ETS Walton – Ireland’s atom splitter

Broadcast on East Coast FM on 03-12-2016 as part of a six-part series on Irish scientists, produced by Colette Kinsella, Red Hare Media, and funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

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

For more, see ‘How Irish Scientists Changed the World

West Cork students put green, slimy invaders to good use

The beautiful beaches of west County Cork have sadly, in the past few years, been overwhelmed by hordes of unwelcome, green, slimy, smelly, and noxious invaders.

No, this story has nothing to do with certain human visitors to the area. Rather this concerns the arrival of a green algae, ‘Sea Lettuce’ – or Ulva Lactuca to be precise.

It is not clear why the Sea Lettuce has arrived in rural Cork in such numbers. The two most popular theories are that it has something to do with global warming, as the Sea Lettuce is a creature that thrives in shallow, warm waters, or that it is linked to the pressure put on the local waste water plant.

It’s said that the Clonakilty waste treatment plant can’t cope with the increase in holiday homes in the area in recent times.  The inevitable result, it is argued, is the leaking of raw sewage into the ‘run off’ water, upon which the Sea Lettuce thrives.

But, no one knows the exact cause for sure.

Neither is west Cork alone, as this is a global problem now, one that has reared its head in places as far flung as Brittany, Beijing and Australia.


The local people in Cork have watched in horror as their beautiful beaches have disappeared under piles of green slime, sitting on top of the sand, emitting noxious gases and killing off some existing forms of sea life.

Enter three enterprising local Transition Year students, Muireasa Carroll, Mairéad Kingston and Denise Hurley, pictured above, from the Sacred Heart School in Clonakilty. They wanted to see if they could turn a ‘negative into a positive’.

They come up with a great idea. To harvest the Lettuce, use a machine to compress the water out of it, and mould it into briquettes for burning. They would then see if the Lettuce briquettes were a viable source of heat, and what gases they would emit.

They made their briquettes using a hydraulic pumping ramp. They tested the briquettes and found that they burned slightly longer than peat, with slightly less heat emitted. Also, the briquettes were ‘carbon neutral’. That meant that, unlike fossil fuel briquettes, they did not emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide ‘greenhouse gas’.

They appeared to have a viable ‘renewable fuel’ product that could be harvested cheaply from the strangled beaches in their locality. But, they didn’t stop there. They tested the briquettes for water concentration and found that even after they were compressed and moulded that the briquettes were made up of 25 per cent water.

If they can eliminate more water, they will have a product that burns even longer.

They also looked at the waste products from the burning of the briquettes – ash – to see if it could be put to good use. They found that the briquette ash was a very effective fertiliser and that it was also useful as a cleaning product to absorb stains.

All in all, it’s a brilliant idea, and reflects the move in recent years at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition discoveries that can help society to improve. Certainly, Sean Gallagher, one of the ‘Dragons’ from the RTE series ‘Dragons Den’ thought it was an excellent idea when he stopped to have a look while at the Show.

The girls are veterans of the Show and were also at the RDS in 2010. They impressed then too, enough to be offered a marketing course at TCD, which they took.

The Lettuce briquettes have been registered as a patent with the Irish patent office, and the girls want to develop the product into a business at some stage in the future.

They have also been invited to talk to local county councils, about their great idea.

But, for now, they have the Leaving Cert to attend to, but watch this space, this is an idea that could ‘find legs’ when the girls emerge from school in a few years time.

This project was the winner of the ‘Intel Students of Excellence Award, at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2011.

This article was first published in Science Spin (May-June 2011 Issue)

‘Rachel’s Water’ can prevent water shortages

Rachel Eustace, a second year student from Athy, has a novel idea for dealing with future water shortages in Ireland

First Published in March-April ed. of Science Spin

It seems odd that Ireland should ever experience water shortages, especially in recent years when rural Ireland has been repeatedly flooded by rainfall. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it always has been, but 14-year-old Rachel Eustace, a 2nd year at Ard Scoil na Tríonóid in Athy, has other ideas. She believes we should capture and use our rainfall.

In other countries people collect rainfall and use it for washing clothes, dishes and people. This rainwater is collected off roves and used for all purposes except drinking. In Ireland, we have good quality water available in rainfall, but we don’t bother catching it.

Rachael is clearly an articulate, very bright and practical girl. She wants to change the world, in her own way, but she has the talent to do it. It lifts the heart in Ireland’s darkest hour to see such enthusiasm, energy and talent in our young people. There is hope for us.

Rachel’s family gets most of its water from a well like their neighbours. During periods of heavy rain, and flooding, it is not possible to get water drawn from wells. This leads to the crazy situation where the fields all around can be flooded, while no-one has water.


Rachel thought to herself – and she is a practical girl remember – What can be done about it? She decided that she start to do something by taking samples of rainwater during rainy spells and send the samples off for testing to see whether rainwater was fit for drinking.

The people at Bord na Móna in Newbridge tested Rachel’s water samples, for water quality characteristics such as PH, conductivity, colour, turbidity and total hardness. The results came back. “They were all within standard – quite good results,” Rachel recalled.

These initial results were encouraging, but before Rachel could collect any more samples, the horrendous period of snow and ice before Christmas kicked in. There was no rainfall for sometime, as any precipitation simply fell as snow. Eventually, following the slow thaw, the first rains after the big freeze came and Rachel began collecting new samples.

These samples, which she numbered 3 and 4, were taken during the first rainfall events after the snow and ice. The samples were completely contaminated with bacteria, too many bacteria to even count. The reason for this was clear. During the freezing weather, the bacteria were not leaving the roofs of houses, they stayed there waiting to warm up.


Then when the weather finally did warm up, all the bacteria started to move, and they traveled down with the first rains of the warmer weather, down off the roof of Rachel’s home into her water collection container –a small, toy washing machine by the way. This mass migration of bacteria post-snow meant that there were massive concentrations of bacteria in these samples. This water was not drinkable, but the bacteria had at least left.

Two days later, the rain came again, and Rachel collected sample 5. This time the sample had no bacteria at all, she recalled. She was pleasantly surprised with the positive result. It showed that water quality collected from roofs can vary, but vary in a predictable fashion. The results show that it was important that  water is collected at least 15 minutes after rain starts to allow any bacteria present to make their way off the roof first. Also, to allow for a few days following a period of freezing conditions before samples are taken.

Based on all of this research Rachel came up with rainfall collection device. Her device had a screen to block out rocks and leaves. She used filter paper to stop muck and dirt getting into the water, and a micropore filter too, to stop smaller particles and bacteria. The water was then put in sterile bottle and exposed to ultra violet light. This light, many scientists now believe, can kill off 99 per cent of bacteria and viruses that may be present.

She had learned this from researching her topic, and applying it to improve her device.

Rachel was surprised by the positive reaction at the BT Show from members of the public to her water collection device. Some said it would be a great thing, once water charges came in, and water became expensive, while others asked her  when it will be available for sale. The interest got her thinking. She had not been planning to try and develop a saleable product, but now she feels she might like to do that. Her teacher, Ms Ní Fhaoláin agrees. No doubt we’ll be hearing more of ‘Rachel’s water’ in the future.

The ‘Stem-Cell Sheriff’

Stephen Sullivan is an Irish stem cell researcher working in California (credit: Stephen Sullivan)

First published in the March-April 2011 ed. of Science Spin

Stephen Sullivan is an Irish stem cell researcher working in the USA. He is a strong advocate for embryonic stem cell research in Ireland, and all the other types of stem cell research. He is passionate about his work, and believes stem cells have the capacity to alleviate human suffering. However, looking at the Irish situation in particular, he says he is disturbed that there are no laws governing stem cells. This creates the impression he says, that Ireland, as in its financial matters, is like the ‘wild west’ – a place where laws, if they exist, are ignored.


Stephen Sullivan grew up as the youngest child in his family by 10 years. A curious boy, he became well used to asking questions of the older people around him that seemed to know much more.

One of those people that knew much more was his Dad. Stephen had a great relationship with his father, and recalls having long chats with him about all kinds of things. They were both “ideas junkies” as Stephen describes it.

Meanwhile, Stephen’s eldest brother helped to pique an interest in ideas, and the nature of the world around him, by having a simple light microscope present in the house. Stephen recalls looking at pond water under this microscope and being amazed by the diversity of life he could see in it.

Though there were no scientists in the family there was plenty of education and learning about, with surgeons on his mother’s side, and psychiatrists on his Dad’s side, he says.


Stephen went to primary school in Beaumont Boys School, and secondary school at Ashton multi-denominational school, both in Cork city.

He recalls the influence in primary school of a series of books called ‘Out and About’. These were nature education books that described everything from bird migration to the life cycle of the salmon. That helped stimulate the interest in science that was growing in his young mind, as well as nature trails when the teachers explained what frog spawn was, and how trees lost their leaves.

He was well and truly hooked on science by the time the leaving certificate rolled around, and he took all three main science subjects, physics, chemistry and biology. At that time, he enjoyed the fun of the chemistry lab, but biology was less appealing due to the lack of practical work, and the ‘learning by rote’.

However, perhaps his most important ‘school days’ experience was his exposure at Ashton to people from a variety of cultures, creeds and classes. He looks back and says that, Ashton felt more like what he felt a university should be – a place to learn from others and exchange ideas – than UCC did later on.

The influence of teachers was crucial, as is so often the case and he found that he did best in classes where the teachers were in love with their topics and there were several science teachers at Ashton in love with science.

Stem Cells

After an undergraduate degree at UCC, Stephen took a Masters degree at TCD. Then 1997 came, and the news that human embryonic stem cells – cells that are typically taken (with consent) from the excess embryos left over after IVF treatments – had been isolated for the first time. It was also the year that the world was introduced to ‘Dolly’ the sheep that had been cloned in Scotland.

These developments had a huge influence on Stephen and he saw immediately that stem cell research – where cells could be reprogrammed in the lab to become other cells – could be used as a new tool to combat disease.

He was determined now to do a PhD in stem cells, and he was also determined to do it at the lab that produced ‘Dolly’. He achieved that goal, to his great credit, due to what he calls his “natural stubbornness” and was accepted into the lab of the now world-famous scientists, Jim McWhir and Ian Wilmut at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.

At the Roslin, he became aware, he says, of how science is so often misrepresented in the media, sometimes to a ludicrous extent. Like one story that reported that ‘Dolly’ had eaten several shepherds as well as Ian Wilmut. This planted a seed that science, and stem cells needed to be better explained to the public, and that this side of things was crucial to the well-being of the field.

His career was now firmly on an upward curve, and after Roslin, he went to Cambridge, and then to Harvard in Boston. He learned all about the famous competitiveness of students at Harvard, but managed to avoid getting ‘burnout’.


A return to Ireland was always on the agenda, but he became frustrated with the lack of legislation governing stem cells here, the political apathy, and the splurging of funds into stem cell work that he considered of dubious quality. The situation in Ireland did not impress serious scientists looking in from abroad, he said, and made a mockery of the strategy of funding world-class science here.

He tried in vain to get a research group off the ground, but no proposal that even mentioned ‘embryonic stem cell research’ had a hope of getting funded. The politicians had no inclination to get involved in a row over funding research on human embryos, which would provoke fury in some quarters.

He decided to set up the Irish Stem Cell Foundation, along with other scientists, medical doctors, and bio-ethicists. The idea was to better educate people about stem cells, to advocate for all kinds of stem cell research here, and to push the law-makers to follow the UK, and introduce clear ‘stem cell laws’.

Meanwhile, he moved to the US, as he could not get support for the research he wanted to do in Ireland, and took at post at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. There he is simply let get on with his research, without worrying about politics. He is working, specifically, on finding new stem cells, in particular trophoblast stem cells. These are the cells that make the placenta. The ultimate goal of this work is to develop better drugs and treatments for disease.


It is very important to follow one’s own gut instinct when choosing a career, and to study subjects in university that you love, rather than have the points for, advises Stephen. This approach will lead to more happiness in life, he says.

His parents had bee ‘instructed’ to take careers in certain professions, and perhaps for that reason, says Stephen, they reacted against that pressure and told their own children to do follow their passion when it came to a career choice. The basic rule, he says, is that if you love science, you’ll probably be good at it.

“The points system and peer pressure can make people take choices not based on their innate abilities and interests, and that is a big mistake,” he advises. “You have one life, do what you like to do rather than what the system tells you, you have enough points for,” he adds.

One of the best things about being a scientist is that there is no reason why a scientist can’t work, and be very good at their job well into their 70s, says Stephen citing the example of Dame Anne McLaren, a lady who was in her 70s when he was working with her, and still “as sharp as a pin, and a great teacher as well as a superb scientist”.

G00d & Bad

Science is also one of the professions, he says, where it is possible to literally change the world. To make his point, Stephen said that he suffered badly from asthma between the ages of 7 and 15, but that his life was massively improved by an inhaler that could clear out his lungs. This demonstrated to him, at any early stage, how science and medicine can alleviate human suffering.

There is also the novelty factor – good for intelligent people that bore easily. Every day, says Stephen there is something new, and there is always the prospect of doing something in the lab that no-one has tried before. That’s and exhilarating feeling, he says.

What are the aspects of the job he doesn’t like as much? He says that he doesn’t like replying to correspondence from patients and their loved ones asking about where research currently stands in relation to the available treatments for injury and disease. At the moment, the answer is often that research has not yet gone far enough to actually provided ‘cures’.

But, if Stephen gets his way that will change some day in the not-to distant future, and researchers in Ireland will be helping to make it happen.

A ‘smartphone’ based defibrillator

Published in the Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

Eighteen people die from cardiac arrest every day in Ireland, with two per week under the age of 35, and a whopping 70 per cent of those die outside hospital.

That’s according to figures from the Sudden Cardiac Death Support Group. This means there is a significant number of people that collapse from sudden cardiac arrest at home, on the street, playing football, or any number of places.

These people may have had a chance of survival if a defibrillator device was applied to them quickly to get their heart going again, but that wasn’t available. Therefore, the idea of two Belvedere College students, Owen Killian and Lucas Grange [both pictured here outside their school- Owen is on the right] to use a mobile phone as a defibrillator is a potentially life saving one.

The idea is that when someone collapses, a person – ideally with medical training – would arrive on the scene carrying their smartphone defibrillator. The first thing the smartphone user would do would be to attach a small peripheral device, a little larger than a matchbox in size, to their phone.

This device would have electrodes already attached and ready to go, and it would easily fit into a coat pocket, doctor’s bag, or someone’s briefcase. The operator would then attach pads to the person in trouble, and a special phone ‘app’ would be opened that would analyse the rhythm of the heart.

At the same time, a call could be made to the emergency services to inform them of the situation and ensure that they would arrive for backup if required. The phone then comes back with a reading which tells the operative if the heart rhythm is ‘shockable’ or not. If the answer is yes, the device applies the shock, and talks the user – if a non medical professional – through the use of CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation).

Owen Killian said that there are other AEDs (automated external defibrillator) on the market, but they are not light, with the lightest right now being 400g. The Belvedere lads say that their AED is much lighter than what is available right now, cheaper, simpler, more portable, and not designed just for doctors’ use.

The boys have ambitions to develop their AED into a real world commercial product, and they have got it as far as the ‘proof of concept’ stage just now. At the moment they are working on developing the parameters for the device to analyse heart rhythms that are shockable and not shockable.

The students are modest enough to state, meanwhile, that being lucky enough to be in a school with such great science facilities and teachers has helped greatly. “The reputation the science department has built up over the years of being an innovative, accessible and driven section of the school is greatly deserved,” said Owen.

Preventing volcanic ash damage to jet engines

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

We all remember the chaos caused by the eruption of the volcano in Iceland earlier in the year, and how fearful airlines were of the resulting ash cloud. Therefore, it is very timely that Ahmed Saeed, Seán Power and Craig Laurie, – pictured on the right – three transition year students at Castletroy College, Limerick, have been investigating how to prevent damage to a jet engine from volcanic ash.

The students had been exploring a number of ideas for the BT Exhibition, and eventually started thinking about environmental problems in the modern world. The biggest environmental problem Ireland faced in recent years, of course, was the disruption caused when the cloud of ash erupted out of the Icelandic volcano.

The idea was also triggered by a relative of one of the students getting caught, and being unable to travel into or out of Ireland following the Icelandic eruption. Their teacher, Leonard Coughlan, says the students are running a test at the moment that aims to replicate what happens in a jet engine when ash enters. The idea then will be to design a system that can render the ash harmless to jet engine. One danger is to avoid creating a problem worse than the initial problem.

The students are realistic and believe that he problem will not be easily solved. However, they are determined to come up with a solution to a ‘real world’ issue. Certainly, should the students come up with a solution to this problem, they have an idea that could be potentially commercialized and sold as a product in future.

This could help ensure that flights are no longer grounded following eruptions, and geologists believe that more eruptions are a possibility this year, or next. As for the importance of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition to the students, Leonard said: “In my opinion I think the show is quite important to them, as it gives them a look at how other teenagers approach science and their curiosity affects their investigations.”