Star Trek – Frank McNally on the Hamilton Walk

An Irishman’s Diary

Prof Tony O’Farrell delivering the oration at the commemoration of the original walk, on October 16th, 1843, during which William Rowan Hamilton discovered the formula for quaternions

Prof Tony O’Farrell delivering the oration at the commemoration of the original walk, on October 16th, 1843, during which William Rowan Hamilton discovered the formula for quaternions

 

Among the people I met at the Hamilton Walk on Saturday was Dr Alexander Unsicker, a physicist from Munich who was handing out flyers for his new book The Mathematical Reality: Why Space and Time Are an Illusion. I suspect he’s right about space and time. But for the moment, to borrow a quote from Einstein, they remain a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Which is why we all gathered at Dunsink Observatory for 2pm, as instructed. And why the commemorative trek to Cabra stretched for the usual 3.5km or so, just as it must have done on the original walk, October 16th, 1843, during which William Rowan Hamilton discovered the formula for quaternions and scratched it on a bridge.

Near the starting point at Dunsink are two pillars, mere relics today, which in former times supported a telescope. This is where “Dublin Mean Time” (25 minutes and 21 seconds behind Greenwich) used to be calculated from sun and stars. Only the pillars still face south over the city, along a line of longitude that passes through the Phoenix Park and might be interesting to follow sometime.

But the Hamilton walk is a more eccentric route, first cutting a swath (or at least following a pre-cut one) across a field full of cow-pats, then continuing down a grassy lane, then a tarmacked one, and finally the Royal Canal to Broombridge, where Hamilton’s Eureka moment happened. There, standing on a pillar, Prof Tony O’Farrell of NUI Maynooth delivered the annual oration to an attendance including local TD and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

It featured a fun maths question about what would happen to one part of Hamilton’s equation if another was raised “to the power of 2021”. While the rest of us scratched our heads, sure enough, Dr Unsicker answered correctly. He assured me afterwards that it was easier than it sounded. Even so, I’m definitely getting his book now.

I never cease to be amused that the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, of which Dunsink is a part, straddles the worlds of Cosmic Physics on one side and Celtic Studies on the other.

This reflected the obsessions of its instigator, Éamon de Valera, a man equally at home among cosy homesteads and the cosmos.

There was an echo of his parallel universe back at Dunsink on Saturday, when the journalists present joined an impromptu tour of the observatory given by current director Peter Gallagher. For among the gathering were the Wayman sisters, Sheila and Karen, who grew up in the house when their father Patrick was director.

Thus, while Peter showed us such famous artefacts as the “Eclipse mirror” (made in Rathmines but used in the famous 1919 experiment that proved Einstein’s theory of relativity), the Waymans were pointing out things like the hooks on a hall ceiling where there used to be a swing, or remembering the 1977 fire that destroyed part of the building, including its tiny piece of moonrock.

Their most impressive recollection was that sometimes, in good weather, they would sneak up onto the observatory roof and sleep there, with the parapet as bed-rail. That’s the sort of thought that puts years on parents.

But if you’re a professional astronomer, I suppose, you can hardly be surprised if your children want to study the night sky too.

***

Readers may recall my mention here last week of the French astronomer and author, Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) whose observatory near Paris I visited recently. In the (Dublin) meantime, I have been indebted to reader John Doherty for pointing out that Flammarion was once the subject of an intriguing letter to this newspaper from a man named “Oscar Love”.

That was doubly interesting, John thought, “Oscar Love” being a suspected pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien and Myles. Which indeed it used to be, because it was suspiciously prominent among the fake correspondences with which O’Nolan launched his literary career.

But Oscar Love was once (and is now again) known to have been a real person, first mentioned in these pages in 1906 when he won the £2 prize for a YMCA essay competition and by the end of his life (in 1967) familiar enough to merit the dubious distinction of a tribute in the Irishman’s Diary. Read in this light, his letters now seem on the earnest side of humorous. In the company of Myles, complete with suspect name, they seemed more satirical.

The one in question, from October 1939, urged women everywhere to refuse to marry soldiers henceforth, until men stopped waging war. But this was a response to a speech by the feminist Rosamond Jacob, and as Love pointed out, had been first suggested by Flammarion in an 1894 sci-fi novel.

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