Irish observatory joins Einstein’s house on list of major historical sites

25 Jun 2018

Dunsink Observatory, Dublin. Image: A Ryan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One of Ireland’s most historic observatories has joined an illustrious list of famous sites thanks to the work of genius mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.

Dublin’s Dunsink Observatory – part of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) – has now joined a list of European sites of historical significance, thanks to the brilliance of its former tenant, William Rowan Hamilton. The illustrious list also includes Einstein’s house in Bern, Switzerland, and Marie Skłodowska Curie’s laboratory in Paris.

Considered Ireland’s greatest ever mathematician, Hamilton contributed to the development of optics, dynamics and algebra. His work had a significant influence on the development of quantum mechanics, and the Hamiltonian circuits in contemporary graph theory are named in his honour.

Perhaps most famously, in 1843, while walking past the Royal Canal in Dublin, he took out a knife and etched on Broom Bridge in Cabra the quaternions equation i2 = j2=k2=ijk=-1, a number system that enables calculations of three-dimensional rotations.

Between 1827 and his death in 1865, Hamilton called Dunsink Observatory his home and workplace, where he helped contribute to some of the most important scientific work to date.

A rich history of mathematics

On Saturday (23 June), a plaque was unveiled at the observatory by Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, TD, and Prof Rüdiger Voss, president of the European Physical Society.

With this commandment, Dunsink is the first location in Ireland to receive such an accolade.

Commenting on the news, Dr Eucharia Meehan, CEO and registrar of DIAS, said: “Ireland has a rich history when it comes to mathematics, astronomy and the advancement of knowledge.

“In the 1700s and 1800s, we were at the forefront of the movement seeking to better understand our universe through mapping the sun, moon, stars, planets and other non-Earthly bodies. This accolade from the European Physical Society recognises the impact William Hamilton had on mathematics and astronomy. It is a fitting testament to his legacy.”

Now functioning as an outreach centre attracting more than 4,000 visitors each year, the observatory is currently holding the DIAS Summer School in High-Energy Astrophysics. 80 delegates from 16 countries are attending, including Xavier Barcons, director general of the European Southern Observatory, and Joseph Silk, homewood professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins.

Dunsink Observatory, Dublin. Image: A Ryan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic