Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal an an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston

Period 4: the 'Press Release'

We now come to the most recent period, in which the identification problem has become acute, with the award process showing signs of strain.

In 1979 we have Cormac O Ceallaigh(43); regrettably his lecture is not on record (51). The official citation however is to hand, and I feel I can add to it, having worked with him in the 1950s.

After graduating from UCD in 1933 O Ceallaigh worked in 1934-35 with Auger in Paris on cosmic rays using a Wilson cloud chamber controlled by Geiger counters, and then from 1935 in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge under Lord Rutherford. From 1937 to 1949 he lectured in UCC on experimental physics.

He then worked from 1949 to 1951 with Prof C F Powell in Bristol; the latter had recently won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, along with Lattes and Occhialini, for the discovery of the theoretically predicted Yukawa 'nuclear force' particle, the pi-meson(52), of which traces could be identified in photographic emulsion exposed to cosmic rays. O Ceallaigh when with Powell in Bristol identified a meson of a new type, the K-meson, and commenced work on the analysis of its decay-modes.

He returned to Cork in 1951, attempting to continue the work initiated in Bristol, without adequate resources; however he applied for and got the post of Senior Professor in the DIAS in 1953, and there he was in a position to build a team which contributed significantly to the work which he had pioneered with Powell, and to extend it into the study of hyperons and hypernuclei, applying meticulous microscopic measurement techniques to photographic emulsion tracks. In particular, he established the 'mean gap length' between developed grains as a robust inverse measure of the rate of energy loss. The present writer participated in this work, which generated many papers in the international literature.

When in the 60s the emphasis in meson research shifted towards the big particle-accelerators as high-energy particle source, rather than cosmic rays, O Ceallaigh moved up the energy spectrum, and developed novel techniques for measuring the mass and energy of cosmic ray 'heavy primaries'.

Despite O Ceallaigh's international reputation, and participation for many years in various international collaborations, he suffered during his career from minimal recognition within Ireland. This fed his paranoia, and he refused to take the Irish scientific scene seriously, gaining among the Irish scientific elite a reputation for impossibility. His failure to place on record what probably was an erudite and entertaining critical event is, in the opinion of the present writer, a reflection of a sense of cultural alienation from the Irish scientific community.

I can add, from my own experience, that when in the 1950s I began to take an interest in the RDS as a possible focus for events of scientific interest in the Irish context, O Ceallaigh actively discouraged me from doing so.

Despite O Ceallaigh's failure to deliver a paper for the record, he joined the then current group of Boyle Medallists who were the nominators of future Boyle Medallists. In that capacity (I gathered this from him in conversation not long before he died) he was responsible for promoting within the Boyle Medallist group the nomination of the 1981 medallist, R C Geary.

O'Ceallaigh's comment on the foregoing episodes, in a letter to the present writer in April 1994, is worth placing on record: '...Mitchell and I were recommended at the same was agreed that Mitchell should be the first recipient, my actual award being made in the following year....There never was a citation as such. The President (Phyllis Clinch in my case) simply invites the Medallist to submit his sublime oration. I was of the opinion that my material was not suitable for publication in the form in which it was delivered, and simply did nothing about it. Roy Geary was the next Medallist and I put him up. It shows the fatal flaw in the system, for with 'Student', he was Ireland's most distinguished statistician of the century and should have been elected long ago....'.

There is no citation for Geary on record, but there is a press release, which mentions a citation being read by O Ceallaigh, and links the event with the 250th anniversary of the RDS, which event was a pale shadow of the 200th anniversary as celebrated in 1931. Geary was indeed an international luminary of the statistical world, and his recognition in the national context was, as usual in the Irish scientific world, belated.

Geary's Boyle Medal lecture/review paper is on record in typescript, and may eventually get published somewhere. He used it, with wit, to summarise his own career, as Synge had done. It is a mine of anecdotal material, on topics like the Fisher-Pearson controversies, and Schroedinger's remarks on the problem of estimating the number of cars in a town, which took place at a meeting of the Dublin University Mathematical Society, which the writer remembers, having been one of the student officers of the society at the time. It is a genuine tragedy that unique material of this calibre has, in effect, been consigned to limbo.

Then in 1982 we have D A Webb, the TCD botanist, for whom it is possible to revert to the 'period 3' publication procedure, as the section of the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS dealing with this area of science had lingered on.

Webb was a Dixon follower, succeeding the latter as Professor of Botany in TCD in 1950. He had worked in Cambridge before the 1939 war, where he did his PhD on aspects of the chemistry of marine invertibrates. He returned to TCD in 1939 as a botanist, specialising in plant systematics and geography.

