In Search of Techne

Ch 5.1: The DIAS and 'Big Science'

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to

On the whole the writer has attempted to avoid conveying an impression of elitism about science; the 'gee-whiz' school of popular scientific journalism is abhorrent to him. This has resulted in his promoting a somewhat parochial view of science, ie that which is relevant to the specific Irish context, Ireland being a small developing country on the fringe of the European heartland. An important window into the world of 'big science' (ie those areas of science where wealthy States see fit to invest many millions of pounds into expensive equipment, a typical example being high-energy nuclear physics) is the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. The following essays relate to the work of this Institute primarily; there are also some comments on some aspects of 'big science' not strictly related to the Institute, though if there were an Irish involvement it would be likely to be through the window of the Institute, or in some form of association with it.

April 2 1970

The work of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies may seem remote and esoteric. In fact, it is of national importance; it constitutes a demonstration of the kinds of links which exist between Irish science and that of the world mainstream. The DIAS consists of three schools: Theoretical Physics, Cosmic Physics and Celtic Studies. I shall write now of the first and come back to the second at a later date. The third is outside the scope of a science and technology column (although the scientific analysis of language, using computers,is a possible bridge(1)).

In 1945 the late Professor Erwin Schroedinger (who stands in relation to the physics of the atom as Einstein does to that of the universe) gave some lectures in Dublin under DIAS auspices in which he laid what is generally conceded to have been the theoretical basis for the new science of molecular biology; in particular, that the encoding of the information necessary for transmitting inherited characteristics from parent to offspring was theoretically possible by means of arrangements of atoms within the molecules of the matter comprising the sperm and the ovum.

This brilliant flash of insight was produced at a time when the biologists were feeling the need for some specific model to describe the nature of the 'genes' that they had postulated to account for the Mendelian laws of inheritance, and when certain technical developments (such as the use of computers to analyse the evidence from X-ray scattering experiments(2)) were becoming available.

This historic Dublin root for a new and burgeoning branch of science..... was evoked by Professor H Frohlich, of Liverpool, on February 9 at a lecture given to the Royal Irish Academy on the same subject. He had just completed a period as visiting professor at DIAS. After paying tribute to Schroedinger, Professor Frohlich went on to develop his own ideas at the borderline between physics and biology. These went further than techniques and addressed themselves to fundamentals: from the known properties of cell walls and the electrical forces that act across them, there ought to exist resonances at certain frequencies in the far infra-red, that technically difficult region of the spectrum between radiant heat and microwaves.

The nature of these resonances might throw light on the nature of the organised chemistry of the life-processes; he suggested that 'long-range order' effects might be of significance for understanding the mode of operation of enzymes (these are the factors responsible for controlling chemical reactions by cunning rather than by force.....). There is need for new insight into this question, as the best theory of enzyme action available is wrong by a factor of ten to the power of ten.

In the audience was Louis Jacob, who is currently working in UCD on the effects of bombarding biological material with electrons, and who contributed materially to the discussion. There is as yet no experimental base for Professor Frohlich's conjectures..... Is it too much to hope that it might be in Ireland?(3)

The DIAS holds also a Mathematical Symposium three times a year; this acts as a meeting-ground for mathematicians and scientists from all the Irish universities, and usually attracts some from abroad.It decides its content democratically, operating a system where postulant speakers to the following symposium have to give a five-minute 'preview' of their proposed paper to the current one, so that the body of the meeting can decide the priorities by voting.

The latest one took place on March 23-24. Imperial College, London, was represented, as well as Queens University, Belfast, and the other Irish colleges. A few examples drawn from this symposium will illustrate the potential and actual benefits of having the DIAS in existence.

Stress analysis is a branch of applied mathematics which affects the ordinary citizen, in that when one flies in an aircraft it is comforting to know that the wings will not fall off. How much metal can the manufacturer gouge out from the mainspar to reduce weight and increase payload without this dire consequence?

Engineers use computers to solve stress problems. One method is to chop the solid body up, conceptually, and pretend it is made of triangular chunks, so as to make the mathematics easier. Full-blooded stress analysis involves entities known as 'tensors'; these are shorthand forms for handling multiple variables. Thus a third-order tensor in three dimensions has twenty-seven components, but can be treated in the analysis as if it were a single object.

Relativity theory also employs tensors. Professor JL Synge, who is perhaps better known to readers of this paper for his elegant and witty book-reviews, and perhaps also as a nephew of John Millington Synge, has made this his lifework; he is the author of a series of standard works in which various problems connected with the relativistic laws of motion are reduced and rendered theoretically soluble, using geometrical insights and the machinery of tensor calculus. Geometrical insight in four dimensions is an art and has an aesthetic of its own.

Along comes Professor EC Dillon from Cork, and in a 'preview' suggests that there are analogies between the engineers' short-cut in stress analysis and Professor Synges's work. This, if true, would mean that an arsenal of theoretical weapons developed in this area of pure physics might become avaiable for engineering calculations. Thus science evolves by two-way interaction between theory and practice.

