Ireland's forgotten heroes

Fri, Jan 27, 2012, 00:00

IRELAND IS A land of saints, scholars, poets and musicians. Or at least that’s what the Department of Tourism would have you believe. In fact, Ireland is also a land of several scientific pioneers – Robert Boyle, John Tyndall, Ernest Walton, William Rowan Hamilton, Kathleen Lonsdale and Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

These heroes, however, are not named after city streets or have had busts made in their honour. The names above would be as alien to most people as junior cert physics.

In times past, this wouldn’t matter. But developing brands – such as the knowledge economy – will rely heavily on Irish people believing that such an economy can exist. Without a culture of innovation ingrained into a nation’s psyche, the confidence needed to be innovative is left wanting.

Prof Emeritus of Applied Physics at NUI Galway, Philip Walton – son of Nobel prize winning Irish nuclear physicist Ernest Walton – has experienced this lack of appreciation first hand. “I remember hearing about a new display of ‘all’ of Ireland’s Nobel prize winners being erected at Dublin Airport, but my father wasn’t on it,” he says. “When the airport authorities were contacted to notify them of the absence of Ernest Walton, their response was: ‘Oh, what did he write?’

Walton’s father was not an author like the other Irish heroes being shown off at the airport – although he did publish numerous papers on physics – yet he has made a significant impact on all our lives. As a pioneering nuclear physicist, he built the first successful particle accelerator in 1931.

Then there’s fellow Waterford man Robert Boyle, known as the Father of Chemistry. William Parsons built the largest telescope in the world at Birr Castle in 1845 (it was 70 years later before a bigger one was built). Dubliner William Rowen Hamilton reportedly knew 13 languages fluently at age nine and was central to the development of modern algebra. John Tyndell from Carlow was one of the greatest physicists of the 19th century. Kildare-born Kathleen Lonsdale played a major part in creating modern X-ray technology as well as being the first woman elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1945. More recently, Belfast born Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars.

Some attribute the little recognition these, and others like them, have received to “Big House” syndrome. “Many Irish scientists would have been associated with the ruling classes,” says Leo Enright of Discover Science Engineering. “Robert Boyle, for example, was always associated with Lismore House. Scientific research would have been an upper-class pursuit. This was not a misconception, but a class reality. That has changed and we have moved beyond that reality, but such perceptions have never existed in more innovative countries like France or Britain,” says Enright.

“The French always respected their scientists who played a fundamental part in the French revolution, which was based on scientific principles. The Irish revolution was driven by nationalism and romanticism whereas the French were revolting on basic rational libertarian views, which were grounded in science.”

The two countries have forged official scientific links, but only recently. The French scientific attaché to Ireland, Claude Detrez, is one of only a handful of people who have held the post. “My position was only created about 10 years ago while there has been a French cultural attaché to Ireland for many years,” says Detrez.

There are other, more concrete, issues which have affected the nurturing of an Irish culture of innovation. “It has a lot to do with the historical construction of education in Ireland and the promotion of interest at second and third level,” explains Chris Curtin, professor and head of the School of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway. “Until the 1960s, second-level education in Ireland was in the hands of education providers who believed in liberal arts, literature and philosophy, rather than science, ie the Catholic Church.”

Philip Walton was sent north to go to school for this very reason. “Education in science in Irish schools was pretty limited here,” he says. “All our family were sent to the Methodist College in Belfast and the science labs they had, even back then, were just amazing. I’ve since compared notes with colleagues who went to some of the best schools in the South and they were not supported to the same degree. When I entered my first year in Trinity College, I thought the equipment was crummy compared to what we had in school.”

A lack of emphasis at school level on innovation will ultimately result in a failure at industrial level. “The absence of an historical industrial base in Irish society which would have promoted innovation is also a factor,” says Curtin. “Ireland has been an agrarian rather than an industrial economy, and it is clearly in the interest of industry to promote innovation which makes production more efficient.”

Historically, there was no driving force, for example the motor industry in the US (no pun intended), to encourage innovation here. “You are more likely to find support for scientific enquiry in societies where you have a tradition of manufacturing industry,” says Curtin. “Germany would be a good example. The US also have a long tradition of innovation.”

Mike Devane of the US Chamber of Commerce in Ireland sees the US organisational approach as being central to innovation across the pond. “If you look at the culture of organisation in the US, you’ll find they reward and encourage people to try new things and take risks,” says Devane. “This is fundamental to the way they organise themselves. They reward performance and not just if it’s successful.

Accordingly, recognition is also valued very highly. Historically, it comes from the pioneering culture they’ve always had, but it was reinforced during the 1950s when the US revitalised themselves after the Great Depression and the second World War.

“Over here in Europe, we perceive things they do in the US as somewhat superficial. But Americans actually put a lot of store in things like ‘Employee of the Month’. They always try and recognise people in the workplace. There are certain things lacking in our culture that I believe hold us back in Ireland, particularly in the public sector where they have a different kind of culture.”

So much US involvement in Irish industry of late has been beneficial here. “Until very recently, Irish people suffered from an extreme lack of self-confidence,” says Walton. “In America, it’s not seen as a terrible thing to fail. In fact, you’re no good until you’ve failed a few times.” This sentiment seems to have rubbed off on some people here too.

In other European countries, there are cultural examples of greater respect being shown for local innovators. In Kallio, a large district in the Finnish capital Helsinki, many of the streets are named after Finnish scientists from the 18th and 19th centuries. Paris is another example where street names are not just reserved for revolutionaries or artists. This might seem trivial, but it does suggest a wider respect for science.

Fostering a new culture is going to be problematic for any nation with historical and social baggage. Couple that with the fact that science subjects are not that easy to grasp and one could argue that things are not looking good so far.

“This is not only an Irish problem,” stresses Prof Peter Lynch from the UCD School of Mathematical Sciences. “Making scientific subjects more accessible is a widespread problem. There’s an expectation that people are informed in the cultural realm, but it’s okay to be at a party and say you don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics. There’s a reason for this: quantum physics is complicated and inaccessible.”

Most of us don’t see the importance of science for society, says Lynch. “We don’t appreciate how important scientific development is within our everyday lives. Mobile phones are a good example of this. People enjoy using their smart phones, but they’re not interested in what’s going on under the bonnet. It’s actually very interesting if it could be presented in an accessible way.”