Century of Endeavour

Chapter 5.3: Physics in Industry

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

April 16 1970

The work of Dr John O'Connor, head of the Physics Department of St Luke's Hospital, Dublin, does not apparently qualify for inclusion in the Royal Irish Academy Research Register(1). Yet he is providing an important service, having a research component in it, dependent on on a detailed knowledge of an advanced technology. The physics of radiations is not an area that can be left to the junior technician. The work is by no means routine, though it has a routine element (eg the monitoring of film badges worn by personnel)....

There are nine hospital physicists in the Republic, two in St Agatha's, Cork, one each in St Annes and Vincent's, Dublin, the remainder being in St Luke's.

The latter therefore appears to be on the verge of viability as a university-linked applied-physics research centre. There is, however, no university-based medical physics interest in Ireland; in the UK there are six full Departments; they tend to be linked to medical schools rather than to physics departments.

If such a department were to exist in Ireland, it would be likely to take an interest in the general development of physical instrumentation techniques in a wide range of biological fields, as distinct from radiations alone. Ramifications might include soil physics and other agricultural applications, hitherto neglected.

With the rate of recruitment into the medical physics profession at the present low level, a specialist medical physics school would not be viable. An application-orientated school with outlets towards medecine, industry and agriculture would however constitute a useful training ground for physics graduates, who could then be thrown on the market as innovators in various branches of economic life.

There is an increasing use of physical techniques, including radiations, in industry: engineering (weld-testing, non-destructive testing in general), food processing, textiles, paper and pulp products etc. The demand is increasing for instrumentation which controls the process while it is going on, rather than analysing the product afterwards to see what went wrong.

Dr O'Connor provides an industrial-orientated radiation-monitoring service, as a side-line. This is not at present a heavy burden, though it is increasing. The IIRS is fully aware of this, and routes enquiries to it when they come.

The main growth-area on the medical front is the use of isotopes, both in diagnosis and therapy. The term 'isotope' is used for a 'labelled' atom which enters into the biological process in the normal way, but reveals its presence by giving out radiations which can be detected. Some only live a very short time, so that a nearby source of supply is desirable.

There was a proposal for a research-reactor which was turned down in the mid-fifties. One of the arguments made in favour was the need for a local supply of short-lived isotopes. The cost of the research-reactor would have exceeded the total invested in all scientific research, so that there would have been an undue concentration of effort into one centre. This situation might now be worth re-examination.

June 6 1970

It is appropriate in this context(2) to refer to what might have been a creative event as regards the generation of a national policy on physics in Ireland, but wasn't. I refer to the AGM of the Irish Branch of the Institute of Physics and Physical Society.

An address was given by Dr M R Gavin, the President of the Institute.. This touched on many topics relevant to the historical development, economics and sociology of physics in Britain. It would have provided an excellent occasion for a good and possibly heated discussion on the question 'Whither Physics in Ireland', thereby helping to develop people's ideas towards accepting the need for a policy. However, after a few polite words, the evening drew dismally to a close.

Yet afterwards at the reception mutterings could be heard: why were there no National Science Council grants for research in physics?

I suggest that these two phenomena are not unconnected.

If no forum exists in which Irish physics can develop a mind of its own and a sense of purpose, then it is likely to remain a cinderella. The IP and PS could constitute such a forum; this certainly was in the minds of the founders of the Irish Branch in 1965. What has gone wrong?

The Agricultural Science Association has shown itself on occasion to be a policy-formulating lobby. There is nothing disreputable in this; it helps to keep public opinion informed. There is, indeed, a case for giving recognition to all specialist lobbies by giving them direct representation on the National Science Council.

Such a structure would draw out into the open the arguments for the allocation of resources, just as occurs at national level in the Dail. Such discussions would be a breath of fresh air, and could only result in more recognition for science as a worthwhile national investment.

Yet it will not occur unless it is demanded, and if the discussions at the AGM of the IP and PS is anything to go on, any such demand is unlikely to be led by the physicists.

July 22 1970

Last week I mentioned the 'brain-drain' effect: the pull of young scientists towards what they regard as the 'glamour areas' where the international giants are spending their research money. I can illustrate this with an example drawn from the experience of the Agricultural Institute.

The Soils Division, although based at Johnstown Castle, Wexford, has an outstation at Kinsealy for its Soil Physics Department, under Mr W Burke. This is based near Dublin so as to be close to the Land Project(3), with which it collaborates; soil water is one of its main areas of interest. Its attention has also been on the problem of how to deal with the heavy clay drumlin soils in places such as Leitrim; in this they work with the Ballinamore outstation.

The work of the soil physics department can be described as classical multivariate agricultural experimentation, coupled with a few relatively simple physical measurements. In this situation, how does one hold a physicist?

They managed to hold one for a couple of years: Brian Murphy, who was able to carve a niche developing techniques for measuring soil water content based on the attenuation of fast neutrons by the hydrogen of the water, coupled with gamma-ray absorbtion to measure the density of the associated solids. He was also able to look at the evaporation mechanism in the soil-water system.

Then one day a phone-call arrived from NASA with an offer of a job measuring radiation absorbtion by model astronauts, in order to assess space-flight hazards. Away he goes, initially on a year's leave of absence, now for good. Since then there has been no physicist in the soil physics department of our largest user of the State science budget.

Anyone with an ounce of long-term perception will see that the work Murphy was doing at Kinsealy was far more important than the work he is doing now. Here maybe he suffered from loneliness and frustration: maybe the apparatus was troublesome, his results not reliable, technical back-up lacking; he must have felt insecure and unwanted. But as a pioneer in a 'grey area' he had some standing, and his potential was infinite. In NASA, on the other hand, he is a marginal physicist working on a programme of fading 'glamour'(4), among many others, in a situation of growing unemployment.

The prime element in the mismatch, perhaps, was the assumption that in order for a physicist to be content, you have to surround him or her with gamma-rays and neutrons. The euphoria palls when it is realised that he or she has allowed themselves to be placed in a box labelled 'the person who knows about the apparatus', in plain terms, a technician.

In the agricultural field, as elsewhere, the science is in the planning of the experiment, and in the interaction of this planning with the developing techniques. The word 'experiment' in the vocabulary of the agricultural graduate, however, means 'classical multivariate statistical experiment', or 'multivariate regression'. What amounts to a 'dead hand' from the camp of the classical statisticians has prevented the physicist's concept of an experiment from entering the picture: the building of a model such as to isolate the essentials of the process from the extraneous disturbing factors.

The establishment of the classical statistical procedures in the 1900s was, of course, one of the great scientific abhievements of the century. This arose out of the work of the first industry to employ scientists, the breweries; the applications were in improving the yields of malt and hops, improving the performance of yeasts, and in industrial process control under batch conditions with simple instrumentation. As a method of establishing relationships against a background of random fluctuations, the classical multivariate experiment is unequalled.

The trouble, however, is that by its very success it has tended to become a routine, and even to become a substitute for thought. The dead hand of success is not unknown elsewhere in science: Newton's shadow held back the advance of science in the English academic environment for over a century. So much does the 'dead hand' of classical statistics dominate the agricultural scene, that a physicist looking at the problem of planning an agricultural experiment will fail to see, or if he does see will fail to be inspired by, the science.

