13 exceptional Irish scientists you absolutely need to know

13 Nov 2015

Robert Boyle – just one of the great Irish scientists you should know about. Image via Shutterstock

It’s Science Week, and Friday the 13th, which seems like the perfect time to marvel at 13 of Ireland’s scientific high-achievers.

Irish scientists have an esteemed history and, as Science Foundation Ireland’s Science Week reaches its climactic weekend, we feel it’s a good time to get acquainted with it.

Here we have a baker’s dozen of Irish scientists – past and present – whose scientific theories, discoveries and innovations continue to resonate today.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (centre) is conferred with an honorary degree by Dublin City University. Photo by Nick Bradshaw

1. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

When it comes to astronomy, Ireland is blessed with some significant figures throughout history, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell is definitely one of them.

The Armagh native and speaker at Inspirefest 2015 has seen her career as an astrophysicist span decades, with her most notable contribution to astronomy being the discovery of pulsating radio stars, or pulsars.

Despite being harshly overlooked for the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics while her peers Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle received the credit, Bell Burnell was recently awarded an accolade by Dublin City University (DCU) for her outstanding achievements in the field of astrophysics.

2. Kenneth Edgeworth

Right now, the New Horizons NASA spacecraft is hurtling through an area that was, at least partly, named after Irish astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth.

New Horizons’ detailed examination of Pluto has reignited the debate on this celestial body’s planetary status, yet, as far back as 1938, Westmeath native Edgeworth proposed that Pluto wasn’t a planet but most likely a large piece of rubble in a greater belt of cosmic debris left during the solar system’s birth.

Though Dutch-American astronomer Gerald Kuiper’s hypothesis on the solar system’s third zone, published 10 years later, bears less resemblance to what we now know lies beyond Neptune, the area is more often referred to as the Kuiper belt. For us and many astronomers, though, the correct term is the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt.

Robert Boyle

Portrait of The Honourable Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691)
Image via Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

3. Robert Boyle

You know you’re influential when you’re considered one of the influences of celebrated physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton.

That’s exactly the case for Waterford-born Robert Boyle who, in the 17th century, established Boyle’s law, which, effectively, became a cornerstone of modern scientific calculations.

Boyle’s law describes how the pressure of a gas tends to decrease as the volume increases, and this inversely proportional relationship is still learned by heart in science classrooms. Lesser-known, however, is Boyle’s list of 24 inventions he hoped to see created in his lifetime, including human flight, exact navigation technology and what would later become electricity. We’re sure he’d be pleased with how far we have come.

Kathleen Lonsdale

Kathleen Lonsdale. Image via Wikimedia Commons

4. Kathleen Lonsdale

Kathleen Lonsdale played a fundamental role in establishing the science of crystallography.

Born Kathleen Yardley in Co Kildare in 1903, Lonsdale moved to England as a child and went on to prove the benzene ring was flat through X-ray diffraction methods in 1929, and was the first to use Fourier spectral methods while solving the structure of hexachlorobenzene in 1931.

Lonsdale was also one of the first two women elected as fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1945 and, in 1966, a rare form of hexagonal diamond was named lonsdaleite in her honour. She died in 1971, and there are buildings in both University College London and the University of Limerick named in her honour.

Ernest Walton

Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (1903-1995). Image via Wikimedia Commons

5. Ernest Walton

Ernest Walton is the only Nobel Prize winner in physics to hail from Ireland. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1951 along with his colleague John Cockcroft as they were the firsts scientists to artificially split the atom in 1932.

Working at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, the two scientists had built an apparatus that split the nuclei of lithium atoms by bombarding them with a stream of protons accelerated inside a high-voltage tube. Their work paved the way for modern physics advancements, such as what is being carried out in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN today.

Walton was born in Waterford in 1903 and, in 1934, he returned to Ireland from Cambridge to take up a post in the Department of Physics in Trinity College Dublin. He was a science advocate who petitioned the Government of the day about the importance of science in the development of the nation. He died in 1995 at the age of 91.

Rynd-styled hypodermic syringe

A Rynd-styled hypodermic syringe. Image via Science Museum, London

6. Francis Rynd

Dublin-born Francis Rynd was a doctor at the Meath Hospital whose greatest contribution to medical science came with the development of the first-ever hypodermic syringe, with which he administered the world’s first ever pain-relieving injection in 1844.

Rynd’s precursor to today’s modern syringes was a two-piece device, with a cannula carrying the drugs, and a trocar used to pierce the skin. In Rynd’s creation, gravity was the sole force of injection, with plungers added to these devices at a later stage.

Florence Nightingale’s attitude toward’s Rynd’s creation sums up its revolutionary engineering aptly: “Nothing did me any good, but a curious little new-fangled operation of putting opium under the skin, which relieved [the pain] for 24 hours,” she said.

7. John Joly

John Joly was born in Bracknagh, Co Offaly in 1857 and is famous for his development of radiotherapy for the treatment of cancer. He is also known for developing techniques to accurately estimate the age of a geological period based on radioactive elements present in animals.