Another esoteric subject figuring in the DIAS symposium was liquid helium......Below a certain critical (rather low) temperature, helium develops some extraordinary properties, such as to pose fundamental and complex theoretical problems.

For example, it loses all viscosity, becoming 'superfluid' and flowing unimpeded through tightly-packed plugs of material. By means of liquid helium, a device can be made which converts thermal into mechanical energy directly, without going through the wasteful process of taking in heat at high temperature and putting it out again at low. It is a superconductor of heat, and boils without any apparent motion.

Engineers are already beginning to play with liquid-helium systems. Metals at these temperaatures lose all resistance to electricity, and a loss-free power-line becomes a possibility. There are already applications for superconducting systems for generating magnetic fields for use in high-energy physics experiments. It is cheaper to refrigerate to liquid- helium temperatures than to water-cool the magnet at ordinary temperatures. The underground, loss-free power-line is therefore a distinct long-term possibility, with consequent benefit to the environment and conservation of energy.

Reporting theoretical work relevant to the understanding the laws of motion of superfluid helium at the DIAS symposium were Dr PD McCormack (UCC) and Professor AI Solomon (DIAS). Both were working, from different angles, on mathematical descriptions involving vortex rings.

At present, the experimental base of this work is abroad; this slows down the rate of development of the Irish work. There is a prospect, however, of low-temperature work developing in Galway. This would give a boost to this kind of fundamental research, and provide a good basis for developing the associated engineering techniques.

A 'centre of excellence'(this concept(4) is beginning to take shape) needs a delicate balance between these apparently conflicting factors, and between the world mainstream and Irish scientific life.

Clearly there exists the basis for a 'centre of excellence' in DIAS, even on consideration of the theoretical end alone. Yet its role has consistently been underestimated by those who control the purse-strings....

May 20 1970

On April 2 I described some of the theoretical work in progress in the DIAS. I commented that most of this work was linked with experimental work in progress elsewhere(5).

Similarly the experimental scientific work which is in progress in the School of Cosmic Physics of the Institute is linked up with theoretical work which is going on elsewhere(6). A direct link-up between theory and experiment within the Institute has occurred only on rare occasions.

Despite this lack of internal cohesion, the Institute has contributed, and is contributing, to the advancing of the frontiers of knowledge in three distinct and largely unrelated experimental fields: astrophysics, cosmic ray physics and geophysics.

To describe these fields of study in terms comprehensible to the layman requires that the imagination be stretched. Physics is common to all three: the study of the composition, structure and interactions of matter in its various forms.

If you have matter in large quantities at high temperatures, where the forces at work are gravitational, thermal, electromagnetic, nuclear, hydrodynamic, etc, then you have astrophysics. The problem is to make a model of a star, or system of stars, using the known properties of all these types of force, which predicts the behavious of the actual universe as analysed by the nature of the light emitted by its various components.

(What other system is composed of many interacting parts, exhibits periodic fluctuations, undergoes revolutionary transformation from time to time, and is not under the control of those trying to understand it? No prizes for the answer: a market-dominated economy. I conjecture that an astrophysicist would be good at building economic models, and I have heard of one such apparently curious transition.)

Professor Wayman, in Dunsink Observatory, which is part of the School of Cosmic Physics, is engaged jointly with the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceaux (this was originally at Greenwich, whence Greenwich Mean Time etc) in a project which involves the automatic analysis of photographic plates of stars using a scanning device linked directly to a computer. This takes the labour out of the work of cataloguing the stars, and opens up the possibility of working over old plates going back 20 or even 100 years in such a way as to detect the relative motions of individual stars.

Various theories of the universe predict different distributions of densities and velocities of stars; these theories have a bearing on our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter.

The technology used in building these analytical systems is as sophisticated as modern engineering can produce: optical, electronic, hydraulic, high-precision mechanical and other such elements must all work together as an integrated system(7).

One may ask why money should be spent if the answer comes out in the 'nice to know' category but is no actual use.

Last week I stated that the main justification for basic research was not so much the actual results, as the production of people trained to work without the text-book. I would add to this another argument: if in a basic experiment techniques are pushed to the limit, or new techniques invented, the technical expertise connected with basic research work is useful to have around.

This type of expertise exists and has been maintained over the years in the workshops of the School of Cosmic Physics, where Jeremiah Daly has established a world reputation for precision instrument-making.

Microscope stages with straight-line motion correct to one part in a million over a 10cm traverse, built in the Daly workshop, are standard equipment in the School of Cosmic Physics. Micrometer eyepieces involving spiders-web graticules have been in demand from laboratories abroad familiar with the Daly expertise.

There is now emerging a technique for etching tiny holes in plastic sheet marking the paths of cosmic-ray particles. Such a technique could have an application in the manufacture of precision filters(8); one could expose the sheet to artificially-accelerated particles of known energy, etch it and obtain a filter of known regular pore size, for which there could be many applications in research or in industry.

To understand why they need this technique, it is necessary to give some idea what cosmic rays are.

Astrophysics shows how in various ways matter can be accelerated up to very high energies by electromagnetic forces, during the process of star-formation, for example. All types of matter are involved, from hydrogen right up to uranium. These high-energy particles, after galactic trajectories, strike the top of the Earth's atmosphere, where they are known as cosmic rays. If one sends up a balloon with a suitable detector, one can find out about them.