The agricultural physicist therefore tends to retire to the role of instrument technician and leaves the planning of the experiment to the agricultural scientists. It is, however, possible for someone with energy to make the mental leap into a condition of preparedness to fight as a scientist for a say in the planning of the experiment, using physicists' insights to help search for illuminating analogies that will help to build a precise model to get rid of some of the variables in the 'classical multivariate' situation, thereby bringing the process under more precise control.

This is the challenge that must be faced by the Working Group on Physics, which has been set up by the Agricultural Institute. This group consisted of Professors Nevin and Delaney (UCD and TCD) together with Dr Penman of Rothamstead and Dr Childs of Cambridge. The latter two have have built up basic and applied research groups in agricultural physics wih world standing. It is to be hoped that from this contact will develop some research projects of a nature such as to pull at least some of Irish physics over towards the fundamentals of biological systems, and complex systems in general, and away from the tradition of shadowing the giant international projects in nuclear physics and cosmology. I am not against the latter; they are an excellent training-ground. But there is room for a move such as to pull more of the people so trained intto useful applied work which presents a real research challenge. Agriculture is rich in such possibilities.

October 28 1970

...One of the objectives of this column is to try to develop an understanding of the principles underlying scientific viability. How do specialisation and dispersion interact?

Physics is perhaps the most remote and specialised of the disciplines. It has allowed itself to become so because of the pull of the fashionable areas of research which developed out of world war II technology. Insofar as applid physics is done, it can largely be claimed by the engineering science depatments. There is a clean break between applied physics as done by engineers and physics as done by physics departments. This is an unhealthy and inbred situation for physics, and contributes to the relative unemployability of the physicist as an industrially useful person.

In a centre such as Cork, where everything is close-knit, it may perhaps be easier to build a bridge over this cultural gap than in the case of Dublin, where physics is numerically stronger and it is possible for the physics community to sustain itself without cross-linking into other disciplines.

Professor EF Fahy, who heads the UCC Physics Department, is currently on the point of moving his department into the new science block. He has got what looks like a generous grant, though this will be mainly taken up with teaching equipment for undergraduates. There are, however, some research-projects going on. With Dr C O'Sullivan he has a research project on cosmic-ray mu-mesons, although this should be regarded as a student-orientated excercise for the purpose of demonstrating classical techniques. At a time when focussed beams of mu-mesons are available with the CERN(5) equipment at Geneva, and when cosmic-ray shower events are studied with complex systems involving acres of apparatus, there seems to be little point in attempting to find out anything new about this particle with techniques on the scale practicable in Cork.

Those who have stayed in this field since its big burst of activity in the 50s, and who have not been associated with one of the major world centres, have in many cases been driving up blind alleys, chasing elusive phenomena which evaporate on production of better statistics(6). The Cork mu-meson project, if taken seriously, runs this risk.

Dr JJ Lennon has a basic training in physics but did a PhD in electricaal engineering in Liverpool. He is using microwave techniques for looking at the fundamentals of low electron-densities in gases, by making accurate measurements of refractive index....

Dr FA Deeney is working on the Mossbauer effect. This, like the laser at optical frequencies, is a device for getting gamma-rays of very precise frequency.....

There appears to be evolving a sort of informal strategy whereby between the various centres in Ireland a complete range of techniques for probing the fundamentals of the solid state can be assembled.....

It would be pleasing to be able to say that this was a planned co-operative experimental strategy, but none such exists.. There does, however, exist an informal web of contacts with mutual respect, which would make it easy for a co-operative strategy to evolve if the conditions were right.

The underlying philosophy of such a strategy should perhaps be based on a conscious rejection of fashionable fields abroad in frontier-physics (in which Ireland lacks the resources to compete), and conscious groping across the interdisciplinary boundaries in the Irish context.

According to Professor Fahy, co-operation with the Electrical Engineers is at the friendly talk level, but no actual joint applied-physics project has evolved. The basis exists, but the barrier appears to be how to carve out spheres of influence in the joint project area, and how to establish ownership of the pieces when it breaks up. This barrier appears to be both administrative and psychological......

A possible solution is the establishment in some centres of distinct Departments of Applied Physics, occupying the space between physics and engineering, and with organic links in each direction. If this were to be done, the present isolation of physics might begin to be broken down.

December 16 1970

...When writing about oceanography in Galway I touched on possible bridges into physics. The following is an outline of the current state of physics in Galway.

Professor O Brolchain, who heads the department, is a veteran of the atmospheric physics field, having worked with J J Nolan in UCD in the 1930s. He was also involved in the early cosmic-ray work, at the time when this was still at the level of measuring atmospheric ionisation under natural conditions(7).

I have already mentioned the continuation of the atmospheric physics thread in Galway, via Dr Tom O'Connor, as a possible link with oceanography(8).

In the background of this field is Aodhagan O Rodaigh, who is attempting to throw light on the fundamentals of the 'nucleation' process, whereby drops of liquid condense from a gas, or crystals of solid form in a liquid or in a supercooled gas.

Much money has been spent in the US on rather crude experimentation on a large scale, involving the 'seeding' of clouds with sodium iodide crystals in order to bring down the rain. There is a profit-orientated 'rainmaking' industry in the mid-west, of which the scientific basis has not been well established. The choice of sodium iodide depends on the happy accident that the dimensions of the crystal lattic happen to match those of ice.

The feeling now is that not enough is known about the basic processes at work; let us try and work with pure systems other than water, see if we can get to understand them, and then come back to look at water afresh. This work is necessary if weather control is ever to become a reality....

One of the coming techniques in atmospheric physics is the use of laser probes. Michael Sexton, of Cork Electrical Engineering Department, is interested in this, and has been in touch with the Galway people(9).

Dr Declan Larkin's main current interest is solid state electron physics, which has led to an interest in microwave technology and the technology of very low temperatures. Galway now has a liquid helium plant capable of producing four litres per hour. They are able to get 85% recovery. The production could be doubled and this rate is considered adequate for the needs of the whole of Ireland for the forseeable future. Liquid helium is an interesting subject for research in its own right, as well as being an essential for work at low temperatures. Physics of solids at the molecular level is dominated by temperature effects and in order to find anything significant it is necessary to work as near as possible to 'absolute zero' where all thermal motion stops.

Dr Frank Imbusch is working on the physics of the atomic phenomena which underlie lasers, rather than on the laser itself as a device. Dr Imbusch has worked at Stanford, California and has managed to maintain a creditable web of international contacts..... A typical paper produced in this field might record a collaboration between the Bell Telephone Laboratories, Stanford, Galway and Oxford. The work might cover the details of the interaction of light with bound electrons in a magnetic field at low temperatures; its technological significance would be known to those concerned with the development of lasers and related optical equipment. Technology locally available as a result of this work includes systems for the accurate cutting and grinding of crystals and preparation of optical surfaces on exotic materials, vacuum technology, microwaves and various non-standard electronic systems built within the laboratory.

Technicians are the main bottleneck. Because high-vacuum or low-temperature plumbing is a rather exacting craft, you can't leave it to a craftsman. There are no adequately-trained engineering technicians, so the physicist has to do the job himself....

January 27 1971

I was able to attend part of the annual conference of the Irish Physics Students' Association (IPSA) which occurred in Coleraine on January 4-6. This annual event is organised by the students themselves; it has received some support from the university physics staffs but this, with some honourable exceptions, can be placed somewhere on a spectrum ranging from 'condescending' to 'grudging'.

As the only annual get-together at which Irish physicists have an opportunity to talk about their work, it deserves to succeed. That the initiative has come from the students is one measure of the failure of the established career physicists in Ireland to give a lead....