Joly published an article in Nature in 1903 in which he proposed using radium to date the Earth and went on to use radioactivity to study rocks to calculate their age. In 1914, as governor of Dr Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin, he developed a method of using radium to treat cancer using the ‘Dublin method’ of using a hollow needle for deep radiotherapy, which went on to be used globally.

8. Frank Pantridge

Sticking with those who changed the face of modern medicine, we bring you Frank Pantridge, a physician and cardiologist born in Co Down in 1916.

After serving in the British Army in World War II, where he was a POW of the Japanese, Pantridge resumed his medical career focusing on electro-cardiography.

It was while working as a professor at Queen’s University, where he established a specialist cardiology unit along with his colleague Dr John Geddes, that he introduced the modern system of CPR for early treatment of cardiac arrest. Pantridge realised that this could be improved by the introduction of the mobile coronary care unit to enable ambulances to provide pre-hospital care and, thus, transformed emergency medicine through the creation of the portable defibrillator.

George Johnston Stoney

George Johnstone Stoney. Image via Wikimedia Commons

9. George Johnstone Stoney

Born in 1826, Offaly’s George Johnstone Stoney is best remembered for giving us the term ‘electron’, which he proposed to describe the fundamental unit of electrical charge.

Penning the term in a paper for the Transactions of the Royal Dublin Society in 1891, Stoney’s research into this concept laid the foundations for the eventual discovery of the particle by JJ Thomson in Cambridge less than a decade later.

Stoney also established ‘Stoney units’, which were the fundamental measurements of mass, length and time, as well as measuring the energy behind bicycle propulsion. Remember him when you cycle down Stoney Road in Dundrum, Dublin.

John Tyndall

Portrait of John Tyndall. Image via Wikimedia Commons

10. John Tyndall

John Tyndall achieved plenty is his time as one of the 19th century’s leading physicists, notably discovering infrared radiation and the physical properties of air. Essentially, Tyndall described why the sky is blue – through the scattering of light by small particles suspended in the atmosphere – and it is through this that he best made his name. So key was his discovery and explanation that this is now known as the Tyndall effect.

Amongst his other, numerous, discoveries, Tyndall conducted the first study of London pollution, developed the first double-beam spectrophotometer and helped establish that bacteria did, in fact, exist.

Though he was born in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, it is Cork’s Tyndall National Institute – the largest R&D facility of its type in Ireland – that proudly takes his name.

11. Francis Beaufort

Francis Beaufort, born in Meath in 1774, was an accomplished man. An admiral and hydrographer for the Royal Navy, Beaufort was the first person to introduce a method for estimating wind strengths without using instruments.

The Beaufort scale was initially based on subjective observations of the sea and was later extended to encompass land conditions. A 13-point scale, Beaufort’s system was designed based on the amount of sail a full-rigged ship could unfurl under wind conditions varying from calm to hurricane.

Developed in the early 19th century, the Beaufort scale was used in an official capacity for the first time on the second voyage of Charles Darwin’s Beagle. In 1838, it became the mandatory system of measurement for all ships in the British Admiralty.

The Beaufort scale is still in use today, though modifications during the later 19th and early 20th century extended the scale to 17 values and clarified the definitions of each.

12. William Thomson (Baron Kelvin)

Most frequently referred to as a Scottish engineer, mathematician and physicist, William Thomson was actually born in Belfast in 1824.

Best known for his discovery of absolute zero, and the corresponding development of the Kelvin scale and kelvin unit of measurement, Kelvin was also instrumental in the development of the second law of thermodynamics and the dynamical theory of heat, and carried out fundamental work in hydrodynamics.

Thomson’s father was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow (prompting the family’s move to Scotland) and it was here that he himself studied from the tender age of 10.

In 1892, he became the first scientist to become a member of Britain’s House of Lords and his title refers to the River Kelvin, which flows close to the physics laboratory he established at the University of Glasgow.

13. Ellen Hutchins

Ellen Hutchins, born in 1785 in Ballylickey, Co Cork, was Ireland’s first female botanist. Her focus was on plants that do not produce seeds, such as mosses, liverworts, lichen, and seaweeds, and she collected and identified hundreds of specimens in her short lifetime, discovering new species and rare plants, which brought her to the attention of prominent botanists.

Hutchins died before even reaching her 30th birthday in 1815, but her name lives on in numerous plant species. Among them is Conferva hutchinsae, named by Lewis Weston Dyllwin, who wrote of Hutchins: “I know of few, if any, botanists whose zeal and success in the pursuit of natural history better deserves such a compliment.”

Hutchins’ specimens are among the most significant collections in the UK, Ireland and the US. Most of her specimens and famously detailed illustrations now reside in the Royal Botanic Gardens, though other collections can be found in Sheffield City Museum, Trinity College Dublin, the Natural History Museum in London, the Linnean Society in London, Botaniske Museum in Oslo, and the New York Botanical Garden.

Robert Boyle image via Shutterstock