The School of Cosmic Physics has a group under Professor Cormac O Ceallaigh which is engaged in analysing the shape and size of the holes punched in plastic sheet by cosmic rays. They invented the technique, and it has become accepted as a major breakthrough in this field.

It has the advantage that heavy particles can be distinguished from each other with high precision. Results already obtained by groups abroad using the Dublin technique show the possibility of elements heavier than uranium occurring(9); this, if true, will have profound theoretical implications both in nuclear physics and astrophysics.

Interesting and important though this work is, it is necessary to dwell upon a negative element which has been imposed on it from outside. I refer to the structural obstacles which forbid or discourage mobility and interchange between the Institute and the Universities. Just as mobility of personnel between the Applied Research Institutes and the Universities .....would reduce the text-book content of courses in favour of a research-minded approach to real problems, so would similar mobility in the case of the DIAS give the university students an additional exposure to world mainstream research, from which they could only benefit.

The procedure would not be to have people from DIAS giving text-book lectures as a routine chore; this they would rightly resent. Instead they would be encouraged to talk, at first hand off the cuff, about their work; these seminars might be substituted for areas of the standard syllabus which had become outdated.

(University lecturers)..would find themselves with a lighter lecture load, thanks to the influx of research-seminar-type material, so that they would be in a position to produce more original work of their own.

I make no apology for re-iterating this cross-fertilisation theme. I regard it as the central creative element in my own experience, and I confess to regarding its propagation almost as a crusade. Those who regard crusading as a reprehensible pastime forget that from the Crusades sprang the Renaissance......

May 28 1970

Occasional press reports in recent months about undersea explosions off the coast of Wexford, accompanied by the presence of a curiously-equipped vessel, have given rise to speculation. This work is in fact a geophysical survey organised by the United Kingdom Environmental Research Council. It involves the British Institute of Geological Sciences, and also the Geophysical Section of the DIAS....

Just as we rely on the British Navy for our hydrographical information, we tend to depend on other peoples' technical services in related fields. This type of work however is sometimes best done on contract with specialist firms, who spend most of their time serving the oil companies. The Irish survey.....has been carried out painstakingly over a long period by the DIAS team, without the benefit of adequate technical services, for which the resources have been lacking.

Similarly, the exact position of Ireland on the map of the world is still only known with accuracy appropriate to classical surveying techniques as practiced 100 years ago. The basic services of cartography and surface geological surveying are only now beginning to recover from a half-centruy of neglect. There are now about 20 graaduates on the staff of the Geological Survey (its all-time low at the end of the fifties was two!). Even yet they are unable to attract a senior geophysicist, thanks to salary constraints in the Civil Service.

In spite of the inadequate technical services, the DIAS group under Professor Thomas Murphy has managed, by suitable collaboration, to keep alive geophysical research in Ireland. Currently a collaboration in paleomagnetism is in progress, involving Dr McAuley in TCD and Professor Runcorn in Newcastle.

Runcorn has for many years been associated with theoretical models of the Earth's interior; these attempt to explain the magnetic field by regarding the Earth as a huge dynamo, powered by thermal energy, with the molten core continuously rising and sinking in closed loops, like thick soup boiling.

The motions in the molten core are responsible for the slow drift apart of the continents. This phenomenon, long suspected on evolutionary evidence (tracing back the South American and African fauna to common ancestors, for example), has now been confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt by the paleomagnetic evidence: this consists in measuring the magnetic fields of rock samples, thereby observing the directions of the Earth's magnetic field at the times that the rocks were laid down. The apparent 'wandering' of the poles can be tied up with the real drift of the continents. To clinch the matter came the work on the mid-Atlantic ridge, which has been shown to be the place where the Earth's core is surging up, pushing Europe and America apart, as though on two great conveyor-belts(10).

How Ireland fits into this picture is the business of the DIAS. How is Ireland moving relative to Europe? What is the exact direction of motion? How were the Irish mineral deposits formed? If there were a good geophysical understanding of the processes at work, mineral prospecting would be a more exact science. The oil and mining companies know this and they value Professor Murphy's services highly. However the only way he can sell his services is on a barter basis: free exchange of information and services in both directions. The type of geophysical work done by him and his team on the open market would fetch about 100 per diem.

There is also scope for developing geophysical survey techniques in the search for water. These techniques exist; it is a matter of organising to use them, and staffing up to meet the demand.

There is no Irish university teaching in geophysics(11). It would be a natural development if the DIAS were to take this on, as an element in a rationalised and merged university structure.

It would also seem reasonable to make consultancy services available on a commercial basis, with some constraints on the amount of staff time involved. Yet the present rules of the DIAS discourage this, despite the evident close links between theory and fundamental research (on the one hand) and immediately applicable and valuable information, such as mining companies want, in this rapidly advancing field (on the other hand).

