Studying maths and maths physics as an undergraduate at UCD led Chris Bean into exciting and unexplored directions, such as finding himself atop a volcano in Costa Rica, being interviewed by a TV crew, as he ‘listened in’ to a volcano.
Neither of Chris’s parents were scientists, and rather there was a strong interest in classical music in the house. He did a lot of music as a boy, and for a time he might have thought that his ultimate destiny was to be a classical musician. The boarding school he went to for a time specialised in music, but, he changed schools after the Junior Certificate when he realised that he was not going to follow a career in music.
The first time Chris recalls being interested in science was as a young boy, watching the historic 1969 moon landings. His father got him out of bed to watch the events unfold on what he remembers as a very speckly black and white TV. He was totally captivated – hooked – and he followed all the other Apollo missions in detail.
The interest in science continued from there, and by the time he was in 6th year in school he had begun to develop an interest in the Earth and its natural processes. That interest was triggered at that time by visits to the geology museum at TCD.
A friend of Chris’s was interested in physical geography – the study of the Earth’s natural features – and his friend’s brother was studying physics in TCD. “We used to go down there to hang out after school in 6th year to play snooker, sometimes popping into the geology department for a look around,” recalls Chris. “Yes, officially we probably shouldn’t have been there! but nobody ever tried to stop us.”
At primary school there wasn’t much science taught, he recalls. This was before there was a proper science curriculum at primary level. There were nature studies, but even that was “on the light side”. He remembers being interested in the physical aspect of geography, learning about rivers and so on, but it’s a bit hazy, he says. Primary school students today have a more interesting programme he believes.
Nevertheless, by the time he entered second level his interest in science was gaining strength, and after completing the Junior Cert he decided to take physics for the Leaving Certificate. He went to two different secondary schools, St Finian’s in Mullingar, a school renowned for music, but that also had good science labs, and later to Synge Street in Dublin’s south inner city – a school with a great reputation for science and has produced several winners of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition over the years.
After leaving school he decided to go to UCD to study science and his chosen subjects in his first year were physics, maths and maths physics. There was no clear career path in his mind at this point, he just ‘followed his nose’ and did what he was interested in doing.
He loved the college experience, and enjoyed it much more than school. There was much more freedom, and it was much more open, he says, in terms of the learning experience. It required taking control of things for yourself, but that’s a good thing, he says, and college is a fantastic experience for students that “fully engage” with it.
By now, he found himself watching Earth Science documentaries on television and he realised he was interested in using maths as a way to study how the Earth’s natural processes, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, work. He started down this road by doing an M.Sc. in Applied Geophysics at NUI Galway. Next he did a PhD at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and he spent a lot of time in Karlsruhe University in Germany as part of that. This was a really exciting time for Chris, doing research and travelling the world to present his finding at various conferences. Some of the people he met abroad during this time are still among his best friends.
Chris says that he was “pretty lucky” to get a job at UCD immediately after he finished his PhD at the DIAS. Since then he has also had several visiting positions in France, Spain and the US. One of the great things, of course, about being a scientist – up to now at least! – has been that it offers the chance to work and live abroad, meet new people and learn about different cultures and countries, but still then still be able to come back to a job in Ireland afterwards.
In terms of his work, Chris says that he studies several aspects of geophysical science, that is the physics of the Earth in all its aspects. This includes learning about volcanoes, says Chris. Volcanoes are interesting, he says because we don’t know how they work. The goal is to figure out how volcanoes actually work, which is not to be confused, he says, with describing how they seem to be working.
The volcano work involves going to exciting places and collecting data on volcanoes. It also involves lots of computer simulations of volcano processes. Chris and his colleagues develop new models and write their own software to apply these models.
The work on volcanoes is interesting, but it can also be dangerous, even fatal. Some of Chris’s colleagues were killed in the 1993 eruption on Galeras, Columbia, but he says, such deaths are very unusual. He doesn’t worry too much about the dangers, but neither is he reckless. He cancelled a field experiment due to take place on a volcano in Costa Rica last year, as he was not happy about the safety arrangements.
He also likes to make the point that there is more to geophysics than studying hazards such as volcanoes and earthquakes. There are aspects that are important to civil engineering and building projects, mineral exploration, petroleum exploration, and, increasingly, in the renewable energy area.
Science is exciting, and fun, but like most things it requires dedication adn there is no quick or easy route to success. For someone that is very interested in science, then a career in science can be very rewarding, says Chris.
“The best thing is that fundamentally you are searching for ‘the truth’, for how things work and fit together,” says Chris.
“If you are doing your job properly you will be open to changing your ideas as new evidence requires and you certainly will not toe the partly line, instead you will think independently. The worst thing is that it is hard to switch off. When you walk out of the office your job often walks with you with stuff swirling around in your head.”
In terms of monetary rewards, he says that scientists might have been exploited somewhat in the past because they were so committed to their jobs.
This meant that they didn’t have to be incentivised financially, as a lot of them were driven first and foremost to discover new knowledge.
The upside of this, he says, is that science must therefore be a career with very high levels of job satisfaction, as people are not going into it for purely financial reward.
This situation might be changing, said Chris, and the future looks bright for science.
The best advice he would give is to for students to do what they love best.
“Do law or medicine of you are really interested in law or medicine,” he says. “If you are interested in science and creative new discoveries, do science and it can lead you so some very strange and interesting places.”
“When I was an undergraduate, I never realistically thought that I would be hiking up volcanoes in Costa Rica and getting paid to do it.”
This article was first published in the May-June ed. of Science Spin
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