Ireland’s rich history in science deserves acclaim

Opinion: time to give John Bell the recognition he deserves

The island of Ireland might be known, to those wearing emerald-tinted glasses, as the land of saints and scholars, but isn't it curious that in the popular mind, the cultural achievements to which the phrase implies always seems to refer to writers?

I'm the last person who is going to argue against the significance of writers in Ireland. Though I started my own university studies in the United States intending to take a science degree, I ended up completing them in Dublin, with graduate degrees in Anglo-Irish literature.

But as I quickly learned when I first came here years ago, this is rich soil for producing extraordinary scientists over the centuries. Some have gradually grown in public visibility, such as deeply important figures such as Waterford's Robert Boyle, the 17th-century chemist sometimes termed the "Father of Chemistry".

A number are the names connected with some of the best-known scientific laws, constants and scientific scales – the ones dutifully memorised by generations of students. Boyle's Law, of course, and then there's Belfast's William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin, as in the temperature scale.


There are those who have been pivotal in the development of computing, such as 19th-century Trinity College professor of astronomy William Rowan Hamilton, whose discovery of quaternion equations underlie the special effects you see in film, television and computer games.

Or Donegal’s Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, one of the first computer programmers, who, along with five other women, did the top-secret programming in the US for ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer used at the tail end of the second World War.

Ireland seems to have a particular affinity for producing or giving a home to people who go on to have a major impact in astronomy. Alongside Hamilton, Ireland can claim people such as William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, who grew up at Birr Castle and in 1845 built the largest telescope in the world at the time in the grounds of the castle.

And more recently, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, from Lurgan, Co Armagh, who discovered pulsars.

A number of books, essays and exhibits have emerged over the past decade to broaden awareness of these Irish-born and Irish-based scientists.

Relatively unknown

But one who, for some reason, has remained relatively unknown in Ireland, North and South, is Belfast man John Bell. Born in 1928, and from a modest family background that would not have indicated his future scientific fame, Bell went to Belfast Technical High School because his family could not afford to send him to more prestigious schools.

But that was probably a good thing. A technical school and its practical focus likely suited him, and when he finished school he went to Queens University at 15 –not as a student, but a lab technician. However, his abilities there impressed lecturers, who loaned him books, and using his savings from his year of work, Bell entered Queens as a student the following year, graduating with highest honours in experimental physics three years later.

He went on to a stellar physics career at CERN, the physics research centre and laboratory in Geneva, where he was officially focused on particle physics but became one of the most important figures associated with quantum theory, along with well-known names such as Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein and Bohr.

But Bell has been credited with exploring quantum theory in the greatest depth. He is especially recognised for demonstrating that the abstract ideas put forward by people such as Einstein could actually be demonstrated by real-world experiments and understood in the physical world as we experience it.

In particular, a famous paper he published in 1964 established ideas now known as Bell’s Theorem, and equations known as Bell’s Inequalities, which underlie quantum physics. Bell died in 1990, a major figure in physics but mostly unknown to the wider public.

The Royal Irish Academy, in partnership with a range of organisations – Queen's University of Belfast, Northern Ireland Science Park, W5, the Institute of Physics, the Titanic Quarter, Belfast City Hall, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the owners of old Belfast Met College – hope to change that and make Bell better known as a prominent name in Irish science, especially in Northern Ireland.

To that end, they would like to see November 4th of this year celebrated as John Bell Day. That date marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of his paper articulating Bell's Theorem. And a range of activities will take place starting from the fourth, to mark Bells' significance to physics, computing and research.

These include a lecture series at Queens, with far more to be announced on November 4th.

It’s certainly time to give Bell the recognition he deserves.