AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XL , No. 1, Spring 2008
 

History of Physics in Ireland: Core and Fringe
By Roy H. W. Johnston, Techne Associates, Dublin

Historians of science encounter a "core-fringe effect" and a "brain-drain effect" when they work on nations at (or at what is perceived as) the "periphery," and also nations in transition from colonial status to independence.

In a European context one tends to think of Scandinavia or the Balkans, with the mainstream science action being in Germany, Italy, France, Britain. I have observed the process in Ireland for the past half-century. I was myself part of the brain-drain process (twice). In the 1950s I participated in a creditable attempt to reverse the process by networking the fringe with the core, in connection with the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. The Institute was founded by the Irish statesman Éamon de Valera in 1939 as a haven for refugees from Fascism, most famously Erwin Schrödinger.

Those interested in the "core-fringe" and "brain-drain" problems—as important today as ever—can find a good starting-point for studying the Irish case in a recent two-volume publication by Charles Mollan. Issued by the Royal Dublin Society, it is in effect a "Who Was Who" in Irish science over the past four centuries or so.1  The volumes are a creditable attempt to begin documenting, among other things, the history of the cultural interaction of science with the emergence of the Irish nation. I can explain its scope through a small sampling of the figures in physics and allied fields featured in Mollan’s work.

Scientists of Irish origin, who pusued careers in Ireland and produced notable work in physics, astronomy, geophysics or mathematics include George Berkeley, William and Laurence Parsons (Earls of Rosse), William Rowan Hamilton, and George Francis Fitzgerald. Examples of those who had origins abroad but pursued a significant part of their career in Ireland are John Brinkley, George Boole and Schrödinger. Most numerous, however, were scientists of Irish origin who had primarily foreign careers, such as Francis Beaufort, George Gabriel Stokes, John Tyndall, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), John Desmond Bernal, Kathleen Lonsdale and John Stewart Bell. Joseph Larmor and E.T.S. Walton overlapped these categories, having their origins in Ireland and pursuing their careers both in Ireland and abroad.

I give sketches of these and a few others, selected from Mollan’s 120 biographies, in a more extended review available online at http://www.iol.ie/~rjtechne/scihist/mollan08.htm. Mollan gives extensive notes and references, some of which refer to primary source materials in Ireland and elsewhere.

Despite the innovative personal initiative of de Valera with Schrödinger, the Irish government only woke up to the importance of science in the 1960s. The remarkable economic development that has since taken place may perhaps be partly attributed to the setting up of Regional Colleges of Technology in the 1970s. Much more historical analysis will be needed to understand how Ireland has moved closer to becoming a "core" nation itself, a development with much to say for other regions now considered peripheral.


1.  R. Charles Mollan, It’s Part of What We Are (Royal Dublin Society, 2007; ISBN 978-0-86027-055-3), 2 Vols; this is the third in a series on science in Ireland. Order forms are available at http://www.rds.ie/science/publications.

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