Tag Archives: william rowan hamilton

William Rowan Hamilton – Genius

WRH in the Royal Irish Academy

WRH in the Royal Irish Academy

The word genius is defined as ‘a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity or originality associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge’ and it most definitely applies to William Rowan Hamilton.

Hamilton was born on the 4th August 1805, the fourth of nine children, to Archibald Hamilton, a solicitor, and his wife Sarah and lived at 38 Dominick Street, Dublin. When he was three years old he was sent to live with his uncle James Hamilton, a teacher and linguist, who ran a school in Trim, County Meath, and showed an exceptional talent for languages from an early age. By the age of thirteen he had acquired the same number of languages, including ancient Latin and Greek, most modern European languages and Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. Late in life he often relaxed by reading books in Persian or Arabic!

South Telescope

South Telescope

When he was eight he lost a mental arithmetic contest against the American prodigy Zerah Colburn who was touring Europe and astounding audiences with his ability. After his loss Hamilton devoted his time to mathematics and less to the study of languages. The year before he entered university he spotted an error in Laplace’s Mechanique Celeste, and this brought him to the attention of John Brinkley, the Royal Astronomer of Ireland. He said of Hamilton: ‘This young man, I do not say will be, but is, the first mathematician of his age.’  

He entered Trinity College when he was eighteen and studied mathematics and Classics gaining an unprecedented ‘optime’ in both. Soon afterwards, in 1827, he was appointed, while still an undergraduate, Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College. Although this was a great opportunity for Hamilton, which included a decent salary and the title of Royal Astronomer of Ireland, it was also a place for his sisters to live. However, he spent most of his time studying mathematics and very little effort was devoted to astronomy. He was, however, twice awarded the Cunningham Medal, the highest honour bestowed by the Royal Irish Academy. And in 1835 he was knighted for his services to science; and both he and Michael Faraday were awarded the Queen’s Medal by the Royal Society that same year.

Plaque on Broom Bridge

Plaque on Broom Bridge

While on his way along the Royal Canal to a meeting in the Royal Irish Academy on 16th October 1843 the discovery of quaternions took shape in his mind. He etched the equation on Broome Bridge and the famous event is celebrated each year with a walk from the observatory to the site. Today quaternions are used in computer graphics, signal processing and orbital mechanics. As such, their use can be found in todays’ spacecraft attitude-control systems, and their discovery played a significant role in putting Man on the Moon. That’s out of this world, and something the Dunsink Astronomer would have loved.

Dunsink Observatory

Dunsink Observatory

 

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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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The Long Room – with a great view!

The Old Library

The Old Library

As libraries go the Long Room in Trinity College is a ‘must see’ and one of Dublin’s great attractions. It is the main chamber of the Old Library (which houses the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow and many other ancient manuscripts) and was built between 1712-1732. It measures an impressive 65 metres and is lined with more than forty busts of great writers, philosophers, scientists and famous former students like Jonathan Swift, William Rowan Hamilton and Edmund Burke.

Touching history

Touching history

From 1801 the library was given the right to receive a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland, and the Long Room now holds over 200,000 books. Due to the amount books being received it was decided to extend the Long Room and the roof was raised. The construction of the distinctive, barrel-vaulted  ceiling and upper bookcases was completed in 1860. Walking among the bookcases, with their tall ladders reaching the highest shelves, is a real treat and a step back in time. With many of the books being very old conservators are kept busy caring for these priceless works.

Along the main floor glass display cabinets house exhibitions from the library’s vast collection. Exhibitions alternate every six months (April & October) with works from either Manuscripts & Archives (ancient books) or the Early Printed Books (modern books) – there is always something interesting on show. You can also see one of the last remaining copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic that was read outside the GPO on Monday 24 April by Padraig Pearse at the start of the Easter Rising. And there is the oldest harp in Ireland that dates from the 15th century and is now the symbol of Ireland.

In the movie Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones the Jedi archives bear an uncanny resemblance to The Long Room. This led to a certain amount of controversy but no legal action was taken the college. Well, would you want to argue with the Jedi?

(Long) Room with a view!

(Long) Room with a view!

 

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Government Buildings

The building that later became Government Buildings was the last major public building completed under British rule. It was planned to create a block of prestigious cultural and educational buildings, similar to that of the scientific buildings in South Kensington, London, so the site on Upper Merrion Street was chosen. As such, eighteen four-storey Georgian houses were controversially acquired and demolished to make way for the new building.

The quadrangle and fountain

The quadrangle and fountain

Edward VII laid the foundation stone in April 1904. The renowned architect Aston Webb (who redesigned the façade of Buckingham Palace) was appointed project architect. The Irish architect Thomas Manley Deane (who had recently completed work on the National Gallery of Ireland) was appointed as executant architect. His involvement was so important that George V knighted him, on the site, when he opened the first part of the complex in 1911.

William Rowan Hamilton

William Rowan Hamilton

Portland Stone was chosen for the decorative facings of the building, with granite from the Ballyknocken quarries in County Wicklow used through the building. Standing on either side of the main entrance are statues of the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton and the scientist Robert Boyle.  Above them, a figure depicting science, designed by Oliver Sheppard and sculpted by Albert Power, is reputedly based on Auguste Rodin’s ‘Thinker’.

The building complex was completed in March 1922, at a time of political unrest. When the new Irish Free State came into existence in December 1922, Leinster House (then the headquarters of the Royal Dublin Society – RDS) became the provisional seat of government. Soon the Executive Council of the Irish Free State along with other Government Departments moved into the recently completed north wing.

By the mid-1980s Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald decided to convert the entire complex for government use. To finance the project a terrace of Georgian houses across the road was sold for £17 million. When the refurbishment was completed Taoiseach Charles Haughey moved into his new office in 1991. Although the work and expenditure was initially criticised it has since won many awards. The award of the Silver Medal by the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI) noted ‘the re-use of this existing building of acknowledged quality of this new, and entirely fitting, purpose, has created a special identity of Government, and has contributed considerably to Dublin’s status as an European capital’.

Government Buildings in the sunshine

Government Buildings in the sunshine

 

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