Appliance of science will reign on St Patrick's Day parade

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

We’ll start with an easy question: name a well-known Irish writer. Alive or dead. Now name a famous Irish musician. Name a dozen.

Name a famous Irish visual artist – there will be a narrower field, but most could name a few. Name a well-known economist. Until a couple of years ago, you might have struggled to name anyone other than David McWilliams. Not today.

Now, name a well-known Irish scientist. Name a dead one first, then try to name another. A great engineer, mathematician, chemist? A great many readers would struggle with that. Even with some help, the names of Mac Neill, Hamilton, Tyndall or Walton would jolt little recognition.

Every schoolchild knows Boyle’s law. How many know Boyle was Irish? Trickier still, name a living Irish scientist. Name any Irish scientist who is a household name. Here’s a suggestion: Jean Byrne, Gerald Fleming, Evelyn Cusack. But they’re perhaps seen as TV personalities first, meteorologists second. Most well-known scientists are not Irish, but British: Brian Cox, Patrick Moore, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking. (Although even the most vaunted here are recognised as great communicators as much as great scientists – a necessary quality perhaps.)

Yet, ask people to name a famous scientific brand that comes from Ireland and most would be able to come up with a few. Viagra. Botox. Lipitor. Many household names of Irish science are to be taken twice a day, with food. ( NotViagra. Please.)

Until today, many will have been unaware that Dublin is City of Science 2012. Science has been adopted as the theme of today’s Dublin St Patrick’s Day parade. The specific theme is “How? What? Why?” The responses will be colourful, but you could just as easily transplant those simple questions into a more troublesome context: How did Ireland develop such a weak scientific culture? What do we do to change that? Why does it matter?

In the development of the State, the scientific culture was largely left behind. The conventional orthodoxy blamed this not just on the dearth of industrial development compared with other countries but on a Catholic, anti-scientific bias, allied with the nationalist bias against science as a tool of the coloniser, whose engineering and cartography projects were to the benefit of a Protestant elite and to the detriment of the Catholic poor. The Cultural Revival, it has been argued, favoured poets and patriots over the burgeoning scientific culture.

That view has been challenged somewhat in recent years, with a focus on other disadvantages, such as access to education rather than an inherent anti-scientific approach to nation building. However, if there is a visible representative of the blend of nationalism and scientific culture in all of this, it is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. It was founded by Éamon de Valera, a mathematician, who greeted one of the most celebrated physicists, Erwin Schrödinger, as the institute’s first visiting professor.

Even today, though, the institute continues with the three schools originally laid out in a postwar charter, and which act as a cultural anachronism: they are the schools of cosmic physics, theoretical physics and Celtic studies.

Whatever the reasons, scientific culture was stunted in Ireland. That legacy is obvious in the absence of, for example, a major science museum in the Republic. One was planned as part of a major, quintessentially Celtic Tigeresque “tallest building in Dublin” development near Heuston Station. It didn’t happen. It won’t for a long time.

The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin fulfils part of that role, though it is not a museum but an ever-changing cultural space concerned with bridging the gap between “the Two Cultures” as identified most famously by CP Snow.

That every local authority has an arts officer, and the country is dotted with arts centres, is an illustration of the prevalent political and institutional bias. Yet, often in isolation, many people are hacking away at this: bloggers, journalists, programmes, groups, and highly motivated teachers who bring creativity and excitement to a school curriculum that drives students to points rather than wonder.

Meanwhile, a generation can now look at maths, chemistry, physics and other sciences and see opportunity. The hope, though, is that our scientific culture isn’t channelled solely through the needs of the job market. Our artistic heritage may be talked of increasingly in monetary terms, but it has long been treasured for its deeper value and pure motivations. After all, few artists create in the expectation that it will make them rich.

If there is a wish for Dublin’s year as City of Science it is that Ireland continues to evolve as a place that cherishes human ingenuity, encourages scientific literacy and rewards curiosity. And that we can all name a few famous Irish scientists by the end of the year.