‘Cabra’s scientific Banksy’ project wins €2,000 Mary Mulvihill Award

20 May 2020

Image: © christianchan/Stock.adobe.com

This year’s winner of the Mary Mulvihill Award was NUI Galway’s James Hayes for his biographical essay on mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.

An essay charting the life of one of Ireland’s greatest ever mathematicians has been named the overall winner of this year’s Mary Mulvihill Award. The €2,000 prize is named in honour of one of the country’s best scientists and science communicators, who sadly died in 2015.

The theme for this year’s award was ‘our scientific heritage’, with the judges asking third-level students to submit projects and works in a variety of formats to explore places, artefacts, personalities and issues relating to Ireland’s scientific and industrial heritage.

The overall winner was Roscommon native and NUI Galway student James Hayes, for his piece titled ‘Cabra’s scientific Banksy: The story of William Rowan Hamilton and quaternions’. The focus of the piece is on Hamilton’s ‘flash of genius’ when he carved the quaternion equation that had just come into his mind on the stones of Broombridge in Cabra in October 1843.

Hamilton had been struggling with complex numbers in three dimensions that could not be multiplied or divided. He then realised he had to use four dimensions, hence the name quaternions.

“Hamilton’s carvings represent the basic rules of multiplication for these quadruples,” Hayes wrote in his essay. “It was a discovery that sent reverberations throughout the mathematical world and whose implications and application survive to this day.”

Over the course of the essay, Hayes also weaved in references to graffiti from Banksy, Alice in Wonderland, the Angolan basketball team, an 1813 mental arithmetic contest of eight-year-old prodigies and the early days of NASA’s space exploration programme.

‘Echoes Mary’s passion’

Speaking of Hayes’ piece, Nigel Monaghan of the judging team said the student won for his ability to take a familiar story that often struggles to convey the scientific breakthrough of quaternions.

“The science was clearly, accurately and succinctly presented in the midst of a well-researched and flowing narrative that brought William Rowan Hamilton to life for new audiences.”

Mary Muvihill’s sister, Nóirín Mulvihill, was also one of the judges on the panel. She said the piece “echoes Mary’s passion for communicating Ireland’s scientific heritage”.

Trinity College Dublin student Aoife Kearins was awarded €500 for the judges’ ‘highly commended award’. Her piece was titled: ‘Sir George Gabriel Stokes: How a childhood at Ireland’s coast became a wave of inspiration for Ireland’s greatest scientist’.

Stokes was a Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge for more than 50 years and made significant contributions to several fields including fluid mechanics, viscosity and optics. Kearins described in her project how Stokes’ lifelong obsession with waves and the movement of fluids originated from his childhood in Skreen, Co Sligo, close to Dunmoran Strand and the Atlantic Ocean.

Each prize winner will also receive a copy of Ingenious Ireland, Mulvihill’s county-by-county exploration of Ireland’s scientific and industrial heritage, which Four Courts Press republished last year.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic