I-LOFAR, Ireland’s radio telescope at Birr Castle, pictured, was switched on today in a historic moment for astronomy here (Credit: RTE)
The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.
The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.
Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.
After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.
The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.
Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.
It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.
It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.
This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.
The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.
Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.
Minister Sean Sherlock (left), Professor Paul Townsend, Tyndall National Institute (Centre) and Professor Mark Ferguson, SFI, pictured at the launch of a new Irish photonics research centre (Credit: Darragh McSweeney, Provision )
It’s been a tough few years, but Irish science is seeing some signs of light – literally – with the opening of a new €30 million government and industry backed photonics research centre.
The Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC) has been set up with an eye on growing Ireland’s share of the huge €58 billion European photonics market.
Photonics – the science of light – underpins many high-technology sectors, including medical devices, and IT, in which Ireland is strong.
The IPIC, which comes under the remit of Science Foundation Ireland, will bring together four research institutes, over 100 researchers and 18 industry partners.
The goal of the IPIC is to create 200 new jobs over the next six years. Funding of €20 million is provided by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and with an additional €10 million coming from industry.
Commenting at the launch of the IPIC, Sean Sherlock, the Minister with responsibility for research and innovation said:
“The Centre is in prime position to achieve further funding from the Horizon 2020 funding round and to attract new companies and talent to Ireland”.
Physics, while undoubtedly fascinating as a means to understand the world, and the cosmos, can be a hard sell to the general public, and even to scientists trained in the natural sciences, such as Botany, or Ecology.
Science writers and journalists tend to be from natural science backgrounds, which probably doesn’t help, and there is a definite lack of passionate physicists that also happen to be great communicators.
Clifford charts the entire history of Physics, from the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, through the most important discoveries made by mankind, right up to the present day. He also takes a look at the potential future for the Universe, whether it will continue to expand at an accelerating rate or not, as well as some possible futures for mankind.
He tackles questions like, Is time travel possible (theoretically – yes)?, Will scientists be able to create an invisibility cloak (yes again apparently)? and will all of us, after we die, reappear as ourselves again in the Universe, given enough time? – the idea of quantum resurrection.
Cleverly, he has decided to tackle his topics, one page at a time, so that if you are bored with quantum resurrection, then simply flip to the page on the Big Bang, or the one which discusses whether we are living in a computer simulation (alá the film The Matrix) or not.
This book is well written, and cleverly structured, and a good reference book to have for anyone interested in developing a basic understanding for the most important concepts and ideas in Physics.
Two months after CERN released the staggering news emerged on 21st September last that light speed had – apparently – been exceeded, scientists are still checking and rechecking the experiment that produced the result.
The reason for all the checking is that if the speed of light was shown to be broken, it would overturn a huge chunk of our current understanding of physics, including Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity (1905), and, by correlation, the Universe.
So, the scientists at CERN have checked all possible points of error, and the result still stands. Next, the result will be checked by outside parties, to independently confirm the result, or not. That will take another six months or so.
Dr Ronan McNulty is a physicist at UCD, who also works at CERN, so he is well placed to talk about the experiment that showed light had – possibly – been exceeded a few months ago, and what has been happening since then.
Listen below to the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell as part of the Irish Scientists series which was broadcast on East Coast FM in December 2016
Jocelyn Bell Burnell from Lurgan Co. Armagh discovered a new type of star, called pulsars in the 1960s
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, pictured on the right, who grew up and was educated in Lurgan, discovered pulsars, a new family of incredibly compact tiny stars back in 1968. It was a discovery that many astronomers believed merited a Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee agreed and a Prize was duly awarded for the discovery in 1974. The problem was the Prize went not to Jocelyn, but to her supervisor.
At the time she made the discovery, 67-year-old Jocelyn (who is still an active researcher) was a 24-year old post-graduate student. She was also a woman. Those things still mattered in science in the 1960s, and might have helped explain why the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded for the pulsar discovery, went to Jocelyn’s male supervisor, Antony Hewish and his senior colleague Martin Ryle. Many astronomers are still unhappy about this decision and have openly suggested that Jocelyn should, at the very least, been a co-recipient of the Prize. That the two prize winners never felt the need to recognise Jocelyn’s work, is a scientific scandal.
It was far from certain that Jocelyn would attain the heights she has attained in science, and she had to overcome many obstacles in her path. She was born inBelfast, but spent most of her first 13 years in Lurgan. She failed the ’11 plus’ exam, the test that children take inBritainandNorthern Irelandbefore entering secondary school. This exam is crucial as it usually determines whether a child is admitted to a ‘grammar school’ where the focus is on getting students to university. Her failure at the 11 plus wasn’t fatal, as she had been attending the Grammar School in Lurgan, and the school agreed to keep her on for a few years before she went off to a boarding school inEngland. However, she did admit much later that the failure ‘shook her’, and she didn’t chose to mention it until she attained the status of Professor.
Looking back today, Jocelyn believes that the 11 plus curriculum at the time didn’t suit her, as she said there wasn’t any science in it. Her scientific ability was certainly obvious when she came top of her class in her first term in secondary school at Lurgan Grammar. However, before that, there was another hurdle to cross. That came when the girls and boys were segregated into two groups in her first year of secondary school. Jocelyn thought that the separation might have ‘something to do with sport’, but was horrified when she realised that the boys were being brought to the science lab, while the girls were being packed off to learn about domestic science. It was the1950s and girls in Lurgan, and all overIreland, north and south, weren’t given any encouragement to do science. Jocelyn’s parents decided to ‘kick up a fuss’ and, as a result she was permitted to join the boys doing science, along with the daughter of a local doctor, and one other girl. It was a close call, andIrelandalmost lost perhaps its most accomplished ever female scientist before she even had a chance to show what she could do.
She finished out her two remaining years in Lurgan Grammar and then it was off toEngland. Jocelyn’s family were Quakers, and there was a family tradition of sending the children to Quaker schools inEngland. Jocelyn attendedMountSchool, inYork. She recalls that it was good to get away from home, though traumatic to begin with. In England, in the Fifties, girls were not discouraged from doing science, so it was a different atmosphere to Ireland. Jocelyn did very well in her studies, despite what she recalls as a mixed standard of science teaching.
She made it through the roller-coaster of her primary and secondary school education to get accepted into Glasgow University to study science. There she did well enough to be accepted to do a PhD in the University of Cambridge, a truly world-class university, choc-a-block with Nobel prize winning scientists, then and now. She began her PhD in 1965, working under the supervision of the aforementioned Hewish. The aim of the research project she was involved with was to find quasars. Jocelyn describes quasars as being “big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they 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 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. Jocelyn got stuck into the nitty-gritty of getting the project up and running, and spent her time initially banging stakes into the ground and connecting miles of copper wire. Finally, in July 1967, the array was ready.
Jocelyn began the job of monitoring the sky for rapid fluctuations in radio waves that might indicate the presence of a quasar at a particular location. She had to read through literally miles of paper, and wade through mountains of data, searching for tell-tale signs of a quasar.
On the 6th August 1967, a few weeks after the array came online, Jocelyn noticed something. She described the discovery that would change her life to this reporter in an interview in 2010:
“It was totally accidental. I was doing the research project I had been set very conscientiously and happened across something unexpected. The analogy I use is imagine you are at some nice viewpoint making a video of the sunset and along comes another car and parks in the foreground and it’s got its hazard warning lights, its blinkers on, and it spoils your video. Well my project was looking at quasars, which are some of the most distant things in the universe. [quasars] are big, big things like galaxies, but they are incredibly bright and they send out a lot
of radio waves, which is what I was picking up. [I was] studying these distant quasars and something in the foreground sort of went ‘yo-hoo’! – not very loudly shall we say it was a pretty faint signal, but it turned out after a lot of checking up, and a lot of persistence to be an incredible kind of new star, which we have called a pulsar – pulsating radio star.”
“They are tiny as stars go, they are only about 10 miles across, but they weigh the same as a typical star so they are very, very compact. The radio waves were coming naturally from some kind of star. We picked up these pulses and they were so unexpected that the first thing you have to do is suspect is that there is something wrong with the equipment, then suspect there is interference and then suspect something else, gradually force yourself to believe that it is something astronomical and it’s out there in the galaxy. The excitement came when I found the second one, because that really then begins to look like this is a new population we’ve discovered and we’ve just got the tip of the iceberg.”
Inside a few weeks Jocelyn had discovered three more radio wave sources that were behaving in the same way. This proved beyond doubt that here was a new, real and probably entirely natural phenomenon, though there was some talk – only partly in jest – about the possibility that these pulsating radio waves were being sent across the Universe by an alien intelligence.
A paper in Nature, the renowned scientific journal followed and it was published on the 24th February 1968. The press interest was huge after the paper came out, and Jocelyn and other people in the lab did a series of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Somehow she managed to get back to finishing her PhD, which she did in September 1968. But her life had changed, and she had become an overnight scientific celebrity, still only in her mid twenties.
Jocelyn said that the practical importance of her new found fame was that she never found it difficult to pick up a job when she was travelling around Britain with her husband, Martin Bell. He was a civil servant that regularly moved from city to city. Jocelyn followed him and worked part time for many years raising their son Gavin, who was born in 1973, and is also a physicist.
The down-side of achieving fame and success at an early stage was – as Jocelyn said to this reporter – that people expected her to come up with amazing discoveries all the time. A discovery such as finding pulsars comes only about once per decade in the astronomical community as a whole, and so it is a bit hard, she suggested, to live up to such expectations.
These days she continues to work as a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University where she is free to conduct research without too many other duties being imposed on her. Whatever she might do before she retires, her scientific legacy is secure. In 2010, a pulsar conference was held in Sardinia to honour her 45 years in science and to ‘christen’ a new radio telescope. A long-time colleague Australian pulsar researcher, Dick Manchester, was asked to deliver a speech at the conference, detailing Jocelyn’s contribution to science.
“I think Jocelyn’s fame is greater because she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize in 1974 than it would have been if she had. I believe that the furore that her lack of recognition caused resulted in a change of attitude by the Nobel Committee and I’m sure more widely as well, with a heightened awareness of the role of students in projects and the role of women in science.”
The European Space Agency’s Integral gamma ray observatory mission, in which Irish scientists have played a big part, has located a mysterious, huge, lob-sided ‘cloud’ of anti-matter at the centre of our galaxy, as pictured here (Credit: ESA)
ETS Walton, the Irishman who split the atom in 1932 at the age of 29
In 1932, aged 29, Waterford-born Ernest Walton, pictured here on the right, did something remarkable – he split the atom, or the atomic nucleus to be more precise, and the news stunned the world.
This colossal event in the history of science took place in Cambridge, UK, in the Cavendish Laboratory, a world-famous laboratory run by Lord Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealander. Rutherford had won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1908 and was a huge figure in science in general and nuclear physics in particular.
Walton, meanwhile, was a brilliant apparatus man, a hands-on physicist, and he had personally built the particle accelerator machine that enabled the nucleus to be split.
Walton worked closely with John Cockcroft, who was a theoretician. They were a perfect team. Cockcroft proved it could be done, and Walton then went and did it.Newspapers around the world reported the news, and the Albert Einstein himself called to the Cavendish Lab to congratulate Walton and Cockcroft.
For Einstein, this experiment was the first solid evidence to support his famous equation e = mc2 which held that energy and mass were linked, and that it was possible to release enormous amounts of energy – if mass could be split apart.
The key to the success of the famous atom splitting experiment was perhaps the inspired decision by Lord Rutherford, Head of the Cavendish, to pair the hands-on Walton, with the theoretician Cockcroft.
Rutherford, recognised the talents of the two young geniuses at his disposal, and put them together. They were very different, but complimented each other.
At this time, The Cavendish and other labs, particularly in the US were in a race to see who could split the atomic nucleus first. The general thinking at the time was that particles, protons would need to be accelerated to very high speeds, at astronomically high electrical voltages – perhaps as high as one million volts – to make it possible for them to slam into atomic nuclei and split them.
Walton had done his PhD in the generation of high voltages and this was a continuation of that work. He got the voltage up towards 800,000 volts and they decided they would try and experiment and see what happened.
Walton got the machine going and crawled back across the floor of the lab towards a lead-roofed observation box – to protect against x-rays and high voltages. The protons were being slammed into a piece of lithium metal and he took at look now at the impact. He immediately began seeing little flashes.
He was elated, as the flashes, he knew could be an indication that the lithium atoms were being split into two helium nuclei, also known as ‘alpha particles’ which had been first discovered by Rutherford himself three decades earlier. Walton immediately called Cockcroft to come, he knew something was happening. He later described what looked like ‘twinkling stars’ – lots of them.
Cockcroft arrived, and Rutherford then appeared. The two younger men manoeuvred Rutherford into the small observation hut, which wasn’t easy, as he was a big man, it was a tight space, and, at this stage, the great man, wasn’t young either.
Philip, Ernest’s son, and himself a Professor of Physics at NUI Galway (recently retired) recalled what his father told him happened next. “He (Rutherford) was shouting out instructions – ‘turn up the voltage’, ‘turn down the voltage’ and whatnot. He got out, and without saying anything at first, he walked across the room, perched himself on a stool and said: “Those look mighty like alpha particles to me – I should know, as I was in at their birth.”
The atomic age had begun.
Walton was an unlikely figure to be thrown into the media maelstrom that occurred after the 1932 experiment. It changed his life forever, and at a time when most scientists are only getting their careers started he had reached his pinnacle.
He was a strongly religious man all his life – the son of a Methodist preacher who had travelled all over Ireland and lived in many towns on both sides of the border, including Cookstown, Bambridge, Dungarvan, Armagh and Drogheda.
Sunday’s were for religious service and nothing more, whereas every other day was all about work. He was also a non-drinker, with a few close, loyal friends.
He had attended Methodist College in Belfast as a border, where he was ‘Head Boy’ and he had developed a strong affection, which was returned for the school’s ‘Head Girl’, Breda. After they left school they went their separate ways, but after a chance meeting the relationship was re-ignited and the letters flew back and forth.
He returned to Ireland in 1934, not least because he wanted to marry Breda, who was working as a teacher in Waterford. They were duly married in Dublin, and set about raising a family from their home in St Kevin’s Park, in Dartry, Dublin 6.
Walton returned from Cambridge to head up an ailing Physics department, with just three staff. His workload was huge in terms of administration, and teaching. This all mean that from the time he returned Ireland, to TCD, he did little research.
He died in 1995, aged 92, and is remembered fondly by his colleagues and family as a quiet man, who had no interest in the limelight. Often he would sit in the staff room at TCD quietly humming a tune, when a visitor would come in, and be stunned to be introduced to Ernest Walton, the giant of Physics that split the atom.
Many students will remember him as a brilliant teacher, who often performed experiments on the bench, in front of the students during a physics lecture. His son Philip, the recently retired Professor of Physics at NUI Galway, recalls that his father spent many long hours in the attic at home, after dinner, preparing his lectures.
Others will remember him at the Young Scientist Exhibition in the RDS for many years, when he could be found in teacher mode surrounded by an enraptured audience. For ETS Walton, teaching was a very important part of the scientist’s job.
To this day he remains the only Irishman who has been awarded a Nobel Prize in any field of science. That was in 1951, 22 years after the atomic nuclei was split.
This article was first published in the May-June issue of Science Spin