His major work Irish Flora first appeared in 1943 and has been frequently updated. It received the accolade of Praeger(53) in 1950. Webb specialised in the flora of Connemara and the Burren, producing in collaboration with Maura Scannell (then and currently a member of the RDS Science Committee) an RDS monograph publication. He was instrumental in getting research funding from abroad into Burren studies in 1958. Vacating the Chair of Botany in TCD for the purpose, he went on to edit Flora Europaea, which has documented 13,000 species in five volumes between 1964 and 1980. This, according to the citation, ..' has been widely held to have been one of the century's most significant works of plant taxonomic scholarship'.

Webb in his discourse reviewed the Irish flora in the European context, with particular reference to the last glaciation. Considering the 15 Irish species not found in Britain in particular detail, he demonstrated their unusually large disjunction from their nearest stations on the continent, which suggests that they were survivors from pre-glacial times.

The 1986 Boyle Lecture by Rev J R McConnell, entitled 'From Nonlinear Optics to Nuclear Magnetics', was published as an RDS 'Occasional paper' in the same year, along with the citation. McConnell had worked with Schroedinger and Heitler in the early days of the DIAS, and became a recognised world authority on quantum electrodynamics, and on the group-theoretic approach to understanding elementary particles. In deference to the RDS, and in the context of describing his work on the anti-proton, he traced the history of the topic back to Stoney, who proposed the electron as a theoretical concept in 1891. Apart from this, the McConnell review is deficient, in that it seems to fall between being a personal odyssey and a review of an area of research, and is satisfactory as neither.

It is relevant at this point to quote again from O'Ceallaigh's 1994 letter to the writer: '....I no longer attend meetings of the Boyle Medal Committee, which has always been a mini-quango devoted to politicking between the TCD faction.... and their UCD opposite numbers....these worthies are precisely my age and might be expected to be doing something better with their time...'. The problem of how to identify talent in the context of the rising tide of broad-based scientific activity was becoming acute, and the need for reconstructing the medal awarding procedure was becoming increasingly evident.

Since then there have been three awards, to P K Carroll (UCD) in 1988, to B K P Scaife (TCD) in 1992 and to E P Cunningham (TCD) in 1996. Citations are available in all cases, but for the first two their review papers were not published.

Professor P K Carroll began his research under Prof T E Nevin in UCD in 1948 on the molecular spectrum of Nitrogen, continuing this work in UCD and QUB, obtaining his PhD in 1953. He then went to Ottawa with a Canadian National Research Council award, working with Dr Gerhard Herzberg, who subsequently received a Nobel Prize.

He worked again in UCD from 1955 to 1960, and was invited subsequently to work at Chicago with Professor R S Mullikan (another subsequent Nobel Prize winner) , followed by a year at the Aerospace Research Centre in Bedford Massachusetts. Finally returning to UCD in 1966 as Associate Professor of Optical Physics he was able to concentrate on the work described in his discourse, being appointed to a full Chair in 1978 after the award by the NUI of a DSc in 1977.

In his discourse, Kevin Carroll attempted the very difficult task of reviewing for a non-specialist audience a highly specialised niche research field. He did this by beginning with a historical review of spectrographic work as it had evolved in UCD since Preston, including his earlier work on molecular spectroscopy.

The main body of the discourse was dedicated to his work subsequent to 1970, which was on the absorbtion spectroscopy of highly excited atoms. This required the production of a continuous-spectrum source of radiation in the region of the spectrum known as the 'vacuum ultraviolet' (ie you have to work in vacuum, because air is opaque). To obtain such a source one had, in the 1960s, to go to an electron synchrotron. By the 1970s however it had become possible to make use of bench-top power lasers, and Kevin Carroll was in a position to develop this resource in such a way as to supply the required type of radiation source, an innovative contribution to the technology of physics experimentation. A pulsed laser beam hitting a solid produces a plasma which has the required radiation properties.

Much of the work was directed at understanding why the source spectrum was continuous; the concept of 'unresolved transition arrays' emerged in the analysis of rare-earth spectra. The 'laser-produced plasma' or LPP-source has entered the toolbox of the vacuum-UV spectroscopist as a result of this work.

The pulsed power-laser lends itself to time-delay applications and a further refinement of this work enabled the study of absorbtion spectra of highly-ionised heavy elements during times from nanoseconds to milliseconds after their pulsed excitation. This enables the spectra of refractory or corrosive elements to be studied (eg thorium or uranium).

Kevin Carroll's published work in this domain is to be found in the global mainstream specialist literature: the Astrophysical Journal (1972, 1976), Optics Letters (1978), Applied Optics (1980), Physical Review A (1982), Journal of Physics B (1984, 1986), Physical Review Letters (1986) and more recently in the SPIE Proceedings, where Vol 1503 contains much of the material on which the Boyle Medal discourse is based. I am indebted to him for access to a set of reprints, a procedure which echoes, and indeed improves upon, that of some of the earlier citations which gave complete publication lists, though without access to reprints.

