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How Irish Scientists Changed the World by Seán Duke

How Irish Scientists Changed the World by Seán Duke

I have to be honest, I am Irish and I am a Scientist, so I guess I am a bit biased in reviewing this book. Biases notwithstanding, this is a fascinating book.

How Irish Scientists Changed the World appeals to a broad audience, whether the reader is a scientist or someone who has never studied science, but has an interest in inventions or how things work. The book enlightens the reader on the key contributions that Irish scientists have made to science and to mankind.

An Irish astronomer

I am embarrassed to admit at how little I knew about Irish scientists!  For example, I carried out my undergraduate studies at Trinity College Dublin and attended many lectures in the Hamilton Building. This building is named in honour of William Rowan Hamilton, a mathematician who carried out his studies in Trinity.  Although I frequented his namesake, I had no idea that he had the distinction of being appointed Royal Astronomer of Ireland – before he was even awarded his degree!

Hamilton was based at Dunsink observatory in Dublin for his entire career and in his late thirties designed equations now known as quaternions. The book details how Hamilton’s equations made it possible for NASA to land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. The equations are also used to orientate earth-orbiting satellites that control GPD and global communications, as well by computer programmers for the development of 3-D computer games and films such as Toy Story.

Irish women scientists

The book also highlights two key female Irish scientists: Annie Maunder and Jocelyn Bell.

Annie Maunder was born in 1868 and was an early role model for women in science as she was one of the first female astronomers to receive a salary for her work. Her scientific legacy is highly topical today, even nearly 70 years after her death; she established the link between the earth’s climate and the sun as an important factor in global warming.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered a new type of star called a pulsar, at a very early stage in her career. This discovery earned her PhD supervisor, Professor Anthony Hewish, a share of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics. Despite Burnell’s role in the discovery, she was overlooked by the Nobel committee. She did not let this dissuade her however, and she used her scientific celebrity to help promote women in science. Burnell is also credited with helping to change attitudes towards the allocation of credit for research findings.

Not Irish born, but Irish in spirit

Also detailed in the book are scientists who, while not Irish born, had a very strong connection to Ireland. Included is Maurice Wilkins who was born to Irish parents in New Zealand and is also known as DNA’s third man. This is due to his role in the identification of DNA as the genetic material and the confirmation of its double helix structure. Interestingly, while he contributed to the identification of the molecule that creates life, he also participated in the Manahattan project, which led to one of the most destructive forces known: nuclear weapons. The dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945 had a major impact on Wilkins as it laid out the true implications of the Manhattan project and his involvement. As a result, he devoted the rest of his careers to biophysics.

Ireland is known as the land of saints and scholars and reading this book reminded me how a tiny island has been an incubator for scientific creativity and discovery. I encourage you to also read this book and discover for yourself the background of the scientists behind pivotal scientific discoveries.


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