....The IPSA conference, in contrast to the events organised by the Institute of Physics and Physical Society (Irish Branch) (IPPSIB), with its three days of living together has the makings of a real conference in which peoples' ideas can genuinely interact. The recent one suffered from a slight lack of conference know-how, as might be expected, as the leadership was provided by students, with enthusiasm but without experience... the provision of ice-breaking events without fixed seating.... paying some attention to seating arrangements at meals....the minor but important arts of the competent host were lacking. This is not to blame the organisers for making a mess of the job: on balance they did a good job. What I want to stress is the lack of involvement in the planning of the more senior members of the profession who might have been expected to provide the conference experience.

There is a clear case for a senior version of the IPSA (an IPA, say) which would run an annual event at which Irish physicists would talk about their work, where co-operative projects might take shape and where techniques locally available might become known about. The existence of such a body in parallel with IPSA would strengthen the latter by providing a centre of continuity of experience. The two conferences might even be run together as one event, having both information-exchange and educational value. Indeed, the IPSA has assumed such a combined role, in the absence on an IPA, as can be seen from examining its programme.

Professor Tredgold of NUU gave some long-term models of world population in relation to world resources. He drew some analogies with animal population dynamics, and suggested that the mainstream of physics research ought to be directed towards the fundamentals of resource conservation: what do we do when all the oil is burnt?

Professor Dan Bradley of QUB described his work on tuneable dye lasers: he has developed a very precise optical analytical instrument, with considerable market potential....

...There appears to be a law taking shape to the effect that the problem-orientated people are in the dispersed areas while the techhnique-orientated people are in the metropolis. The trouble is that Dublin, Belfast and Cork all think of themselves as being metropolitan, whereas in fact, as far as physics is concerned, they are all provincial. Coleraine and Galway have got the message, and have become problem-orientated....

...the case of Dr Fagan of UCD, who described work on the use of Cerenkov radiation for detecting gamma-rays from pulsars, can be said to fit in with this law, as the approach is along the lines that 'we are good at detecting Cerenkov radiation, thanks to the tradition brought in from the cosmic-ray field by Professor Neill Porter; what else can we use it for?'(10).

So far we have had Irish physicists talking about their own work. The rest of the conference was outside contributions: colour perception...how the Earth works (continental drift etc; exciting stuff for students)....Mars....surface physics.....

At the time of the foundation of the Irish Branch of IP and PS there was talk of the political problem of getting Irish physicists into one all-Ireland body. That this is a non-problem is shown by the existence of IPSA. There is already practical co-operation between Coleraine and Galway (in the matter of the supply of liquid helium) and between Coleraine and the Agricultural Institute in the matter of mathematical models of ecological systems (the liver-fluke life-cycle).

There is no reason why Irish physicists should not work with other scientists to apply new knowledge to socially desirable ends, putting leverage on the three governments they have to deal with. Stratagems for playing one off against the other can be devised, with a little imagination....discreetly, without making a noise about it such as arouse irrelevant political passions.

For example, to save Lough Neagh from ecological death, as well as being a problem of interest to physicists, is the concern of world science.... The Great Lakes in America and Lake Geneva are in similar danger. It is thus an Irish national problem that transcends political divisions.

There already is a research project on Lough Neagh, involving Dr McFadyen of NUU. The latter has a background in soil zoology, is aware of the potential of mathematical and physical techniques, and has been inerested in the energy balance in soils. The move into the study of fresh-water systems and pollution problems is a natural one for him. His interests should be shared by those agricultural scientists who worry about how much fertiliser is taken up and how much runs off. There is scope here for a collaboration with a physics component.

...It is on the fringes of such events as the IPSA conference that one picks up this kind of cross-fertilisation potential....

February 10 1971

...The time has come to examine the social effects of the discoveries which emanate from these specialist vanguard groups.....the first wave of concern came with the nuclear bomb; the second is coming with the biological time-bomb implicit in current work on molecular biology which is increasingly enabling heridity to be tampered with.

Increasing numbers of scientists are asking themselves whether we do not already know enough about the frontiers....and that we should be using what we know to the benefit of society......a sense of social responsibility is developing.

This sense of social responsibility seems to have more chance of developing in the outer, more dispersed places, where there are not enough specialists to form a 'critical mass' of their own, and they must cross the boundaries and develop interdisciplinary work, or else cease to exist as researchers of significance.

Let me return to Belfast and Coleraine as an illustration of this concentration-dispersion law.

Professor R H Tredgold, in Coleraine, before coming there had been a 'solid state' man in a well-developed mainstream area. On coming to Coleraine he switched his attention to a new area: energy storage systems, in view of the need for mobile storage of electrical energy after the exhaustion of fossil fuels.... Although there are 19 physicists on the staff of NUU, it would clearly be unsound to concentrate them all, or most of them, into a single research area in order to get a 'critical mass' situation. Better to select a number of research areas, each on its own sub-critical, but with the potential for cross-linking with chemists and engineers. Electrical energy storage is just such a research area....

..The other extreme of the concentration-dispersion spectrum (in the Northern Ireland microcosm) is Professor Dan Bradley's group in Queens University which has developed the tuneable dye laser along with a technique for producing picosecond pulses. This is fast enough to 'freeze' the basic vibrations of matter: you no longer have to go to absolute zero to do an experriment involving atoms at rest.

Lavish financing is available within the British system for fields such as this, which are on the fringe of military technology. There are however many applications for laser equipment of this kind in biological research, eg in the understanding of the fundamentals of photosynthesis(11). Professor Bradley is in the process of setting up a firm to make this equipment in Belfast for the world laboratory market....

May 5 1971

I commend to the Irish branch of the Institute of Physics (IPIB) the idea that at their AGM tomorrow....they should consider whether in future years this event should not be combined with an all-Ireland conference, rather than a visiting lecturer.

Dr C C Butler FRS, the Director of the Nuffield Foundation, will have interesting things to say on 'future developments in undergraduate physics courses.. They will, however, be based on the British experience and are unlikely to bear much relationship to the type of teaching that is necessary to match the output of Irish schools to the needs of Irish industry.....

Those who delude themselves that there is a need to foster 'physics' in the abstract should consider the degree to which the development of physics as a discipline has been influenced by the needs and availability of military technology...

The all-Ireland conference idea has been canvassed by Frank Imbusch and others in Galway. But why the need for a new body to do it, when the IPIB is at hand?

If the IPIB had sent an observer to the Institute of Biochemistry conference in Belfast on April 7-8, they would have observed a model event for them to copy. The numbers are comparable and the structure similar (Irish branch of a British parent-body).

Two days of research-papers by students from all corners of Ireland, some excellent; dinner, social evening with songs. The central event was a review-lecture by Professor G W Kenner of Liverpool on the development of mass-spectrography as a technique in biochemistry. One theme of the lecture was the explanation of the slow rate of development: the equipment is temperamental and easily goes out of order.

I visited the QUB Medical Biology centre, where they have 300,000 worth of various types of advanced (and no doubt temperamental) physical instrumentation, and not a physicist in the place. No wonder they have reliability problems. A mass-spectrometer is not like a voltmeter. Its maintenance and creative development in a novel environment is a task for a physicist, with equal standing in the research team.

