Irish scientists, episode 3: Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine engine was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 26th November 2016
Charles Parsons is considered to be in the top five of Britain’s greatest engineers of all time, by virtue of his enormous contribution to sea travel, and the shipbuilding industry, and making electricity available to the masses.
Parsons’s huge impact on the world has been far less heralded in Ireland, his native land. Hew grew up and spent his early adult years at his family’s residence in Birr Castle Co. Offaly before moving to England.
The greatest achievement of his stellar engineering career was the invention of the steam turbine engine in 1884, an entirely new type of engine, which extracted thermal energy from pressurised steam in an ultra-efficient manner.
This thermal energy could be converted, through a series of intermediary steps, into electrical energy in such an efficient manner that, it became possible, for the first time, to generate enough electrical energy to make it available to the wide mass of people, not just the well-to-do elite.
Today, 90% of the electricity in the USA is still generated through steam turbine engines.
This engine also transformed the nature of sea travel, as steam turbines could provide the power necessary for large ships to cross the Atlantic far quicker, and for passengers to travel in comfort without rattling, shaking and noise.
The steam turbine was famously put into Parsons’s yacht, the Turbinia, and used to outpace the assembled British naval fleet at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead in 1897.
After this unsolicited, but powerful demonstration of the power that a steam turbine could provide, the British navy decided that it would commission the turbine to be used in its new generation of battleships, the Dreadnoughts (launched in 1906)
This helped to provide Britain with an edge in its naval arms race with Germany in the run up to World War 1.
This episode covers the story of a Dubliner born in 1805, who became one of the greatest mathematicians the world has ever seen.
Hamilton invented mathematical equations, called quaternions, in 1843 which are still used today to navigate and land spacecraft (eg the Moon in 1969 and Mars in 2012) and as software ‘under the hood’ which depicts the relative movement of figures in 3D space in the top selling computer games.
GPS in cars, is largely based on Hamilton’s mathematics, and radio waves were predicted by James Clarke Maxwell before they were invented based on Hamilton’s totally unconventional, brilliant new mathematics.
Hamilton was objects rotate in 3D space, dared to imagine it. Came up with quaternions, totally unconventional and knocked traditional mathematics on its head. Thinking about this problem for years.
Mathematicians thought he was crazy, didn’t accept it, but then came to be called the ‘liberator of algebra’ – new way of thinking of mathematics.
Hamilton connected to fact we can hear audio on the radio, James Clark Maxwell predicted oscillating waves of energy traveling at speed of light – radio waves were detected, used by maxwell to predict these waves exist before they were found.
Hamilton was a brilliant, popular scientist. He was moody; a romantic, with a dark side, who survived an early crisis in his life to go on achieve great things.
‘Irish Scientists’ the six-part radio series currently running on Saturday mornings (7:30am) on East Coast FM was reviewed in the Irish Independent on Saturday by Darragh McManus. The relevant sections are in bold.
One slight quibble with any otherwise very positive review; the piece should have mentioned the show’s award-winning producer, Colette Kinsella, Red Hare Media.
Since Donald Trump’s election there have been thousands of words written about “culture wars”, in the US and around the world. The soul of a nation, or a people, is expressed in its culture, I suppose.
Here in Ireland we consider certain things to be an intrinsic part of ours: the music, the language, Gaelic games, that fabulous literary heritage. There is another, unheralded one, though: science.
In a recent interview, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin lamented how the Irish scientific tradition isn’t celebrated as much as the arts, and it should be: this country has produced a great number of scientists whose work has been truly pivotal.
One of those is John Holland, who made for a fascinating documentary, How Irish Scientists Changed the World, on East Coast FM (Sat 7am). He’s the first of six subjects explored by documentary-maker Sean Duke: others will include mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered pulsars, and the first person to split the atom: ETS Walton.
Born in Liscannor, Co Clare, John Holland is now known as “the father of the modern submarine”. As Duke pointed out, Holland didn’t exactly invent the idea of a fully submersible vessel – that concept has been around since Ancient Times – but he was “the first to come up with a design that actually worked”.
After school with the Christian Brothers, he had quit Ireland for the US in the late 19th century, where he fell in with the Fenian Brotherhood while pursuing his Icarus-in-reverse dreams of creating a boat that could travel underwater. After a few false starts and some hair-raisingly courageous (even reckless) experiments, Holland succeeded in his mission.
In 1900, the US Navy bought Holland’s design to produce the world’s first combat submarine. Other countries, including Britain and Japan, quickly followed.
This was a riveting, rollicking story, parts of which came across as more like a work of fictional Victoriana than real history. Man, they really bred them differently in those days.
