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Exploring Scientific Dublin: What You Need to Know

Mary is a native of Dublin and has a deep and genuine understanding of the fascinating ingredients that make this world city a unique place.

Trinity College Facade

Trinity College Facade

Dublin is a fairly small city, with a population of about one million, but it has a rich and surprising history—especially when it comes to science. This article outlines a number of ways in which Dubliners and Dublin-based institutions have contributed to the scientific knowledge of the world.

William Rowan Hamilton

Today, quaternions is a branch of mathematics that is used in plotting three-dimensional computer graphics and in analysing crystallographic texture. All very modern, but quaternions were born in the mind of William Rowan Hamilton nearly two hundred years ago.

Hamilton was born in Dublin in 1780 to a lawyer father. Curiously, his first teacher was his uncle, James Hamilton, a linguist and graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. Under his tutelage, the young William supposedly mastered Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and other classical and eastern languages. But as he grew older, Hamilton’s talent for mathematics asserted itself.

At the age of eight, he went into competition with the 9-year-old calculating prodigy, Zera Colburn. Although Colburn won, the competition spurred Hamilton to devote himself even more assiduously to the study of maths.

While still only a 21-year-old undergraduate, he was stepped into the post of Director at Dublin’s Dunsink Astronomical Observatory. In his later life, he reformulated Newtonian mechanics as Hamiltonian mechanics, a branch of applied mathematics that describe the physical workings of the universe. This work has proved central to our understanding of electromagnetism and optics. But it is in the “pure” mathematics of quaternions that Hamilton gained the highest distinction.

Dunsink and Dublin Mean Time

Say “Greenwich Mean Time” and just about everyone in the world will understand what you mean. However, few people have heard of Dublin Mean Time, and even fewer are aware that this world standard time was actually set in Dublin.

Just five years following the birth of William Rowan Hamilton, an astronomical observatory was established at Dunsink, just north of Dublin. Its origin was due to the Rev. Francis Andrews, provost of Trinity College Dublin. On his death, he had left a sum of money for the founding of the Observatory.

The chosen site was 84 metres above sea level, and its first director was Rev. Henry Ussher, a professor of astronomy who died after only six years in office. In 1827, Rowan Hamilton was offered the post and like Ussher, he died in office.

In 1880, the Definition of Time Act set official time in Ireland as Dunsink or Dublin Mean Time, which remained officially in place until 1916. For a long while, the Observatory was associated with the School of Cosmic Physics of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Today, its “South telescope” is a refracting lens telescope built in the nineteenth century by another Dublin man, Thomas Grubb.

Oscar Wilde House

Oscar Wilde House

Sir William Wilde

William Robert Wills Wilde was born in Co. Roscommon, in 1815, to medical practitioner father Thomas Wilde. When he was just 15, the young William was apprenticed to Abraham Colles, a surgeon at Dr. Steeven's Hospital, in Dublin. In 1837, he earned his medical degree from the Irish Royal College of Surgeons.

But Wilde's interests were far wider than the practice of medicine, and while still a young man, he embarked on a tour of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. There, he collected anatomical species and became an authority on Egyptian archaeology.

Back in Dublin, Wilde founded the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, and both the hospital and its name remain in situ, today. The founding of this specialist hospital was timely; although knowledge of optics had been advancing in the preceding two centuries, little was known about eye disease and its causes. Eventually, Wilde became the official oculist to Queen Victoria.

In 1851, he married Jane Elgee, a poet who wrote under the name of "Speranza". The family settled in Dublin's Merrion Square, in what is now known as Oscar Wilde House, in acknowledgement of Wilde's most famous son.

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Dublin's Great Exhibition

The entire world knows of London’s great exhibition in Hyde Park, in 1851. Well, sister city Dublin—part of the British empire at the time—answered with its own great exhibition in 1853!

Actually, Dublin had been holding minor exhibitions of its own long before then. Every eight years since 1834, the Irish National Exhibition of Manufacturers had showcased the latest scientific and technological developments in trade and industry. But following the London bash, railroad tycoon William Dargan decided that it was time for Dublin to go stellar with an event extravagant enough to outshine its London counterpart. For the princely sum of £56,000—millions in today’s money—he sponsored the 1853 event.

On May 12 of that year, the exhibition opened its doors to specially invited dignitaries and the following day, it opened to all. The centrepiece was the Temple of Industry, a temporary building located on the lawn outside of Leinster House, Kildare Street, now the seat of the Irish parliament. Other halls and annexes were in place, and the entire exhibition space amounted to 300,000 square feet.

Its seven thousand-plus exhibits included a display of fine arts, actually lacking from the London exhibition. The Dublin exhibition stayed open until the end of August, and visitors included Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their son, the Prince of Wales.

Natural History Museum, Merrion Square

Natural History Museum, Merrion Square

The Natural History Museum

In 1856, the Royal Dublin Society opened a small museum on Merrion Square to display its thousands of specimens of “dead” animals and plants. Since the Society has transferred ownership of the museum to the Irish state, and the Natural History Museum (Ireland) is still in place in its original, impressive building.

Entrance is free to the public, and the main display area is a stunning, rectangular sky-lighted atrium, with galleries running at two levels about its perimeter. However, because of safety concerns, the Lower and Upper galleries have been closed for some time.

But visitors can still enjoy viewing the skeletons of giant Irish deer and stuffed mammals, birds and fish, all native to Ireland. “Foreigners” include a stuffed polar bear, a pygmy hippopotamus, and whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling. In addition, the museum has an education space, a shop and a cafe.

Telescopes in Rathmines

Sir Howard Grubb was born in 1844 to Thomas Grubb, a father who made billiard tables. At Trinity College Dublin, Howard studied civil engineering. At work, he excelled in printing and photography. Eventually, he founded his own factory at the appropriately named Observatory Lane, located in the unassuming suburb of Rathmines. The factory specialised in making lenses, telescopes and periscopes. But why lenses?

In the nineteenth century, the discoveries of William Rowan Hamilton fed into the burgeoning interest in astronomy. The telescope was invented by Dutch opticians in the 1600s and brought to a high level of functionality by Galileo by the 1640s. Two hundred years later, manufacturers all over Europe were making telescopes. Consequently, quality lenses were in high demand and Grubb had the foresight (ha!) to found Dublin’s own manufactory. It stayed in business until the early twentieth century.

Flowerbed in the Dublin Botanic Gardens

Flowerbed in the Dublin Botanic Gardens

Dublin Botanic Gardens

The Dublin Botanic Gardens originated in 1775, when poet Thomas Tickell sold his house on a plot of land in Glasnevin (north Dublin) to the Royal Dublin Society (RDS). The aim of the RDS in establishing a botanic garden was to research plant life and the causes of plant diseases.

A subject for study was just around the corner—namely the infamous potato blight that ravaged Europe in the 1840s. Scientists in the laboratory at the Gardens identified the fungi that caused the blight and helped developed ways to curb its progress.

Today, the Gardens cover almost 20 hectares and encompass a number of greenhouses, formal gardens, a rockery, rose garden and arboretum.

The horticultural research continues in the National Herbarium, a museum devoted to the display of about 20,000 plant specimens, seeds and woods, all gathered throughout the 200-year history of the place. Orchid breeding is also carried on in the Gardens.

Technological University Dublin

Formerly known as the Dublin Institute of Technology, the Technological University opened in 1887. In the past hundred years, the institution has gone through various practical and political changes. One of its colleges was founded when, early in the twentieth century, Ireland’s Taoiseach or prime minister, Eamonn de Valera, invited renowned physicist Erwin Schroedinger to set up an institute of advanced study.

In his pre-political days, De Valera had been an accomplished mathematician, and he envisioned an institute along the lines of that set up by Albert Einstein at Princeton University, in the United States. The socially conservative De Valera was apparently unaware of the numerous “complications” in the private life of Schroedinger, namely, that the entourage of the physicist consisted of both a wife and a mistress.

Today, debates surround the psychological stress that punctuated Schroedinger’s efforts in establishing De Valera’s vision. But life, like physics, has a habit of finding a way, and, to quote journalist Kevin O’Sullivan: “Dublin’s Institute for Advanced Studies flourished and quickly became a world centre for theoretical physics”.

Schroedinger returned to Austria in 1956 and died in 1961. Today, the range of subjects on offer at the Technological University includes architecture and engineering, optometry and journalism.

© 2019 Mary Phelan

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