Physicists have the opportunity of evolving their discipline in the direction of complexity, of systems, if they choose to direct their attention outwards into other areas where physical instrumentation is enabling breakthroughs to occur. They can go in and be accepted as scientists; they need not allow themselves to be pushed into a technician position.

I have floated this idea among both physicists and biochemists and have met in both cases with blank rejection. I am confident that this view will ultimately change.

An expeditionary force launched from Irish physics, according to a strategic plan, into other areas of Irish science would be infinitely more creative than the present dribble of individuals into specialist work abroad.

Some achieve distinction. I note that P G Carolan (UCD,QUB) has been credited in the Times with the invention of a new method of monitoring magnetic fields in the presence of plasma, using a laser beam (a QUB speciality). This work is at the centre of an important frontier: that which looks towards nuclear fusion as a pollution-free power source. Carolan writes stating that he is Irish, not British, as claimed in the Times.

Irish physics has a responsibility to open up opportunities for physicists in Ireland. It can do this if it draws on the biochemists' experience, both as regards structure and content. Perhaps then the Carolans will consider trickling back, to enrich Irish science with their experience.

June 16 1971

...On May 5 I noted briefly a new instrument for measuring blood-clotting developed in UCD; the ideas behind it had been outlined by Dr J J Kelly the previous November at a meeting of the Institution of Chemical Engineers....

In the light of the above, an earlier event which I had passed over at the time has assumed significance. I refer to a lecture in TCD on October 22 last by J McKie, of the Western Regional Health Board, Glasgow. This was under the auspices of the Irish branch of the Institute of Physics, and was entitled 'Medecine: a Fallow, Fertile Field for Physicists'.

Mt McKie's lecture was a challenge to the physicist, interested in medical physics, to break out of the mould of radio-therapy. He expressed opposition to the idea of a primary degree in medical physics; this if it were to evolve from current practice would tend to set the mould more firmly. A hard-core training in basic physics enables a graduate to approach the outside world with the ability to organise to comprehend systems hitherto unknown. The idea of 'the model of the system' is so basic in physics as almost to have escaped recognition. To extend this approach into the domain of biology, sociology, economics etc is a natural road for the development of the physicists' thinking. In these other fields, this type of approach seems novel, but it is rapidly gaining recognition under such labels as 'systems engineering', 'operations research', 'management science' or whatever.

My McKie developed this philosophy in the medical field, suggesting that the medical-engineering link, while creative, tended to stop short at the production of complex gadgetry. The medicine-physics link, on the other hand, produced what he called 'the simplicity of true insight'.

He gave an example of what he meant. There are various bladder conditions in which the flow of urine is impaired. Basic research was done on the hydrodynamics of flow in a model system, with the solution of certain non-linear differential equations. It emerged from this that a certain constriction in the urethra, which had been recognised by the medicals previously, and had occasionally given rise to an alleged need for surgery, was an effect and not a cause. In other words, it came naturally out of the physical laws of the system that there should be a constriction at this point, and the real cause of the trouble had to be sought elsewhere.

Mr McKie gave a further example in which an explanation was found for the apparently erratic bahaviour of a red-cell count after injection of an anti-body, in terms of the behaviour of a control-system having non-linear elements.

Much of this work took place under the leadership of Dr Kirk, who had gone into this field from nuclear physics in Glasgow. The Glasgow medical physics laboratory is the largest in the UK, has 60 graduates and serves 108 hospitals. Scale this down by a factor of 10 and we have the basis for a small but viable specialist medical physics unit in Ireland, in which physicists might get a chance to establish themselves as creative interactors with the medical world in fields other than radiotherapy.


Another example of the type of modelling of a complex situation that is 'meat and drink' to the physicist was described on April 15 by Professor A H Cook, of Edinburgh, again at an Institute of Physics event.

Professor Cook spoke of the Earth and its structure. Simple hydrostatic models of a spinning sphere suggest that the departure from exact sphericity should be 1/299 of the radius. In fact the departure is 1/298.255, and it is uneven, so that we have the benefit of differentiation between sea and land. Science is therefore challenged to find a cause for this small but significant departure from 'perfection'.

Professor Cook proceeded to develop the ideas and experimental evidence which underlie the currently accepted model of the Earth's structure: convective cells in the mantle, continental drift, the splitting apart of Iceland at two cm per annum, etc.

This is an example of basic physics at its most exciting.....due the the fact that with the available refinements of technique (lasers, satellites etc) relative motions of the order of cms per annum can actually be measured. The geophysicists models have ceased to be theoretical excercises; they have come to life and started to interact with a new level of experimentation.

What use is all this? We can't stop Iceland from splitting in two, nor can we stop the next San Francisco earthquake. Those who look for a payoff from basic science in what it actually discovers have missed the point. Pure science is the crucible in which the young scientist is tempered. People who come successfully through this crucible are capable of making theoretical models of complex situations which are capable of increasing our insight into the outside world; the latter can be anything you like: a disease, a factory, an economy, an organism, a war....

Of the people who pass through this crucible, only a small fraction remain behind to keep the reaction going. These are the 'pure scientists'. Their essential role is catalytic. Sometimes they misunderstand their role: they think it is to produce more catalysts in bulk.

The present crisis in employment of scientists is due to this cause. This year over 1000 PhDs in physics applied for 36 vacancies in the US. Lord Bowden, in the New Scientist of May 20, has an article on a similar theme. The same issue of the New Scientist follows with six profiles of 'dropouts' who went and did something different, having taken a science degree. This is clearly he way forward, and it is time that those in charge of university science realised that their function is to catalyse the conversion of raw material into finished product, while producing only enough catalyst-material to keep the reaction going.

The finished produce may be defined as a scientist, provided he or she understands and has real experience of the interaction between theory and experiment; such people usually have the ability to generalise this into any complex problem-area.

February 9 1972

I attended Professor ETS Walton's reminiscences of the Cavendish Laboratory, on the occasion of the repeat performance in TCD, having missed the IPSA presentation at Cork....

It is salutary for the rising generation to be given a glimpse of what life was like before large-scale investment in science by the State became fashionable. For example, it was unusual for a young graduate who aspired to do research to have had any practical experience of laboratory work. The first year as research student would be spent serving an apprenticeship. For those who could show that they could put together an experiment with bits of glass and wire, and make it work, there was hope. People learned from each other the lore of the vacuum pump and the electrical connection. When the experiment was over, the screws, bits of wood, glass and wire were carefully sorted for subsequent re-use(12).

A laboratory headed by a succession of scientists of the calibre of Maxwell, Rayleigh, Thompson and Rutherford has a formidable tradition. ....Any laboratory annual photograph of the 20s and 30s shows the faces of an extraordinary number of world-figures of the forties and fifties, with their names in the textbooks.

It is due to the strength of the Cavendish tradition that there is such a strong element of nuclear physics in nearly all academic physics today. It has been said that the work of Newton in the mid-17th century (the fount of the Cambridge tradition) overshadowed all subsequent work, for as much as two centuries, becoming like a 'dead hand' until the 'modern physics' of the turn of the last century broke through. One can perhaps detect an analogy in the way that the modern Cavendish tradition has dominated the 20th century to date. It is possible for a tradition to be 'too good', damaging the possibilities in other fields by the attraction of its excellence.

The original Cavendish, after whom the laboratory was named, was the first to weigh the earth (by comparing its gravitational attraction against that of a large sphere of lead, using a torsion balance). He was also in the tradition of 18th century gentleman-eccentrics. He wore clothes of antique fashion, and could not abide the presence of women, communicating with his housekeeper in writing.

May 17 1972

The Irish Branch of the Institute of Physics held its first-ever national conference at Carrickmacross on March 25-26, constituting another example of the trend away from the series of evening meetings throughout the winter, and towards a conscious focussing of the effort into a single more solid, integrated and memorable occasion.

The Saturday afternoon session consisted of a series of reports, one from each centre in Ireland where physics is done: Dr M F Quinn spoke on dye lasers in Kevin St, Dr J Lennon (Cork) spoke on radiation effects in gases; Dr A Thompson (DIAS) spoke on cosmic-ray heavy primaries and methods of detection; Dr V J BcBrierty spoke on the physics of polymers; Dr D Kennedy (NUU) spoke on the physical properties of biological membranes. Dr Tom O'Connor spoke about his plans for atmospheric physics in UCG: this was pure sales talk which outlined convincingly the scope of the physics possible based on pure air from the Atlantic as a resource. Upper-atmosphere physics based on rocket-probes was outlined by B Bates of QUB.

This assembly of ideas was interesting in that it displayed a wide range of experimental philosophies. Each 'island' was responding in a different way to its local environment....

Thus Dr Lennon's philosophy might be summarised 'we have some vacuum and microwave equipment, what can we do with it?' He has, rather ingeniously, contrived to measure in the laboratory gas dielectric effects which might be of use to people working on the physics of the upper atmosphere. (Lay readers can 'connect' if they have ever wondered what caused the aurora borealis.).....

Dr M F Quinn, now in Kevin St, had been working in QUB with Bradley on dye lasers. He took his interest with him when he went to Kevin St(13). I remain to be convinced that this procedure is viable....

The growth areas, I feel, are atmospheric physics (this could in UCG link up with the marine group....) and polymers. Dr McBrierty is developing this area with NSC support.. The precise nature of the industrial link needs to be worked out; there is apparently little understanding in the Irish plastics industry that it is science-based; they tend to work by recipe and not to want to know about the underlying science. This bridge may perhaps get built with the aid of the Quality Control Association.

Dr Kennedy in NUU has started looking at the basic physics of the transfer of sodium and potassium across the walls of an axon. This is part of a nerve-cell; it occurs conveniently large in the case of the squid. This is potentially a fruitful interdisciplinary field; so far however Dr Kennedy is poking around on his own and has not yet developed enough feel for the problem to be able to contribute significantly to biological research. This sort of work however should have no difficulty in thriving in a university environment.

On the Sunday morning we were treated to a virtuoso performance by Professor Cornelius Lanczos, of DIAS: he held forth on the history of the interaction of theory and experiment, holding the audience spellbound. It must have been a rare and valued chance for, say, a young student from Dundalk RTC to get a chance to sit at the feet of one of the 'grand old men' of physics whom we are privileged to have among us. No-one could listen to Professor Lanczos and remain unconvinced that science has an aesthetic.

The Sunday afternoon session consisted of four papers on Physics and the Economy: Dr McCarville (IDA), Professor Bradley (QUB), C P O'Toole (IIRS) and Dr Imbusch (UCG).

This gave rise to a wide-ranging discussion, chaired by Professor Carroll (UCD). The gulf of absolute mutual non-comprehension which exists between physics and industry in Ireland was inspected from all sides. No conclusion was reached, and a working group was set up which included C P O'Toole, Eamonn Lalor (UCD), Ciaran Ryan (DIAS), Dr McCarville, Dr McBrierty and some others, including the present writer. This was instructed to produce a proposition for the AGM of the Branch (May 25) which could be used subsequently as a basis for discussion with the National Science Council.....

May 31 1972

The Kevin St physics people have been quick to point out that their laser work is, in fact, application-orientated. One idea is the use of the laser in flash photolysis; in other words, long exposure to light can be simulated by brief exposure to very intense light. This has applications in dye evaluation, and so is of interest to the textile industry. Laser alignment systems are in use in the construction industry.

I get the impression, however, that we are still in a situation of having a soluttion in search of a problem....

According to Dr F J Kelly, who is currently working with the National Science Council (on secondment from its Canadian counterpart), 70% of innovations arise out of recognised needs and only 20% out of seeking applications for discoveries.

The channel into the 'problem area' from the Colleges of Technology could be direct (by the staff going out and looking for the problems) or indirect (via the IIRS). According to Professor Allen, of MIT, who has made a very significant study of communications in Irish science and technology, the link between IIRS and the Colleges is weak.

The rules of the Vocational Education Committee see to it that the direct link into industry also remains weak. The staff have no consultancy time. With the best intentions in the world, physics research in the Colleges of Technology is likely to remain academic-minded (even though, in theory, 'applied') for as long as it is constrained by these rules. I am unlikely to be persuaded otherwise by consideration of the titles of the two most recent seminars: Dr McBride on 'the observation of weak spectra' and Dr McKeith on 'interference spectroscopy and space physics' (May 23 and May 30).

It is, however, excellent that we have here the makings of a strong centre for applied physics with some goodwill towards industry. The problem is how to organise that the bridge gets built. The key here is consultancy time for the College staff, so that they can nose around in the IIRS initially, and ultimately in industry. Over now to the VECs. The same problem exists in the Regional Colleges.. They have young staffs, on average fairly fresh from an academic environment, some however with recent industrial experience. Unless they get their industrial experience reinforced, in five years they will be a millstone round our necks, a group of aging teachers looking towards their pensions, and blocking the promotions of their successors. If, on the other hand, they get out to do local consultancy work, they will find themselves getting into stimulating part-time projects, with increasing industrial involvement, making way for a younger generation, and making industry aware of technology....

February 14 1973

...I must mention a seminar organised by the IPIB on January 22, addressed by Professor Raffle of Loughborough...

The theme was what might be called 'other physics'; ie that which is not in the glamour areas (nuclear, astro, space etc). Other fields such as material mechanics, plasma, opto-electronics, atmospheric physics etc are in the process of takeover by the engineers. Raffle is counter-attacking, and is building up an industrial consultancy team.

They have developed in Loughborough a sandwich course, with an initial basic theoretical unit, followed by a one-year break for industrial experience, followed by options tending towards physics or engineering-type degrees. Raffle's point is that you end up as a better engineer if you take your physics a bit further.

The closest parallel to this structure in Ireland is to be found in Limerick. It is of interest that there is currently a Loughborough student doing his 'industrial experience' stage in the IIRS. This type of relationship has never managed to get established with any of the Dublin colleges.

The Loughborough physics department gets about 25% of its income from consultancy. This is about the norm for the Loughborough engineering departments (transport, chemical, mechanical, electrical). I wonder how many Irish university physics departments could say this?

June 13 1973 Last Wednesday at Maynooth there was a symposium attended by all physicists in Ireland who are interested in the physics of the atmosphere. Now that smog and pollution have become political issues, physicists in this field have found themselves catapulted into the limelight, as a more environment-conscious world turns against the once-fashionable nuclear and space fields.

This particular symposium reported on some rather basic work: Professor McGreevy (Maynooth) on 'the chemical composition of aerosol particles by electron microscopy morphological analysis'; Dr A O Rodaigh (UCG) on 'nucleation of the solid phase in a cloud of supercooled cyclohexane droplets'; John O'Dea (UCG) on 'Aitken nuclei as indicators of air pollution'.

The UCD group was very much in the tradition of J J and P J Nolan (who pioneered this field in the 30s): Dr T P Burke on 'mobility measurements of the gaseous small ions by a time of flight method'; Michael Byrne on 'investigations on the charge asymmetry of droplets produced by disruption of liquid jets'; Patrick Frain on 'improvements in the technique of measuring small-ion diffusion coefficients and mobilities'; finally Dr J P McLaughlin on 'aspects of the interaction of the radioactive gas radon aand its daughters with aerosols'.

This event constitutes further evidence of the way that Irish physicists, having only in the last two years come to recognise the value of an annual conference, have begun to explore in depth relevant areas where they can actually help and influence each others' work.

At Maynooth two quite different approaches to the same problem met and cross-fertilised: the UCD preoccupation with electrical charge effects, strongly linked to the nuclear physics tradition and its measurement techniques on the one hand; on the other hand the UCG and Maynooth people rooted in the 'solid state' tradition.

According to Dr McLaughlin(14), who organised the symposium, there are plans for a further one in October. This will be directed at seeking out ways of using the basic pool of knowledge that we have got in such a way as to enable the practical problems of air pollution to be tackled effectively; instrumentation, control systems, legislation etc are of little or no use unless devised with basic understanding of the processes at work.....

March 6 1974

The North-Western Scientific Council recently was host to Dr Siddhartha Sen, of TCD Mathematics Department, who lectured on recent developments in theoretical and experimental high-energy nuclear physics.

The current theory of sub-nuclear structure involves entities called 'quarks' (a name lifted from 'Finnegans Wake). The search for experimental evidence of their existence has gone on since they were postulated in 1963 by Gell-Mann, mostly using the major particle-accelerators of the world.....

According to Dr Sen, basic research into the nature of matter is a cultural pursuit, from which however useful inventions such as improvements in the technology of solid-state devices, or computer-based control systems, may 'spin off'. Echoes from Dr Sen's audience suggest that this is viewed with some scepticism; my informant could think of a good few less exoteric and expensive cultural pursuits.

I detect here what could develop an unhealthy questioning of the importance of basic research at the frontiers of knowledge. Possibly Dr Sen was not its most effective salesman; he spoke across too wide a cultural gap.

I myself in the late fifties, in association with an experiment carried out at the big European particle accelerator at Geneva (CERN), got some experience that is only now becoming relevant at the engineering level: the use of an 'on-line' minicomputer to analyse instrument readings 'in real time'. The technology would now be regarded as primitive, but it was there (we developed it in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies) and it worked.

Technology of frontier-physics seems to trickle into engineering with about a ten-year lag. The use of super-conductors for power transmission is now beginning to be talked about seriously by the electrical engineers. This principle (which avoids completely some ohmic losses for the expenditure of some energy on refrigeration) has been in use for the high-energy physicists' electromagnets since the early sixties.

It would perhaps have been more relevant if the Sligo people had looked for some inputs from those concerned with the technology of frontier-physics experimentation. There are some such in Dublin.

May 8 1974

One of the outcomes of the IPIB meeting in Newcastle Co Down on March 30.....was the formation of a specialist group on materials science.

This, while initially being composed of academic physicists (with the exception of CP O'Toole of IIRS), constitutes a group to which engineering scientists, industrial physicists and scientific-minded engineers are likely to be attracted.

The group proposes to hold an annual one-day meeting, and to co-ordinate its activities with like groups set up by the chemists and engineers....a welcome move towards an interdisciplinary aapproach to materials science.

It is also proposed to compile a register of those working in materials science and the resources which they have available.....

November 22 1974

The first meeting of the Materials Science Group of IPIB took place early last month in TCD. It was an inventory-type event; the participants had never met as a materials group and it was of interest to see who was doing what.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the proceedings was dominated by NUU and IIRS, and that the contributions of these bodies were some distance apart on the spectrum.

On the one hand the IIRS people reported on their work in the fields of high temperature materials, ceramics, glasses, asbestos fibres, metals and alloys. The NUU people, on the other hand, devoted their time to surfaces and their electrical properties; seven of them read papers.

The QUB people presented three papers covering microwave semiconductor devices, Raman scattering in alkali halide crystals, and acousto-optical effects in solids, with relevance to laser beam deflection.

The TCD people were present in some force in the audience, but contributed no paper, as they are in the throes of reorganisation, Professor Brian Henderson having succeeded Professor ETS Walton in the Chair. We can expect to see an interest in materials developing in TCD, as Professor Henderson is a 'solid state' man, having spent a period at Harwell trying to understand the properties of materials under intensive neutron bombardment.

In the ensuing discussions various ideas emerged for bridge-building.

Regrettably, I do not see much future for the group as it stands. There is more to materials science than physics. Corrosion, for example, is an enormous and costly problem-area, on the borderline of physics and chemistry. Polyymer technology is another area where there is a considerable industry requiring competent quality and process control. The principal Regional College looking towards this area is Athlone, and they sent an observer to the meeting, presumably hoping to find back-up contacts, but went away disappointed, as no polymer science was discussed.

I think the next step for this group is to organise specialist bridge-building excercises, possibly around the two problem-areas I have named (corrosion and polymers). It will then live up to its name of being a 'materials science' group, and will open up a line of communication to current problems of technology. The individual physicists in the Group would then have to decide whether they want to turn their attention to the problems as they exist, or to continue to aspire to work at the frontier of science, in which case their relevant conferences will usually be abroad. There is a need to strike a balance between these two activities, and for the groups who look in these two quite distinct directions to contrive to remain talking to each other.

November 29 1974

Dr C R Hill, of the Royal Cancer Hospital, London, spoke at a meeting of the Irish Branch of the Institute of Physics on November 25 in the College of Technology, Kevin St. The lecture was repeated at Queens University Belfast the next day. The subject was 'Applying Physics to Cancer'.

Dr Hill managed to steer the discussion away from its traditional area (for physicists) of ionising radiations as therapy, although he did mention in passing the potential for the use of pi-mesons for very precise interior doses.

(Pi-mesons are rather expensive by-products of high-energy nuclear physics research. They occur in a handful of major world research centres, such as Rutherford Laboratory, Harwell, or CERN, Geneva. They are tailor-made for cancer work, in that the penetrate the tissue with minimal disturbance and then deposit most of their energy near where they come to rest, which location can be determined with precision once you know their initial momentum. Some particle-accelerators specifically designed to produce therapeutic pi-mesons are planned in the United States.)

More immediately relevant, however, was the use of X-rays and ultrasonics for diagnostic work. Dr Hill outlined a process where, by using an electrostatic system, rather like a Xerox machine, it was possible to 'differentiate' an X-ray picture, bringing up small changes in intensity, to the extent that the vascular system could be made to stand out, in stereo.

He also showed how, by taking X-ray photographs at various angles and feeding the results into a computer , it was possible (by solving a series of linear equations, which a computer can do rather well) to construct a precise map of the intensity of energy deposited at any point in the soft tissue. He showed a brain-tumour located by these means, which was detectable by no other.

Finally, on ultrasonics, he brought out the difference of approach to the diagnostic problem as between physicists and engineers. Hitherto developments had been dominated by the interaction between medicals and engineers; peoples' ideas had tended to be dominated by the radar analogue: echoes from objects. This approach lacked subtlety and threw away good information. What was needed was a physicists' approach, measuring scattering from an extended structured medium. Measurements of energy of scattered ultrasound at various angles enabled characteristic structures for healthy and diseased tissue to be identified, giving a much more delicate probe to the diagnostician than was available when the system was radar-based.

This confirms my impression that there is a gulf between physicists and engineers in Britain, as well as here..... It seems to be a phenomenon that engineers and physicists talk separately to medicals, but genuine tripartite collaboration rarely takes place. Dr Hill appears to be the exception.

The composition of the meeting reflected this; there were physicists present, but no medicals or engineers. No doubt some desultory efforts were made to inform both groups, but I feel that organisers of meetings of this type underestimate seriously the amount of political spade-work they have to do, at the level of VIP lunches, socialising appropriately etc, if they are to get the various groups genuinely to look across the boundaries of the ruts they inhabit.

The meeting on laser surgery(15) which I reported on November 18 suffered from the same weakness. It was under the auspices of the Biomedical Engineers, and because it was to do with lasers, a few physicists turned up, mostly those who were in Kevin St where the meeting took place. I noted only one surgeon. This meeting, I suggest, should have taken place in the College of Surgeons, under the joint auspices of the Institute of Physics, the Biomedical Engineers and the appropriate surgeons' organisation. It would then, perhaps, have drawn the high-power audience it deserved, and provided an opportunity for subsequent bridge-building with a view to getting the appropriate amount of cash to flow.

I must now return to another Institute of Physics event: the 'Materials Science' seminar I touched upon last week. New information to hand suggests organisational weakness analogous to that pinpointed above.

The event was dominated by the New University of Ulster and the Institute of Industrial Research and Standards, from the opposite ends of the materials science spectrum. The presence of UCC and UCG people was nominal, and no papers were read by TCD or UCD people. This I took to be a reflection of reality.

I am now inclined to think that it was a distorted reflection, and will give the NUU people the impression that there are few people in the Republic worth talking to. It would have been fairer if each institution had been offered the chance of an appropriate review-paper by an appropriate spokesman.

The overall picture of who was doing what would then have emerged: the bridge being built towards the chemists through the work of Dr McBrierty in TCD on polymer structures, the TCD Auger spectroscopy work and ultra-high vacuum techniques, and so on. Trinity College could become a relevant centre of expertise if ever the electronic industry gets as far as manufacturing integrated circuits on silicon chips in Ireland. Dr A H Gregg is a veteran worker in this field; he attends such international events as he can on a College budget, and has a practical eye for a patentable device. He regrets profoundly that the patent for the high-frequency sputtering process (which is replacing vacuum evaporation as the standard technique for placing metallic films on non-conductors) wasn't taken out by the College, when he had the priority over a decade ago(16). Devices based on this principle are now relatively big business. Yet Dr Gregg didn't know about the TCD Materials Science meeting, because it happens he isn't a member of the Institute of Physics....

February 25 1975

The state of Materials Science in Ireland is rapidly changing. Five years ago outside the IIRS it was virtually non-existent; now however the academic research people are waking up to its importance, although without much sign of strategic thinking, let it be said. The facts behind this statement are complex; it is perhaps possible to summarise them.

Some time ago the Institute of Physics (Irish Branch) organised a seminar in TCD at which they set up a 'specialist group in materials science'. This was attended mostly by physicists, and consisted of a set of specialist papers scattered over a wide area, with some concentration towards electrical effects on surfaces under high vacuum. The handful of chemists and physical chemists who were there felt rather frozen out; some good work going on in TCD, including surface work and polymer work, got overlooked, and the group decided provisionally to hold a further meeting in QUB, concentrating deliberately in the area where they had concentrated by chance in the first meeting.

This, I felt, represented the British academic tradition of over-specialised exoticism at its worst: a kind of provincial 'we-too' syndrome.

There is a law becoming recognised in science which says 'when remote from major world specialist centres, develop cross-links into other specialist disciplines'. Some of the people who attended the TCD meeting, fortunately, appear to be aware of this law(17), and have been working away to reverse this false start.

Evidence of this is the emergence of the more modestly-named 'Materials Group Committee' of the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland, chaired by Dr Evan Petty (Head of Materials and Industrial Engineering, NIHE, Limerick) and with Dr M K Halpin (IIRS minerals and inorganic chemicals section) as secretary. It includes seven academics and five industrial scientists.

This is a group which looks as if it could become influential in steering some basic materials work into the academic system, and whetting the appetites of some of the academics for working in interesting problem-areas which cost money (like corrosion and adhesion), or present opportunities for cost-cutting, like synthetic composite materials.

In the meantime, the physicists appear to be having second thoughts, and their Materials Science group is now arranging to meet on April 19 at Rosses Point, on the fringe of the Annual Convention of the Irish Branch of the Institute of Physics. It will be chaired by Professor Frank Imbusch of UCG, who, incidentally, is also on the Chemists' group committee. It is of interest to note that Professor Imbusch, Dr Petty and Dr Halpin were all at the TCD Materials Science meeting.

Finally I note that the TCD physicists have begun to build a bridge into the materials applications area with an article in the February Technology Ireland (V J McBrierty and Brian Henderson) on the contribution of nuclear magnetic resonance techniques to non-destructive testing in industry. This technique is of considerable use for quality control in polymer processing plants, including changes in physical properties taking place during the extrusion process. Other industrial application areas include rubber, transistors, nuclear reactor materials; there is also scope in the medical field (malignant tumours) and in the food industry (fat, moisture). The McBrierty-Henderson article is not easy reading, but hopefully it will alert the process engineers to some esoteric physical techniques of practical use.....

April 22 1975

An audience of some 45 people, broadly representative of the Dublin universities and colleges of technology, as well as some of the Regional Colleges, State-sponsored bodies and electronics firms, participated in a seminar on April 14 given by Dr David Walton (Icthus Instruments ltd) organised by the TCD Industrial Liaison Office(18).

Dr Walton graduated in 1968 in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where he subsequently did his doctorate; he joined the staff of the TCD Physics Department in 1971.

During the vacations he used to return to Newcastle, where together with Ken Wood, an ex-colleague then working as an electronic engineer with Marconi, they hatched a scheme to start their own company. They took the plunge in 1974 and in April of that year Dr Walton resigned from his TCD post and went to work full-time for Icthus Instruments.

...On the basis of experience of logical testing procedures for digital electronic equipment, where the traditional oscilloscope is still used in a rather primitive and inconvenient manner, they developed a digital logic probe, with measurement of time intervals and test signal generator, all in one box.

They found they were able to sell the instrument on its specification even before a prototype was built and working. They are now in the position that they are running into cash flow problems due to rate of expansion of production to meet an exploding order-book. (This is a classical small-business pitfall, due to the lead-time in ordering supplies and lag in payments; if your expansion rate is above a certain level, you will never have a positive cash flow!)

The initial price (1500) was set by guess-work. Dr Walton now feels it should have been higher; it would have been if more quantitative market research had been done. It is important to remember that with a novel piece of equipment there is no necessary connection between the price and the cost of production; this will only establish itself once the competition gets going.

The Icthus company policy is to stay small (at the size that the work-force all know each other) and to stay one step ahead of the giants by flexible thinking. They do not intend to get into mass-production; if the market were to merit this they would licence out.

Their sales policy is 'decide who needs one, then go straight in and sell...' 'How can we help you?' rather than 'Can we help you?'....'get a yes or no, don't carry a list of probables'....'go to places where they will order quickly'....