Another side of Irish culture, of course – possibly its greatest expression – is music, be that in terms of what we produce here or the Irish influence globally. Sin-é: Jeff Buckley’s Irish Odyssey (Radio 1, Sat 7pm) looked at the latter through the prism of the late singer, who would have been 50 this week if he hadn’t tragically drowned in 1996.
Buckley was of Irish stock on his father’s side, and got his entrée into the music business at Sin-é, the semi-mythical (and now defunct) Irish café which caused a storm in New York’s East Village during the early nineties. Steve Cummins’ documentary unpicked the threads of Buckley’s other Irish links, including friendships with musicians like Glen Hansard and Mark Geary, and a trip to Dublin to play, rather amusingly, the Trinity Ball.
Buckley came across in contributors’ reminiscences as a sweet-natured guy, though naturally what strikes you most is that absolutely incredible voice. It might seem a bit wrong to say this, in the immediate aftermath of Leonard Cohen’s death, but Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah is not only the song’s finest iteration – it’s one of the most spine-tingling vocal performances ever committed to record.
A third side of this week’s cultural triangle is the GAA, which featured on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 9am), broadcasting from the 2016 Science Summit at Croke Park. Pat spoke to stadium director Peter McKenna and Dublin football hero Philly McMahon. McMahon was an intelligent, perceptive and very interesting interviewee, especially when talking about the scourge of illegal drugs in Ireland.
The Martian is a thrilling film, which showcases the spectacular Martian landscape like no film before it, but how accurate is the science it depicts?
Up to 20 per cent of identical twins suffer from blood flow problems from their mother’s placenta. This can lead to brain damage, or death, but new surgery pioneered in Ireland at the Rotunda hospital is having twins’ lives.
Weight loss for many of us seemed a lot easier, back in the 1980’s. Now, scientists have come up with evidence to suggest that indeed it is harder to maintain a healthy weight today than it was a generation ago.
This item was first broadcast on East Coast FM on the 8th October 2015
Twenty-four-year old Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave an interview to the English press in August 1968 along with a male colleague, after she had discovered a new type of star, a pulsar. Her discovery would gift two male colleagues a Nobel Prize and immortality.
During the interview, which the Lurgan born scientist was told to do by her bosses, Jocelyn noticed the reporter’s serious questions were aimed at the man, while she was asked about her ‘vital statistics’, her hair and whether she was the same height as Princess Margaret. The photographer asked her to loosen a few buttons on her blouse.
The effect was, as Jocelyn told the InspireFest 2015 meeting in Dublin’s Bord Gais Theatre yesterday (18/06/15) that she ended up feeling ‘like a piece of meat’. She wanted to say something to these men treating her that way, but she bit her lip. This was still a society where men, and most women too, felt that a woman’s place was only in the home.
She couldn’t risk taking a stand, and alienating her more senior male colleagues, who wanted her to talk to the press and gain publicity for the lab. She felt that making such a stand on principle would have risked her future career, and she was an ambitious young woman. She said nothing, but when the time was right, years later, she said plenty.
She had begun her PhD at Cambridge 1965, working under Antony Hewish and Sir Martin Ryle. These men were interested in quasars, which are bright and send out a lot of radio waves. The idea was to search for quasars by looking at natural sources of radio waves in the cosmos using something called a telescope array.
An array is a group of linked telescopes, and a special array was constructed for the project at a four-acre site at the Mullard Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge. This was built largely by Jocelyn’s herself. Before she did any research she spent her time initially banging stakes into the ground and connecting miles of copper wire.
Finally, in July 1967, the array was ready.
It was Jocelyn’s job to go through the mountains of paper data produced by the array in these pre computer days. She went through it all, inch by meticulous inch, looking for features that the senior men were interested in. By the end of one post-doctoral project she later calculated that she had gone through 3 miles of paper; a heroic effort.
One day she found something that didn’t fit in, and brought it to her lab bosses. The men poo-poohed it, and essentially told her to get back to what she should be doing. Jocelyn persisted, and eventually, she managed to convince them what she had found – a series of unexplained regular, repeating radio waves – was worth more investigation.
It was found that Jocelyn had made an amazing discovery; she had found a new type of star, called a pulsar, or pulsating star. It was a massive event in astrophysics, and her more senior colleagues were now more than happy to take credit where it wasn’t due.
To put a tin hat on the affair, which remains one of the great scandals of science, the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974 went to Sir Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish “for their pioneering research in radio astrophysics: Ryle for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture synthesis technique, and Hewish for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”. Jocelyn – outrageously – didn’t even get a mention.
It was normal in those days for senior lab scientists, who were almost always men, to take credit for everything that happened in the lab. These days we would call what they did to Jocelyn morally inexcusable and perhaps criminal (theft of intellectual property).