Professor B K P Scaife graduated in Electrical Engineering in Queen Mary College, London in 1949, where there was a high-voltage laboratory run by Professor Hans Tropper. There was a research group in dielectrics which Brendan Scaife joined. The containment of high voltage by insulation is of course a critical engineering requirement, and it makes sense to try to understand the fundamentals of the dielectric properties of insulators.

After a period working on the measurement of frequency-dependence of dielectric dispersion, Scaife homed in on the influence of high pressure (say of the order of 1000 bars) on dielectric properties as a possible new domain where little was known. As well as the need to understand the basic science, there was perhaps potential interest in the performance of novel insulating materials in transatlantic cables. Picking up on the classic work of P W Bridgman via some equipment designed by G S Wedgwood in 1929 which happened to be around, Scaife managed to re-commission it and adapt it to electrical measurements, with the aid of W D R Manning of ICI who had designed the plant for manufacture of polythene.

The delays in the re-development of this equipment however encouraged Scaife to strengthen his theoretical understanding, in particular the generalisation of the Froehlich theory to the frequency-dependency domain. Postgraduate studies came to an end however without realising the potential of this innovative experimental approach, and Scaife went into industry with GEC in Wembley.

An opportunity to return to Ireland presented itself via the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, where Schroedinger was Director, and this enabled Scaife to strengthen his theoretical physics background, from which basis he established contact with Froehlich in 1951 in Liverpool. This enabled him to spend part-time in Liverpool, keeping up his research contacts, while teaching electrical engineering in the Kevin St College of Technology.

He was recruited to the TCD Engineering School in 1961 in the context of its modernisation and expansion under Professor William Wright, from which basis he was able to set up his high-pressure dielectrics project, making use of the equipment developed earlier in Queen Mary College, which the latter were pleased to donate.

The forgoing citation-type material is abstracted from the discourse, which is in the form of a historical background introduction to the scientific understanding of electricity and dielectric effects, from Thales and the Venerable Bede through Priestley, Gilbert, Boyle, Newton, Franklin, Cavendish, Faraday, Maxwell and others up to the current background dominated by Debye and Frohlich. After the personal odyssey section (as above), he then goes into an account of a series of experiments directed at understanding dielectric effects at high pressures, which pushed the instrumentation technology to the limits, and explored critically various implications of current theoretical understanding, in areas such as electrostriction and ferrofluids.

The foregoing two cases are particular examples of the process of how science in Ireland survived the 'black 50s', when the emigration rate of science graduates was of the order of 50%. The present writer was lucky to survive thanks to O Ceallaigh. We all seem to have adopted similar survival strategies: get in with a good group abroad, if a chance to come back comes up, take it, and build up peripherally, by staying in contact, a niche activity which is accepted as useful on the international network. If a bit of recognition happens within the Irish environment, so much the better, but this is rare. The Boyle Medal is a means of giving some usually belated recognition to people who have survived by this process, and many of the later medallists are one way or another examples of this.

What was lacking, and what now needs to be helped to emerge, is some mechanism for identifying world-class work early, and ensuring that it gets coupled firmly into the development of a network of useful scientific activities within Ireland, whether directly or by association.

The 1996 award of the Boyle Medal to Prof E P Cunningham is perhaps beginning to point in this direction; it reflected the improving fortunes of the RDS and an awareness of the significance of the coming Centenary, and was accompanied by the publication of his discourse, attracting a full attendance on the occasion.

Paddy Cunningham graduated from UCD in Agriculture in 1956, and obtained a PhD in Cornell University on animal genetics in 1962. He went on to head the Animal Genetics Dept in the Agricultural Institute, and became associated with the TCD Genetics Dept in 1964, where he was appointed to a personal Chair in 1974. During this period he was actively supportive of the present writer in his development of the TCD Applied Research Consultancy Group (1976-80)

His discourse 'History, Genetics and the Provisioning of Mankind', is an interesting combination of personal odyssey and review of the field, placing the global food production process in historical perspective, and addressing the problem of how to double the world's food production in the coming century. There is an incursion into the genetic history of the thoroughbred horse, and a report of a campaign for the elimination of the North African screw-worm, using the 'sterile male' technique. He concludes with an approach to estimation of the genetic distance of the European Bos taurus from its related Bos Indicus, and the relationship of both types to the various African breeds, throwing some light on agricultural pre-history.

Copyright (c) Roy Johnston. Web version re-edited June 1999; further editing for printed puiblication is not excluded.

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