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Erwin Schrodinger – Nobel Physicist who lived in Dublin

Erwin Schrodinger

Erwin Schrödinger

For a man interested in colour and who published scientific papers on the subject, the adjective colourful applies to Erwin Schrödinger who lived on Kincora Road, Clontarf  for seventeen years and certainly left his mark. Among his many achievements here was a series of lectures given in Trinity College in February 1943 on ‘What is life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell.’ This was inspirational to many scientists, most notably James Watson and Francis Crick whose work led to the discovery of DNA in 1953. A sculpture commemorating the achievement was unveiled on its 60th anniversary in the Botanic Gardens which James Watson attended.

Schrödinger was an only child born in Vienna in 1887 to middle-class, educated parents and was tutored at home until the age of eleven. Later he attended school, then university where he excelled and gained a PhD in Physics. World War I interrupted his progress and he spent it as an officer in the Austrian army.

DNA sculpture in Botanic Gardens

DNA sculpture in Botanic Gardens

After the war he had a number of different positions, married Annemarie (Anny) Bertel in 1920, before he was offered the chair in Theoretical Physics at the University of Zürich in 1921. He stayed there for six years, probably the most productive time in his career, before being offered the post of Max Planck’s replacement at the prestigious University of Berlin. And it was during his time in Zürich that he became interested in wave mechanics after reading a paper by Albert Einstein. Thinking about how to explain the movement of an electron as a wave his 1926 paper provided a theoretical basis for the atomic model. His groundbreaking work is hailed as a masterpiece, and one of the greatest accomplishments ever in in science. It subsequently led to new insights into quantum mechanics and other areas of chemistry. In 1933 both he and Paul Dirac (Cambridge University) were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ is his famous thought experiment that illustrates the problem of the interpretation of quantum mechanics when applied to everyday objects.

DIAS - Burlington Road

DIAS – Burlington Road

By that time he was aware that many of his Jewish colleagues were being dismissed from their posts and he decided to leave Hitler’s Germany. He went to Oxford University for three years before returning to Austria in 1938. The following year he accepted Eamon de Valera’s offer of coming to Ireland and helping establish the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). De Valera, himself a mathematician, got ‘his man’ and made sure that Schrodinger’s visa arrangements were processed speedily. For Schrodinger’s needs were indeed complicated and had previously stymied him at both Princeton and Oxford, as he lived with his wife and his lover, Hilde March, with whom he had a daughter. Of his relationship with the fairer sex he said: ‘Poor things, they have provided for my life’s happiness and their own distress. Such is life.’ Colourful indeed.

Plaque in Kincora Road, Clontarf

Plaque in Kincora Road, Clontarf

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Dunsink Observatory – Eye on the Sky

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.

Dunsink Observatory - 1785

Dunsink Observatory – 1785

Clocks that kept 'Dunsink' time

Clocks that kept ‘Dunsink’ time

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!

South Dome

South Dome

Grubb Telescope in South Dome

Grubb Telescope in South Dome

 

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