It is remarkable that the two men who accepted the Nobel for a discovery they didn’t make were happy to do so, and so nothing wrong with it. That too says a lot about the sense of entitlement at the senior levels of science back then. It was just impossible to give a Nobel prize to a 24-year-old woman, even if everyone knew she deserved it.
If that wouldn’t make you bitter or resentful what would? A Nobel Prize for Jocelyn, or a par share in it at least, would have been a career defining event, and any laboratory or university in the world would have laid out the red carpet for her after that. It didn’t happen, and her scientific career followed a tougher, altogether less garlanded path.
And yet, despite the horrendous injustice she has suffered Jocelyn is not bitter. That is to her great credit. The story of what happened to her, many scientists now believe, helped the cause of women in science by bringing their plight into sharp focus.
The scandal has also helped the cause of younger researchers everywhere – men and women – because it led people to challenge the notion that senior scientists in the lab should be automatically given total credit for the work of their post-docs and PhD students.
The Nobel committee today wouldn’t dare to perpetrate a Jocelyn-style injustice on a brilliant young researcher, man or woman. These days, young researchers are mostly credited for original work, and the position of women in science has vastly improved.
Take a bow Jocelyn. You may have been robbed of a Nobel prize all those years ago, but your story, and the example you have set, have helped change science for the better.
I first came across Mary Mulvhill in 1994 when she was Joint Editor of Technology Ireland, the flagship science and technology magazine published by Enterprise Ireland.
I’d returned from the US, still a journalistic ‘greenhorn’ where I’d just finished a Masters in science journalism at New York University. I was keen to get some freelance science writing experience under my belt.
I put a call in to Technology Ireland, as one visit to Eason told me that it was the only publication of quality in the country which appeared interested in covering science; Mary took my call.
From the very first instant we spoke, I realised I was dealing with someone of substance. She was open to ideas being pitched at her, but she had high standards, so I knew the ideas had to be good and well thought out.
After struggling to answer a few of Mary’s questions during that first phone call, I made sure that I had my homework completely done before I rang her again.
She was a tough, but talented editor, and a meticulous fact-checker. It’d be safe to say, very little got past Mary. If a piece went in, it would inevitably come back with questions and things that had to be dealt with before publication.
There were no easy short-cuts with Mary. She set the standard, and, us freelancers, had to make sure we met it.
In time, I took over myself as Joint Editor and later Editor of Technology Ireland. I began to respect her even more, as I learned what it took to produce a magazine with content of a high standard, over many years.
Mary was more than an editor, she was a beautiful writer too with a gift for an ‘eye catching lead’. A piece she wrote about Nicholas Callan, the priest scientist, based at Maynooth, who played an important part in the development of electricity for the masses in the 19th century, comes to mind.
Callan had famously electrocuted turkeys to test the levels of voltage he was producing in his magnets, coils and batteries. He had been forbidden to test voltages on his clerical students after one of them collapsed.
Mary began telling her Callan story with the lead in: “This is a story about a priest, a battery and a turkey”
How could anyone not read on after that introduction? The rest of the story demands to be read. Pure Mary, brilliant journalism.
Mary, of course, wrote a number of books, including the classic “Ingenious Ireland”. She, like me, was hugely interested in Irish scientific history, and the mark that our scientists had made on towns and cities here and around the world.
If any teacher is trying to inspire their students to take an interest in science, I’d urge them to read this book. It’s Mary’s masterpiece, based on an immense amount of research, meticulous fact-checking and proofing, and writing flair.
Mary just had a natural gift for telling stories, and that, at the end of the day, is the only way to interest people in science, or anything else, for that matter. Human beings respond best to stories. Mary knew this.
She was also a brilliant radio broadcaster, involved in multiple RTE Radio 1 science-themed programmes going back many years. On radio, she used her calm, assured voice to draw people in, and, to tell her stories.
Mary’s work was consistently at a high level, over many years, whether she was writing books, doing pieces for The Irish Times, giving talks or tours, or training scientists how to speak to the public. If Mary was involved, you knew it’d be great.
On a personal level, I respected Mary enormously. She had backbone, principles, a good sense of herself and how she wanted to live her life, and wasn’t going to be easily swayed. That was part of what made her such a formidable journalist.
She could be very kind too.
I recall back in 2007, when my mother passed away aged 68, I was devastated. I’d lost one of my best friends, as well as my mother and felt disorientated and depressed for several months afterwards.
During that time, I met Mary on her bike passing through Terenure. She could see I was upset so I told her of my loss. We talked and talked and she said some nice things that day which helped me.
Little did I think that only 8 years later, I would be writing about the passing of Mary herself, at the age of just 55.
A giant of Irish science journalism has departed, and she’ll be missed.