October 21 1970

.....It is impossible to avoid having the emotions stirred by the re-telling of the Apollo-13 rescue epic. The most evocative moment, for me, was the adaptation of the lithium hydroxide containers from the command-module system to that of the landing-craft, so that the CO2 could be cleansed from the air in the 'lifeboat'. They had to make a duct with cardboard and sticky tape.

Every seasoned experimental scientist will remember at least one similar experience, where by a brilliant string-and-sealing-wax adaptation, using something improbable, like a bicycle-pump or an umbrella, a crucial run of the experiment has been saved from disaster. Few, however, will have had the added spice of knowing that their lives depended on it.

Having paid due respect to the emotion of the occasion, I feel it is necessary to cast some doubts on the scientific value of the operation. In my opinion, manned moon landings are premature.

Any scientist involved in probing a new area should be in a position to do the job personally, before handing over the routine data-gathering to the technicians as a chore, however well-trained observers they may be.

If a scientist publishes results completely dependent, from the start, on the work of technicians, in a field never yet explored, the conclusions would rightly be suspect. Yet this is the position in which those scientists working with moon materials find themselves. Many are in revolt against it.

At present, however, it seems that the sheer technological complexity of the operation makes it necessary for the astronaut to have the training of a test-pilot/engineering technician. If there had been a scientist (a geologist, say) on the Apollo-13 mission, it could plausibly be argued that survival would have been less probable, as on that occasion skilled technicianship was the premium qualification.

A slower build-up, with orbiting space-stations, enabling scientists to get their spacemanship training over a period, prior to manned moon-landings with a balanced team of scientists and technicians, would in my opinion have been a more sensible strategy. After all, there is no hurry. The moon has been there some thousands of millions of years; it can wait a decade. This appears to be the philosophy adopted inthe USSR, where the priority seems to have shifted away from manned landings and towards developing fully automatic systems, which will be usable in other and possible more hostile environments, such as that on Venus.

The basic reason for the undue haste appears to be the over-riding force of national prestige, coupled with pressure from the military. It is a pity that this type of stress has been allowed to poison what otherwise would be a world epic.

It would also be a pity if the glamour of these projects were to attract young people interested in science and technology to the extent of committing them to a highly specialised career abroad. From such a career redundancy often spells unemployability(12). Nor should the human and social problems, which are increasingly yielding to good appropriate technological solutions, be put in the shade by the wizardry of these forward areas.

Finally, let me briefly debunk the 'spin-off' argument, which asserts that that materials and systems developed for space find use elsewhere. They do, but these uses are often contrived; where they do fulfil a real need it would be ever so much cheaper to develop for the 'spin-off' application in the first place, as could perfectly well be done if the money were to be made available.

August 25 1971

......On May 20 last year I wrote about the School og Cosmic Physics in a series devoted to the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Owing to the fact that I adopted what amounted to a sampling procedure, there were whole areas of work left out......

I regret particularly on my visit in may '70 having missed the hyperfragment work, owing to the absence of Tom Cantwell. This work has close affinities with the field in which I served my apprenticeship; there has been continuity in techniques and experimental strategy since the discovery of the first hyperfragment by Danysz and Pniewski in Warsaw in or about 1950. I have since had the opportunity to remedy this omission; there are a number of features of interest, even to a lay reader.

Firstly, what is a hyperfragment? We are mostly familiar with the atom, which has a heavy core or nucleus composed of building-blocks called nucleons. These are bound together with the aid of particles called mesons which exist in a continuous and stable form when they are the glue holding the nucleons together, but if you try to isolate them they survive only for about 10 to the power of -8 seconds. This is long enough to measure their mass, spin and other properties using various refined techniques.

There is a family of these mesons. They can exist also in the form of excited states of nucleons: these are called hyperons and decay, usually in about 10 to the power of -10 seconds into a nucleon and a meson.

A hyperfragment is a nucleus with many nucleons, one of which is in the hyperon state. The study of the nucleus under these esoteric conditions is known as hypernuclear physics. The energies involved per event are of the order of some hundreds of millions of electron volts (MeV). To get this in perspective, the basic event connected with the nuclear bomb, uranium fission, produces only a few MeV. So we are 'in the big league, energy-wise'.

This explains the ease with which 'big' nuclear physics has been able to screw money out of governments since the war(13). Fortunately for the citizens, however, diminishing returns has set in, and hypernucleonics at present remains pure basic research and is unlikely to give anything to the military people(14).

In the time of the writer at the DIAS, individual events were studied.

Indeed, O Ceallaigh and the writer in 1952 discovered the first known case of a 'sigma-minus hyperon' decaying at rest in photographic emulsion: we measured its mass and published a paper in the Philosophical Magazine. (I say 'discovered' with a certain diffidence. In a sense it was discovered by Mairin Johnston, the writers then spouse, who was working as a microscopist; she had the wit to recognise certain odd features in the course of a routine scan. We then spent some months verifying it and excluding all other possibilities. How does good technicianship get recognised? Any lab is limited fundamentally by the level of its technicianship, yet the academic usually gets all the credit and the limelight!).

There is direct continuity in the DIAS between the early work and Cantwell's work; the latter involves careful statistical and dynamic analysis of thousands of events produced under carefully controlled conditions. One feature of this continuity is a tradition of group collaborations. In 1955 we had the 'G-Stack' collaboration involving Dublin (DIAS,UCD), Bristol, Brussels, Milan and Gottingen. This involved analysing hypernuclear events produced (at balloon altitudes, 20 miles up or so) by cosmic rays, in the largest stack of photographic emulsions ever flown. The problem of organising and managing a collaboration (without a 'boss', although a type of respected co-operative leadership emerged) was formidible, but we managed to standardise our techniques and produced creditable results.

This group continued, with additions and subtractions, right through the fifties and into the sixties. When the big accelerators became operational, rendering cosmic rays obsolete as an energy source, the collaboration switched over to using them. The present collaboration involves London, Belgrade, Berlin, Brussels and Warsaw, as well as DIAS and UCD. The UCD collaborators are C ni Ghogain and Alex Montwill. TThere are 14 physicists and 300 technicians involved; material is used from the three great world high-energy particle centres: Brookhaven (USA), CERN (the European centre at Geneva) and Dubna (near Moscow).

It might be said: is this not the 'sailing-ship effect'? (Sail technology advanced most rapidly after steamships were invented.) Is not photographic emulsion obsolete as a nuclear physics technology? The answer is yes, but not for hyperfragments. No other technique can rival the precision of nuclear emulsion for the analysis of these phenomena; there are basic reasons why this is so.

This is world-class work, and the DIAS is to be congratulated for having kept it up. Its importance, however, derives not only from its intrinsic interest but from the opportunity it presents for familiarising Irish students and university research workers at first hand with the scientific activities at the frontiers of 'big science' (ie using equipment funded lavishly by wealthy governments). It also teaches the art of collaboration. It is frustrating, therefore, to have to state that this opportunity is being let slip in the case of the DIAS, due to its isolation from contact with research students in the universities.

On the one hand you have the universities and colleges, with some impossible lecture load...., on the other you have full-time research workers starved of human contact.

One can imagine without difficulty a flexible system, where a teaching-research ratio is allowed to find its own level between cextremes of (say) 80-20 and 20-80, with mobility of staff between centres. The same criticism holds for the cases of the IIRS and the Agricultural Institute.......

November 17 1971

....The Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies has an annual 'statutory public lecture' which has a much higher standing abroad than in Ireland, like the DIAS itself. World figures have given it. Yet apparently so diffuse is the planning of events of this stature that it can be allowed to occur at Belfield on the afternoon of the Science Faculty meeting, with the result that few, if any, of the UCD physicists, mathematicians and biologists were able to come and hear a brilliant lecture by Professor Max Dresden (currently of New York State University, previously of the Bohr Institute, Copenhagen), on a subject which could have bridged their interests: population dynamics.

Professor Dresden's basic thesis was the richness of physics in ideas for models descriptive of systems outside physics proper. He leaned on the early work of Volterra (1931), who established a basic set of differential equations governing multi-species ecological systems (prey-predator systems have population numbers which tend to oscillate), and attempted to explain why Volterra, who obviously had something to say, was ignored until the last decade or so........

May 3 1972

.....There is an embryonic 'award system' in existence, in that there are things like the Boyle Medal which has been conferred by the RDS on eminent scientists on 24 occasions since 1895 when it was founded. The latest recipient is Professor J L Synge....(who) gave a lecture in which he covered, with his usual wit, the high points of his career.

The topics which he chose to summarise for us included:

1. The kinematics of steering a motor-car: Synge found an exact solution, which involve a linking mechanism which had non-circular gear-wheels. He read this as a paper to the Dublin University Mathematical Society in 1925. There was, and still remains, a considerable distance between the DUMS and the Coventry mechanical engineers, so that the industry has to date had to be content with an approximate solution involving more manageable linkages.

2. In 1933 he tried, together with a dentist, to derive a theoretical explanation of the properties of the pereodontal membrane. Again, nothing came of this, but Professor Synge obviously enjoyed doing the job sufficiently to want to regale us with it on this occasion.

3. Problems like the force and torque on a spinning shell came up for solution, during the war. The classical theory had been worked out by Ralph Fowler in the first world war. The war work in which Synge participated ...enabled him to derive joy in exposing a mistake in Fowler, despite the wartime pressures.

The above anecdotes illustrate that there is room for a practical streak in the most hard-core theoreticians, and that it is a source of enrichment....

Synge's great love, however, has been the development of relativity theory and his use of geometrical idea therein. One of his great 'might-have-beens' emerged, which he illustrated with a letter from Schroedinger od 1924. He had seen the de Broglie paper in which the idea of 'electron waves' was first suggested. Synge is convinced that if he had studied Hamilton before de Broglie, he would have discovered quantum mechanics before cSchroedinger. The seminal ideas are all in Hamilton's Optics.

We have giants among us(15); world-figures whose names will be inthe school textbooks in coming decades, if not centuries. The measure of our national scientific ignorance is that when the scientific community chooses to confer a modest honour on them, there is not even a press photographer present. The human race will begin to mature when world-figures like Einstein (or Synge) are honoured, and the aesthetics of their works understood, to the same extent as Beethoven or van Gogh.

