Ireland – A History of Scientific Discovery

With Dublin city having been designated ‘City of Science’ by the Lord Mayor earlier this year, Ethan Troy-Barnes takes the opportunity to find out just how Ireland has helped shape what we know about the world around us in times gone by.

At the beginning of the year, following news that Dublin would play host to this year’s Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) – a biennial conference, held just last week, showcasing the very best that Europe has to offer in science and technology – Lord Mayor Naoise Ó Muirí declared Dublin ‘City of Science’ for the year. As a result, a diverse range of science-themed events have been organised to take place in the city throughout the year – ranging from public debates and talks from the likes of Dara Ó Briain, to science-inspired art exhibitions and film screenings.

Such a spectacular display of Irish scientific talent should, however, come as no surprise considering the country’s extensive and varied contributions to inquiry and innovation in the past. Going as far back as the 9th century, medieval philosopher Johannes Scotus Eriugena (lit. ‘John, the Irish-born Gael’) was something of a big deal when it came to bridging the gap between theology and academia. Spending most of his life at the French Palatine Academy at the behest of King Charles the Bald, his major work ‘Periphyseon’ went to great pains to categorise the natural word in a way that was both theologically satisfying and amenable to philosophical discourse.

Moving forward in time, we encounter 17th century ‘gentleman-scientist’ Robert Boyle, an Irishman/Englishman of disputed nationality. Born in Waterford, Boyle abhorred Ireland as a place to experiment. He therefore carried out most of his investigations at Oxford, where he was the first to experimentally prove that the relationship between pressure and volume of a gas is constant at constant temperature, i.e. the infamous Boyle’s Law of Leaving Certificate Physics.

Another theologian-cum-scientist, Father Nicholas Callan was a 19th century professor who taught physics (or what back then was referred to as ‘natural sciences’) at Maynooth College. He is credited with inventing the Induction Coil – an early kind of electrical transformer that’s analogous to the one you’d find in your laptop charger cable. Still useful for teaching purposes today, the device was also widely used up to the early 20th century as an integral component in x-ray machines and radio transmitters.

Also from the 19th century, William Thomson (aka Lord Kelvin) was an Irish-born but outspokenly-British physicist who made a number of important contributions to physical chemistry. He helped formulate the first and second laws of thermodynamics. In addition, he is recognised as being the first to notice that temperature does indeed have a definite lower limit (aka ‘absolute zero’) of 0 K – the ‘K’ here standing for Kelvin, the modern SI unit of temperature, also coined by Thompson.
In the early 1900s, Ernest Walton – a Waterford-born physicist who studied as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin before travelling to the UK to pursue a PhD in the Cambridge college of the same name – became the first person to ever artificially split the atom. This was achieved by firing high voltage protons at lithium atoms, using an early type of particle accelerator (the likes of which can be seen on a far grander scale at CERN today) known as the Cockcroft-Walton Generator. In addition to being the only Irish person ever to have been awarded a Nobel Prize in science with his colleague Sir Ernest Rutherford for this, Walton is also reputed as having been a brilliant communicator and eventually returned to Ireland where lived up to this reputation teaching physics at TCD.

In medical science, Dr Vincent Barry was a chemist who worked with the Medical Research Council of Ireland at Trinity College Dublin. It was here in the fifties that his team developed clofazimine – a compound that, since its discovery, has been used in range of medications used to treat and cure leprosy, a disease still highly prevalent in developing countries. The compound was proven to be clinically effective in the early seventies, just before Barry’s death, and is credited with saving more than 15 million lives the world over since.

More recently, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a Belfast-born physicist whose work makes for perhaps the most interesting, and scandalous, stories of Ireland’s contribution to scientific discovery. Burnell broke new ground: not just in her field of astrophysics, but also for the plight of women scientists in the face of what was an area which remained doggedly dominated by males long after other disciplines had eased up.

It was during her postgraduate work in Cambridge, where she carried out the grunt work constructing a radio telescope and crunching the numbers to observe distant quasars, that she noticed an anomaly in the data she recorded. The anomaly was unusually regular in its occurrence, and despite much opposition from her superiors, Burnell eventually used this data to prove the existence of pulsars.
Literally a pulsating star – these celestial bodies are actually decaying stars which project electromagnetic radiation into space similarly to how a lighthouse flashes a rotating beam of light out onto the sea. Controversially however, while Burnell’s supervisor received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 for this discovery, Burnell herself did not – an incident widely regarded by many as one of the great injustices in scientific history.

A visual testimony to the contribution of both Irish, and international, investigators to scientific discovery has been organised by the Health Research Board in the form of wall murals around Dublin. Entitled ‘Curious?’, the exhibit aims to “provoke thought and conversation about science”, and is visible on buildings on Pearse Street and Baggot Street Bridge all year.


Details of Curious?, and other events featuring as part of the ‘Dublin City of Science 2012’ initiative are available from

by Ethan Troy-Barnes