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.
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.
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