Sometimes we close our eyes to imagination and wonder – Leo Varadkar

6 Jul 2017

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD (the Prime Minister of Ireland), officially welcomes the opening of Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Embracing diversity in education and industry was the message of An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as he opened Inspirefest 2017.

In terms of numbers, Ireland appears to punch above its weight in many professions. In music, there are the likes of Thin Lizzy, U2 and Van Morrison who have gone global.

In poetry, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Beckett have made the grade. Literary giants such as Oscar Wilde and W B Yeats dominate the landscape and, in science, Robert Boyle, Ernest Walton and William Rowan Hamilton are names that roll of the tongue.

Future Human

The latter in particular, though dead more than 150 years, features prominently in today’s digital age. And he was the basis for a keynote delivered by Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Taoiseach, at Inspirefest in Dublin.

The event brings together science, technology, engineering, maths and art. The latter two, according to Varadkar, represent who could well be Ireland’s greatest influence on today’s world.

“Hamilton was a true poet in mathematics,” said Varadkar. “The fusion of science and the arts in Hamilton’s thinking helped him [create ideas] way ahead of their time.”

In October 1843, Irish mathematician Hamilton was walking by the Royal Canal in Dublin when inspiration struck. He took out a knife and etched into the wall of Broom Bridge in Cabra the equation i2 = j2=k2=ijk=-1.

He had described quaternions, a number system that enables calculations of three-dimensional rotations.

That act is considered a milestone of algebra and Hamilton’s quaternions have been used for many things, including more realistic-looking video games and manoeuvring real spacecrafts.

“That carving, little did he realise that these equations will have been used for computer games in the 21st century,” said Varadkar, wondering how Hamilton would react to Fifa 2017 or the Wii were he around today.

“There’s much creativity and wonder to be found in the study of science. The problem is sometimes we close our eyes to imagination and wonder. Inspirefest shows us what can be achieved if we don’t limit ourselves in any way.”

The Taoiseach noted that 75pc of speakers at Inspirefest this year are women, 65pc of attendees are women too.

“A diverse and inclusive participation in an event shouldn’t need to be remarked on, it should be normal,” he said.

But it’s not.

“So we can’t assume progress is inevitable. Diversity is a strength, it makes us stronger,” said Varadkar, as he claimed it’s as important in education as it is in industry.

“Science contributes to our culture in many ways,” he said, including the understanding of our own nature.

“If he was here today, William Rowan Hamilton, writing graffiti on a bridge, would approve.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic