Belfast physicist John Bell celebrated for key role in quantum physics

4 Nov 2014

John Bell receives an honorary degree at Queen's University Belfast in July 1988. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Happy John Bell day! Fifty years ago, Belfast-born John Stewart Bell challenged Einstein and breathed new life into quantum physics.

On 4 November 1964, the journal Physics received a paper written by Bell with the short but punchy title On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox.

The theorem that it outlined – Bell’s theorem – provided an important perspective on quantum physics, and opened the way for research leading to quantum computing and cryptography.

Bell’s paper was a key contribution to a long-standing discussion about the scope of quantum mechanics. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and colleagues had held that quantum theories could explain some phenomena but were not a complete solution. Bell shattered that argument, and provided a foundational theorem to support quantum mechanics.

Cat among the pigeons

“By setting the cat among the pigeons, Bell basically made it alright again to look at more properties of quantum mechanics and to ask the difficult questions,” says Dr Norman Apsley, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Science Park, which is involved in commemorating Bell’s theorem’s golden anniversary. “That in turn has led to the development of important fields such as quantum cryptography, which is set to revolutionise online security.”

Bell (1928-1990) was a Belfast native and went to Belfast Technical College before working as a technician in Queen’s University Belfast (QUB). He went on to study maths and experimental physics there and worked at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in the UK, at Birmingham University and at CERN in Geneva, where a street is named after him. 

Bell’s achievements are being honoured today and over the coming weeks in talks and events organised and supported by QUB, The Royal Irish Academy (RIA), Northern Ireland Science Park, W5 (Belfast’s science and discovery centre), The Institute of Physics, Belfast City Hall, the Titanic Quarter, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the owners of the old Belfast Met College.

To commemorate the physicist, Belfast City Hall will project pictures of Bell on the big screen in the city hall grounds and will floodlight the building in the colours of the rainbow. The building that once housed the old Belfast Metropolitan College on College Square East will be named John Bell House, W5 will run a schools programme, and The Naughton Gallery at QUB will host an exhibition and series of public talks this month.

Commenting on the initiative, Prof Mary Daly, president of the RIA says, “The Royal Irish Academy wants John S Bell to be the known scientist in Northern Ireland and to be acknowledged as one of the most important scientists in the world.”

Celebrating scientific achievements

Apsley believes it is important to celebrate our scientific achievers, and notes Ireland doesn’t have a stellar record of doing so.

“I didn’t know much about Bell before these celebrations were suggested (by the RIA), but once I looked into what he had done I became a fan,” he says. “Our great scientists and engineers and medics are part of the human capital of our island, and there are plenty of them.”

He lists several, including William Parsons, who invented the steam turbine, and his parents the Earl and Countess of Rosse, who built and made discoveries with the largest telescope in the world in the 19th century in Birr, Co Offaly.

Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) determined the temperature of absolute zero, where particles stop moving, and he worked on the transatlantic telegraph project, yet Apsley finds people are surprised to hear that Belfast was his place of birth.

“These people and what they achieved should be more widely celebrated in Ireland – in other countries they would be national public heroes,” says Apsley. “So I hope these celebrations of John Bell are just the start of a national science and technology rebirth.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication