Four-Dimensional Green Fields – Frank McNally on unified field theory, de Valera’s Ireland, and a new GAA club in Belfast

Hungarian mathematician and physicist Cornelius Lanczos came to Dublin in 1954 and stayed until the end of the 1960s. He once saw fit to correct The Irishman’s Diary on a point of fact. And perhaps more remarkably, he was wrong.

Hungarian mathematician and physicist Cornelius Lanczos came to Dublin in 1954 and stayed until the end of the 1960s. He once saw fit to correct The Irishman’s Diary on a point of fact. And perhaps more remarkably, he was wrong.

 

Most people know about Erwin Schrodinger, the great Austrian physicist who spent the 1940s and later working at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, a refugee from the Nazis.

Much less remembered is one of his successors, the Hungarian Cornelius Lanczos, who came to DIAS in 1954 and stayed until the end of the 1960s.

But Lanczos was also one of the geniuses of his time, specialising in something called “unified field theory”: a subject similar to Douglas Adams’s question of life, the universe, and everything, except that the answer is not “42”.

Even in his early 20s, Lanczos is said to have discovered “an exact solution of the Einstein field representing a cylindrically symmetric rigidly rotating configuration of dust particles”.

I would pretend to have the foggiest idea what that means, if I hadn’t also read somewhere that, when approving his PhD thesis, even Albert Einstein struck a note of apology, viz: “I studied your paper as far as my present overload allowed”.

Anyway, on foot of Peter Lynch’s feature about Lanczos elsewhere in The Irish Times this week, Brendan Cardiff copied me into an email recalling his own memories of the man, including the times they met in Parson’s Bookshop on Baggot Street Bridge (a place more synonymous with Patrick Kavanagh).

That in turn led me to discover that the Hungarian scientist used occasionally correspond with The Irishman’s Diary. He once even saw fit to correct the diarist on a point of fact. And perhaps more remarkably, he was wrong.

It was in 1969, on a question almost as obscure as unified field theory.

The debate began when the Diary mentioned that a well-known educational establishment in Roscrea, Cistercian College, was the only school anywhere run by that order.

Not so, replied Prof Lanczos, pointing that he himself had attended a Cistercian gymnasium in Hungary.

So the diarist went digging and returned to say that the Hungarian school was run by “Cistercians of the Common Observance”, a non-Trappist branch of the older order. Those in Roscrea, by contrast, were both Trappists and “Cistercians of the Strict Observance”, making them inheritors of the original monastic tradition, which had nowhere else become involved in secondary schooling.

As with many people in Dublin, I know little about the college except that its rugby team won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 2015.

At first sight, it seemed an almost Einsteinian paradox that a team from Roscrea could even compete in Leinster. But that was when I found out the other thing I now know: that the school is located across county and provincial borders, in the space-time continuum of Offaly.

It’s an endless source of amusement, to me at least, that DIAS was set up by Éamon de Valera at a time when a newly independent and impoverished Ireland might have been excused for worrying about more basic problems. 

The Institute and Irish politics seemed to exist in parallel universes then. In one, you had some of the world’s greatest minds wrestling with the implications of relativity. In the other, ideas about unified field theory were dominated by the question of how we might get the fourth green one back from Britain.

This was also the era when de Valera expounded his vision of a simple, rustic Ireland “whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, and the laughter of happy maidens”.

But then, even cosmic physicists need to worry about fields of the grassy variety too, occasionally. 

Another genius of the period, Paul Dirac, did not take up offers of a job in Dublin, although tempted. Part of his friend Schrodinger’s campaign involved writing to Dirac’s wife, emphasising one of Ireland’s biggest perks during the war, ie: “There is plenty of food here – ham, butter, eggs, cakes, as much as one wants.”

***

Speaking of the Fourth Green Field and attempts to unify it – internally, at least – I was fascinated to see Ireland’s newest GAA club, East Belfast, unveil its crest this week. Among other things, this features the club motto in English (“Together”), Irish (“Le Chéile”), and Ulster-Scots (“Thegither”). The symbols are similarly inclusive, with red hand, shamrock, and thistle side by side.

But the central motif are two famous local landmarks: the giant cranes that tower over the shipyards. And this, it seems to me, carries a faint if unintended echo of another GAA tradition: naming clubs after Irish patriots. That might be problematic in East Belfast. Even so, I hereby predict that the new club will be become known elsewhere as the “Harland and Wolff Tones”.

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