, thesecond tour explores some of the periphery of the city. I describe the role of politics, money,and religion in shaping the emergence and development of scientific talent among the Irishpeople, and consequently the footprint left by physics in the city today, with its numeroussites and names that put Irish physics in an honorable place among the nations.

    Key words: Dublin; nineteenth century; physics; university education; natural

    Philosophy; Trinity College; University of Dublin; Catholic University of Ireland.

    Historical Setting

    Dublin is situated near the middle of the east coast of Ireland, where the river

    Liffey empties into the Irish Sea. From the eighth to the eleventh century, it was a

    substantial settlement and trading hub for the Norsemen (Vikings). In the twelfth

    century, it was the site of the invasion of Ireland by Normans from Britain and

    became the center for English rule in Ireland. This rule was gradually extended

    from a small dominion or Pale around Dublin to other parts of the country, so

    that by the end of the sixteenth century Dublin was the capital of Ireland. For

    another century the country was in turmoil during the campaigns of Oliver

    Cromwell and William III to secure military control of the whole island and set the

    landlord classes on the ascendency to rule the country. This enabled Dublin to

    develop in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the extent that it became

    * Thomas C. OConnor joined the Department of Physics at what is now called the NationalUniversity of Ireland, Galway, in 1956. Upon his retirement in 1996, he continued to workon various projects including the history of science and preservation of instrumentation.When he died, aged 81, after a sudden illness on November 6, 2012, he had almost com-pleted this article, which has been finished for him in his memory.

    Phys. Perspect. 16 (2014) 98128 2014 Springer Basel1422-6944/14/010098-31

    DOI 10.1007/s00016-014-0131-y Physics in Perspective


  • second to London as the most important city in the growing British Empire. The

    city expanded outside its walls with wide streets, elegant Georgian terraced town

    houses, pleasant squares, and gardens (figure 1). Some landlords built large

    imposing homes such as Leinster House, now the seat of the Irish parliament, and

    the government erected many fine public buildings.

    Dublin was mainly an administrative center without local energy sources and did

    not develop large industries during the Industrial Revolution. It did have breweries

    and distilleries, of which Guinness and Jameson were the best known. Throughout

    the twentieth century the suburbs expanded to incorporate many villages and

    towns. Today, many industries can be found in industrial parks around the city,

    including Microsoft in Sandyford, IBM in Damestown, and Intel in Leixlip.

    Early History

    Sophisticated science and technology have existed in Ireland from the earliest

    times. The Neolithic inhabitants of the Boyne valley circa 3000 BC constructed

    Fig. 1. The area around Trinity College in Dublin. Source: http://www.tcd.ie/Maps/.

    Vol. 16 (2014) Daedalus in Dublin: A Physicists Labyrinth 99


  • large passage grave mounds involving remarkable skills in astronomy and engi-

    neering techniques. One of these, now called Newgrange, is 80 m in diameter and

    has a small opening above the entrance to the 20 m passage that allows the rising

    sun at the winter solstice to penetrate into the central chamber for a few minutes

    every year (figure 2). This predates the pyramids of Giza by about 500 years. The

    Treasury of the National Museum contains prehistoric gold ornamentation and

    metal work of a high order. During the Christian era, in the sixth to the ninth

    centuries, monks produced ecclesiastical metalwork and illuminated manuscripts

    of great quality, noteworthy examples being the Ardagh chalice and the Book of

    Kells. Monks from Irish monasteries were also noted throughout Europe for their

    skills in astronomical calculations, such as in establishing the date of Easter.

    Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the civil authorities in Dublin became

    more secure and moves were made to establish a university. The land and buildings

    of the former Augustinian Priory of All Hallows to the east of the city walls were

    given to the city at the dissolution of the monasteries and were designated as the

    site for a university. On March 3, 1592, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to

    create the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, to become the mother of a

    university with the aim of providing education, training and instruction of youths

    and students in the Arts and Faculties that they may be the better assisted in thestudy of the liberal arts and the cultivation of virtue and religion. Now known

    formally as Dublin University, and informally as Trinity College, it was to follow

    the model of the great English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, though it

    Fig. 2. The Neolithic monument Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland. Credit: Tourism Ireland


    100 T. C. OConnor Phys. Perspect.

  • never developed a multiplicity of constituent Colleges. It has been referred to as

    the last of the medieval and the first of the colonial universities.1 The early

    curriculum consisted mainly of philosophy and theology, while the natural sciences

    were presented mainly in medieval dress with an emphasis on mathematics. In

    1724, the University established the Erasmus Smith Professorship of Natural Phi-

    losophy. The first holder of the chair, Richard Helsham (16821738, figure 3) held

    credentials in medicine, and wrote one of the first textbooks in English on physics.

    Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1739). The book, edited by Helshams former

    student Bryan Robinson, remained a classic for more than a century and ran

    through eight editions in Dublin, London, and Philadelphia.

    Intellectual Life in Dublin

    An idea of the development of Dublins intellectual life may be gleaned from the

    history of some of its professional and intellectual discussion groups.2 As the main

    center of higher education in Dublin, Trinity College provided training for the

    professions and was the wellspring for most of the intellectual life in the city. In

    1684, William Molyneux (16561698), following the example of the Royal Society

    in London, set up the Dublin Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge,

    Mathematics, and Mechanics to encourage the interest in science in Ireland.

    Known as the Dublin Philosophical Society, it met with mixed success and was

    abandoned in 1708. Others sought to set up a Fraternity of Physicians at Trinity to

    regulate the training of medical doctors, and in 1711 the University established a

    medical School of Physic, now known as the School of Medicine. Members of this

    Fig. 3. Richard Helsham (16821738). Credit: Professor Dennis Weaire, Department of Physics,Trinity College Dublin.

    Vol. 16 (2014) Daedalus in Dublin: A Physicists Labyrinth 101

  • school participated in founding the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland under a

    charter of 1692 and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1784, both of

    which were independent of the University and continue to provide medical

    training, qualifications, and research to the present day.

    In 1731, a group of landed gentry and professional men founded the Dublin

    Society for Improving Husbandry, Manufactures, and other Useful Arts, which

    acquired the Royal prefix in 1820, when King George IV (17621830) became

    patron of the Society. It paid considerable attention to the applied sciences. The

    Royal Dublin Society was involved with the foundation of many cultural and

    scientific institutions in Ireland and continues to play a prominent role in the

    promotion of science in Ireland. In 1785, the Irish Academy was founded to

    represent more fundamental and academic scholarship and publish material in

    science, antiquities, and polite literature. It received the Royal approval from King

    George III in 1786. The Royal Irish Academy continues to be very active today in

    most aspects of the sciences and humanities.

    Developments in Higher Education

    Trinity College was the only university in Ireland for over two hundred years and

    still occupies its original site. It had a generally Protestant Anglican ethos. In 1785,

    it established an astronomical observatory at Dunsink on a low hill about five

    miles outside the north west of the city. This observatory is still operational today.

    In 1795 the Irish Parliamentknown as Grattans Parliamentin Dublin passed

    an Act to create an academy for the better education of persons professing the

    popish or Roman Catholic religion at Maynooth, about 12 miles west of Dublin.

    This became Irelands national s