Dunsink Observatory was one of those places in Dublin that I knew about, but had never visited. So it was a real treat to be shown around the historic building by Prof. Luke Drury (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) whose wealth of knowledge and anecdotes made for a most enjoyable and informative experience.
The Observatory was built in 1785, and it was financed by funds from the will of Provost Francis Andrews of Trinity College, who wanted the college to have, for the first time, the facility to study astronomical science. Richard Myers designed it, and the original plans that called for two Palladian-style wings, were never completed due to financial restraints. As such, the building you see today is notable for its lack of ornamentation and is appealing, nevertheless, to a modern architectural aesthetic.
Although no major discoveries were made at the Observatory, it was made famous by Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865) who was appointed Professor of Astronomy and Director of Dunsink in 1827, while he still an undergraduate. He was Ireland’s greatest mathematician and his work on the foundations of mechanics underpins large areas of modern physics. His most famous discovery happened on 16th October 1843 at Broom Bridge, when he suddenly realised the solution to a problem that he had been working on, and scratched it into the stone on the bridge with his pocketknife. His discovery of quaternions, is a classic moment of revelation, and one of its main applications is in spacecraft attitude control systems.
The South Dome was erected in 1865 and the Grubb telescope is impressive, even after 150 years. Grubb was a firm based in Rathmines and it exported telescopes all over the world until the early 20th century.
Dunsink provided the correct time for Dublin and you can see the original clocks and other equipment inside the main building. And, not surprisingly, ‘Dunsink time’ is mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The State bought the Observatory in 1947 and it is now part of the School of Cosmic Physics in DIAS. Today the Observatory is used for conferences, meetings and during the winter (Oct-Mar) for Open Nights when visitors can view celestial bodies (weather permitting!) though the Grubb telescope. Special family events are often held where parents and children can meet an astronomer and explore the night sky. Carl Sagan, the renowned cosmologist, was famous for his quotes and the following should be borne in mind, especially if you get to look through the Grubb telescope sometime: ‘The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.’ I think that says it all!