To give some glimpse of the meaning of the theory or relativity: sci-fic enthusiasts will know about the 'asymmetric aging' phenomenon. A twin who goe away to Sirius in a super-fast rocket might age, say, five years. When he returns he finds his brother has aged 20 years.

Well, Professor Hafele, of St Louis, has flown two Hewlett-Packard atomic clocks around the world in opposite directions, and compared the times recorded with that on a stationary clock, finding a positive effect (only a few thousand-millionth of a second, but measurable). This shows up a time-gravitation interaction, which is a 'general relativity' effect.

The real beauty of Einstein is in the manner with which Newton's 'inverse square law' comes out by a geometric path of reasoning, something like Pythagoras' theorem.

May 2 1973

This year for the first time the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies has produced an Annual Report in a form readily digestible by the general public. This covers the academic year 1971-72, so it does not contain any reference to the recent DIAS Statutory Lecture by Professor Casimir, who is President of the European Physical Society, on March 9. I had the opportunity of giving advance notice of this, and it was well attended..... I did not get the chance yet to comment upon it, so I take the opportunity of doing so now, along with the DIAS report.

Professor Casimir is a 'practical philosopher' who by his discoveries has helped to make money for Philips at Eindhoven. He spoke on various models for the interaction between pure and applied science. He spoke with authority and contributed material of key significance to those who formulate our national science policy; I doubt however if the feedback signal here was as strong as it should be.

What follows (until further notice) is Casimir; my own comment is in parentheses.

Industry does not know enough to guide basic science. The boilermakers should not be expected to finance the Curies (ie radioactivity as a steam-generator in 1910 was a long shot!).

There are two distinct patterns: science preceding technology (electromagnetism, electronics, solid state electronic systems....) and technology preceding science (construction, windmills, sailing ships, steam engines etc preceding elasticity theory, aerodynamics, thermodynamics....). Both streams feed each other creatively.

The lead-time for adoption of new scientific discoveries is getting longer, not shorter; on the other hand basic science uses new technology often with no delay at all; sometimes it makes its own technology (this can spin off into industry, as in the case of low-temperature and vacuum technology). The motivation of industry is to make money; that of the scientist to gain recognition, both in the firm and in the scientific community. This does not necessarily lead to schizophrenia.

Firms can have various structures for their research, development and production. The key things to watch are the interfaces. Some structures can give interfaces proportinal to N, others to N squared, where N is the number of distinct development lines.

In all cases it is necessary to put the final development phase near to production (AFT and IIRS please note this!). One tends to underestimate the problems of going from research to development; you have to transfer people. In R&D the D people have to sell their problems to the R people. Coaxing and blackmail are necessary to get people interested. Euratom is a flop because this liaison is not established.

Not all basic research leads to industrial application. The importance of basic research does not necessarily relate to utility. Doing basic research provides a training in the scientific approach to problems.

The science-technology loop is closely coupled; science however is weakly coupled to the socio-economic system.

The essence of civilisation is when man embellishes his tools. Physicists viewed as artists are not good at getting others to share their pleasures.

Thus far Professor Casimir.

I can only record my regret that more people, especially those responsible for our science policy decisions, were not present to hear this beautiful, practical and civilised exposition of the philosophy of science ant technology. The DIAS deserves credit for laying it on.

Does this represent a new trend in DIAS thinking? Such a trend might be regarded as represented by people like Theo Garavaglia, who commutes between the College of Technology at Kevin St and the DIAS, producing work on the topology of the genetic double helix which may throw quantitative light on the mutation rate, or like Brendan Scaife, who is producing monographs on the electrical properties of semi-conductors. Schroedinger initiated this 'lateral thinking' in the 40s when he produced his pioneering book 'What is Life?' in which he, the doyen of the quantum physicists, looked over the fence into biology.

There are legalistic obstacles to the linking of DIAS into the third-level education system. Increasingly, however, individuals are taking cross-fertilising initiatives and administrative obstacles are being by-passed. Soon they will become dead letters.


On February 12 there was a DIAS lecture by Professor Sciama, of Oxford, on the problem of energy sources in the Universe. This constituted a fascinating guided trip to the frontiers of astrophysics, where exotic gravitational phenomena such as 'black holes' are stimulating the imagination. Few fields have had so many basic discoveries in the last decade as astrophysics. I will come back later, perhaps, to attempt to outline the Sciama lecture, if I can summon the necessary distillation energy to get the essence and make it accessible to lay comprehension.

There is a respect for astronomy, deeply rooted in the folk-imagination; the clash of science with the religious approach to the heavens is one of the great historic epics. On the 18th of last month there was opened an exhibition, in the TCD Library, devoted to the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nicholas Kopernik, or Copernicus, whose work paved the way for Galileo and Newton.....sponsored by the DIAS jointly with TCD. Professor Wayman, of Dunsink Observatory, and Professor Lanczos, of the School of Theoretical Physics, spoke at the inauguration; this....received good news coverage on April 19.


So far I have been pre-empting next year's DIAS Annual Report. Let me summarise and comment on the year 71-72.

Celtic Studies continues with its work of cataloguing the early Irish manuscripts. Some edited texts have been produced for the Department of Education for use in the Leaving Certificate. There was a brief foray into the sociolinguistics of Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh at the 1972 Summer School.

Viewing Celtic Studies as a branch of science, and being aware of the nature of the ineraction between pure and applied science, I feel I need to get a comment off my chest, which some scholars may take as critical. The essence of the problem, in the outside world, is how to make a language live and reflect a culture that people want and value. The problem of how the language came to be what it is, and how it relates to other languages, is of importance if and only if its solution contributes to the viability of the living language.

I do not see any evidence in the DIAS Report that Celtic Studies are aware of the gravity and urgency of the socio-linguistic problem. I have seen (unpublished) work by Dr Eileen Kane, an American anthropologist, which shows with merciless clarity the terrible fragility of the last vestiges of the living culture. I suggest that Celtic Studies needs to come out of the ivory tower, and get concerned with the fundamentals of how consciously to teach a language and build a culture in it, before it is too late. I view with apprehension the link with the Leaving Certificate: does this mean that the holders of the 'two Honours for the price of one'(16) are to be steered safely into an arid scholasticism, accessible to the favoured few?

We need an analogue of Professor Casimir in Celtic Studies.

I note also the lack of any reference to Breton, which sociolinguistically is stronger than Irish, and which is undergoing cultural repression at the hands of the Paris government in a 19th century manner. As the only Celtic country having a State with funds to devote to this kind of work, we have a moral duty to develop a cultural focus for the Celtic world. We have failed miserably, and left this to a handful of amateur enthusiasts without funds, and with limited skill and standing.


The School of Theoretical Physics continues with its Mathematical Symposia and international contacts; staff members gave 19 lectures outside Ireland.....there were three books and 19 papers published. Professor Loclain O Raifeartaigh is now the Director.

Cosmic Physics has three sections.... The astrophysicists, under Professor Wayman, have been completing the analysis of 200 Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds. These 'tracer' stars are of use in estimating distance in the Universe. Work has also been done on the orbit of Halley's Comet(17).

The Cosmic Ray section, under Professor O Ceallaigh, has been continuing its work on heavy primary cosmic rays, using plastic sheets flown in balloons 27 miles up, for some days. This plastic detector has been developed in conjunction with the GEC laboratories at Schenectady, USA. Elements up to uranium have been detected, and a search is going on for transuranic elements, some of which theoretically may be stable.

The Geophysical Section, under Professor Tom Murphy, has been exploring the Porcupine Bank, 300 Km to the west of Galway Bay, where the sea-bottom is land-like in many of its features. This is important work, as is the investication of the Kingscourt rift valley, which has roots 25 Km down in the crust. These fundamental geophysical investigations give insight into why economic deposits of minerals are where they are; they need to be fostered, strengthened and linked with the university geological departments and the Geological Survey, so that we can benefit from them nationally.


According to Casimir, the importance of basic work is a training in problem-solving. The weakness of the DIAS structure is that it presupposes that the work is primarily important in itself, and that a lifetime of scholarship is its own justification. This is not necessarily always true. What is more, it gives rise to a serious 'manpower planning problem', in that a young man initially interrested in basic research can be led on too far, and become over-specialised. If he then becomes frustrated, where does he go? Here is where the problem is created by the rigid structures of third-level education: he can't go in except as a junior lecturer, he gets no credit for research experience and he has no teaching experience.

There needs to be an easing of the mobility.....

August 8 1974

I had the opportunity on July 31 of seeing over the Glomar Challenger, which was in Dublin port for a few days en route from the Azores to the Arctic. There was a report in the news columns by Dick Grogan on August 1 which highlighted the existence of US-Soviet collaboration in this basic work.

This ship was designed specifically to sample cores from the ocean bottom, in order to study the process of continental drift. It makes use of position-finding and position-control technology refined from off-shore petroleum practice; the drilling techniques are similar but by no means identical. The object is to keep the core intact and to raise it to the surface for scientific analysis in the ship's laboratory.

This analysis involves geologists, geochemists, palaeontologists, physicists and other disciplines. The various teams which have worked on the ship since its commissioning have succeeded brilliantly in unscrambling the historical record; detailed maps are now available which show the locations of the boundaries of the various discrete shell-like plates which constitute the Earth's crust. These plates are being prized apart by convective forces in the Earth's mantle; this takes place at the mid-ocean ridges. Elsewhere they are being forced together; when this happens, one plate goes under (giving an oceanic trench, as off the west coast of the American continent) and the other goes upwards (eg the Andes).

This 'continentaal drift' process was first put forward by Wegener in 1912, on the basis of evidence derived from comparing the flora and fauna of Africa and South America; their evolution could be traced back to a common stock about 100 million years ago. This was ignored until in the 50s the geophysicists started working out the apparent wandering of the poles, as derived by analyses of the directions of magnetisation of marine sediments and volcanic rocks. The hypothesis of continental drift has now been triumphantly vindicated by the work of the Glomar Challenger, to the satisfaction of all disciplines. They have an excellent film which explains very clearly the processes at work and how we have come to understand them. This, I understand, is being made available to RTE through the US Embassy.

July 15 1975

I am not usually starry-eyed about space technology, but I am tempted to display a flicker of interest by a Boeing project (Gordon L Woodcock and Daniel L Gregory at Seattle) to produce 10 Gigawatts of net useful electrical power from a 22 square mile array of mirrors deployed to dcapture solar energy, in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles out in space. A heat engine would work between a high (solar image) temperature source and a three square mile dissipator of low-grade heat. The whole would weigh 71,000 tonnes and would be assembled in space in low orbit and subsequently shunted out. Power would be sent down by micro-wave beam.

The cost of the project, which is considered to be feasible by the end of the century with existing technology, would be $60Bn, which would pay off at 2.5c per KWh.

This to me sounds credible and exciting(18), suggesting that solar power in worthwhile quantities is closer than I had thought.

Another landmark in the co-ordinated exploitation of space will be the Apollo-Soyuz link-up, scheduled for July 15 (ie today!). There has been very little press publicity given to this important evidence of 'detente' and developing peaceful co-operation between the USSR and USA. One of the experiments they will do jointly will be to cast magnetic alloy under gravity-free conditions. On earth, high-coercivity alloys have to be produced by a multi-stage powder-metallurgy process, because under gravity you do not get an even distribution of the magnetic particles in the casting process. This may seem a relatively trivial piece of showmanship, until you realise that the key to the success of large-scale economic satellite projects, such as that described by the Boeing team, is the carrying out of many complex engineering operations in situ. Space will, I think, again become fashionable.


1. See below (May 2 1973)

2. There were two stages in this process; the first was the use of X-ray diffraction to resolve the structures of large molecules. It is of this that the writer was primarily thinking. A pioneer in this field was the Irish scientist JD Bernal, who worked on this problem in Birkbeck College, London, in the thirties. The application of computing techniques to expedite the analysis did not come until the sixties.

3. Nothing came of this that I encountered subsequently. Some work by Louis Jacob was reported in Nature in or about 1979, but there was no visible link. The coupling between DIAS and basic research elsewhere in Ireland was then, and still remains, weak; it could be argued that this type of lecture is a ritual event. The writer flew a kite, hoping that it might prove otherwise.

4. The National Science Council, under the chairmanship of Professor Colm O h-Eocha of UCG, had been attempting to promote 'centres of excellence' as a policy concept. See Chapter 2, p()

5. i.e. in a remote place, not easily accessible by Dublin theoreticians, who had little or no links with any experimental work going on in Ireland.

6. The same as 5 above, in reverse; the emphasis is on the weakness of the coupling.

7. This type of technology is now trickling into engineering under the banner of 'computer-aided design'.

8. This concept has since been upstaged by an alternative technology for precision perforation, using lasers.

9. This result remains to be confirmed. It is theoretically respectable, in that there is a predicted transuranic 'island of stability' in the periodic table. Work continues on calibrating the plastic detector system, using heavy elements of known energy.

10. See below (August 8 1974)

11. There is now a chair in geophysics in UCG. An unsuccessful bid was made to get it for TCD in orr about 1974, leaning on the tradition of Joly, the TCD physicist who at the turn of the century laid the basis for modern geophysics, and produced the first realistic estimate of the age of the earth.

12. In or about 1980, when considering recruiting for a potential 3rd-world orientated development project, in association with a US firm, the writer encountered a mature Irish physicist who had been shed from the US space programme during the contraction of the latter. He had been working as a building contractor.

13. This is far from a confidence trick; the high-energy physicists don't merit comparison with the alchemists of old. In the case of the nuclear bomb they did actually deliver. The momentum of this has sustained superpower interest in nuclear physics to date. Products of this investment are starting to emerge, in the form of laser and particle beam weaponry, still happily at the conceptual stage, though becoming increasingly credible.

14. According to Professor ETS Walton, this was the opinion in the Cavendish Laboratory in the 30s(!). See previous note.

15. Under the stimulus of this, Paddy Gallagher, who does an intellectual chat-show on Irish national television, turned his attention to Synge and Lanczos, producing two memorable interviews which, hopefully, are archived.

16. The then Minister for Education, Mr Richard Burke, subsequently an EEC Commissioner, abandoned 'compulsory Irish' in the Leaving Certificate, substituting 'double honours' status as an alternative incentive.

17. The European Space Agency is currently developing a space-probe to get a close view of Halley's comet at its next arrival in 1986. The DIAS is involved in this 'Project Giotto' (as it is called), instrumenting the detection of high-energy charged particles. The University of Gottingen and Maynooth College are also involved in the collaboration.

18. Today it seems less credible. Thanks to the UN Renewable Energy Conference at Nairobi in 1981, the trend is towards large numbers of small solar energy projects, close to the people, constituting a training-ground for appropriate technology. Also one wonders if enough thought went into the hazards of the microwave beam. Currently the preferred project in this (large-scale) genre involves photovoltaics, the production cost of which is rapidly approaching the magic 'dollar per watt' figure.

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