They have avoided deals with finance-houses, as these tend to take the shirt off your back if you are successful. The best help they got was from the UK Department of Trade and Industry, which gave them a pre-production order for some instruments which they are placing on trial, with option to purchase from the DIT, in firms and institutions of Icthus' choice.

This indeed is an enlightened policy; the type of aid available from the IDA (equipment grants etc) would be quite irrelevant to the Icthus type of operation, which depends mostly on highly skilled labour(19).

Icthus has also made use of 'factoring houses' which do invoice discounting. These maintain records of credit ratings of various firms, pay on the nail against production of invoice, and collect at their leisure, carrying the risk of the bad debt. The amount of the discount is acceptable in the case of a rapidly expanding firm with a liquidity problem.

The main reason for setting up in Britain was to be near the market.. A small firm with high-technology product setting up in Ireland, based on science-graduate entrepreneurs, would need its main State support in the form of support for the marketing operation, which would involve considerable time abroad for high-grade staff.....existing State support for equipment, buildings and training is only relevant where a large-volume product is involved.....

So even if David Walton and Ken Wood had originated in Ireland, and had roots here, they would still have been subject to forces encouraging them to set up in Britain rather than in a budding Irish electronics centre such as Dundalk. There is food here for thought.

April 29 1975

People banking on a continual long-term rise in the price of copper should think again. The following glimpses into the future show that alternatives to copper as a carrier of communications and power are round the corner.

On April 3 the Irish Branch of the Institute of Electrical Engineers ran a seminar on 'Lasers'; the speaker was D F Lovelace of the Standard Telecommunications Laboratories, Harlow, Essex. Instead of a quasi-academic fireworks display, as is often the case with such events, we got a fascinating glimpse into the use of gadolinium arsenide lasers in communications technology.

These devices are, basically, transistors, in which electrical power can be converted directly into modulated light by a laser effect in the junction region. This light emerges from a line-source, without the spectacular directive properties of the traditional laser, but it can be trapped and fed into an optical fibre ('light-pipe').

It is here that we are in the copper-replacement business. Optical fibre technology has developed to the extent that you can feed light into a fibre and only lose 10 decibels per kilometre. You can modulate up to 1GHz, and tranmit for as far as you like with a repeater every 2km. So we have a complete optical 'wired' communications system which is comparable in performance to the best modern conductive system.


At the annual meeting of the Irish Branch of the Institute of Physics, at Sligo on April 20, some similar innovatory concepts were outlined by Professor G G Roberts of the New University of Ulster.

Professor Roberts leads a group consisting of physicists and organic chemists who are working on organic polymers with curious electrical properties. This type of interdisciplinary team is favoured by the NUU structure, which is based on broad schools rather than specialist departments.

This work originated around the problem of how to do a colour Xerox. This involves particles suspended in a colloid which become photo-conducting and migrate under electrical forces. He produced a creditable colour print to show that it was possible; to make the process economic would require further work, in collaboration with engineers.

Professor Roberts went on to list the development areas open to these combined physicist-chemist teams: conductive glasses, photographic processes involving conducting polymers (eg one can photograph a diagram and develop in such a way as to produce a printed circuit directly), display devices, electrolytic cells, catalysis, energy storage devices etc.

As a 'throw-away line' he mentioned that in the Bell Laboratories they had set up a team with the task of finding an organic solid as good as copper, and had come up with something that was short by a factor of ten. People aware of the values of typical organic conductivities will realise what a major jump this is.... In NUU they are able to produce an organic solid which is a factor of 100 short of copper in conductivity. This is of use as an 'anti-static' textile material.

Professor Roberts' way of implementing the university-industry link is to lead a joint bi-located team in NUU and ICI, spending 25 days per annum on ICI ground. ICI also finances a number of fellowships in NUU. This type of structure, which is common in Britain, is new to Ireland, especially in its interdisciplinary aspect.. The traditional ICI fellowships, which have been around for some time, are more appropriate for basic work in chemistry departments.

This pattern for university-industry linkage should, I feel, be looked at more closely in Ireland......the scale threshold for profitable investment in R and D has up to now seemed remote, for most Irish firms. The State can help it to come closer.

May 6 1975

Last week's feature on replacement of copper as a conductor leads naturally to a mention of a discovery made at the IBM laboratories at San Jose, California....

Polysulphur nitride displays metallic-type conduction at room temperature. It occurs in crystals about a centimetre in length. Cooling to near absolute zero (0.25 degrees K) brings about a superconducting state.

Efforts have been made to develop materials which are superconducting at more easily manageable temperatures. Some rare-earth compounds are superconducting up to 23 degrees K.

Theoretical attempts have been made in Stanford University, California, to push up this limit, using a tailor-made molecule based on a long carbon chain. Up to now, however, the behaviour of organic conductors has been the reverse of superconducting: below a certain temperature they suddenly become insulators. Whence the importance of the newly-discovered properties of polysulphur nitride.

This work was done by a joint university-industry team; note the parallel with the NUU/ICI link referred to last week.

October 14 1975

I have received the provisional programme for the international conference on Physics in Industry, which is to take place in Dublin on March 9-13 of next year.

This is sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP); the Irish aspects of the organisation are being handled by the National Committee for Physics of the Royal Irish Academy.

It is the first of its kind, and as such is somewhat experimental. The Chairman of the Programme Committee is Professor H B G Casimir; some three years ago I reported a lecture which he gave in Dublin(20) in which he outlined the dialectics of scientific discovery versus technological innovation. He was at that time the head of the Philips Laboratories at Eindhoven, Holland.

Professor Casimir started life as a theoretical physicist. His Dublin lecture was under the auspices of the Institute of Advanced Studies. I remember at the time reading into this a statement of intent on the part of the Irish 'physics establishment' to start looking towards applications work. This conference represents a partial fulfilment of this intention, insofar as the Irish physicists lobbied for it on the international network. I understand also that the IUPAP 'establishment' also has the whole applied physics area on its collective conscience, never having previously taken any interest in it, despite its title.

There is a socially responsible trend developing in the various international bodies (especially those under United Nations auspices, as is IUPAP) towards locating conferences so as to help things along in the less-developed countries. (Ireland is, of course, in this category, despite the pretensions of those who wanted us to become full members of the EEC.) The General Secretary of IUPAP is a French Canadian of Irish origin, Larkin Kirwan. These factors all contributed to a Dublin venue for the 1976 conference.

The programme committee (which has 17 distinguished members ranging from the USA to the USSR) includes the following from Ireland: M J Cranley, Director of the IIRS and a physicist by training who has worked in X-ray crystallography with Kathleen Lonsdale in London, CP O'Toole, head of the IIRS physics department, and M C Sexton, of the UCC Electrical Engineering Department, who is currently working in plasma physics with EEC support.

It also includes Fergus O Foghludha (who worked in UCD with Professor TE Nevin in the early fifties; he then went off to the US where he took a medical degree and specialised in medical physics) and D J Bradley, of QUB dye-laser fame.

The programme covers materials, environment, computers, communications, thermonuclear fusion, medecine, surface phenomena, exotic energy sources etc. There is a slot for agriculture which is not yet filled.

My first foray into the field of 'scientific criticism'(21) in or about 1966 was when I reviewed the Agricultural Institute's annual research reports for 'Development'(22). I pointed out the existence of a gap between physics and agriculture on that occasion, and on a number of occasions subsequently. The soil/air/water/nutrient/plant system was then, and still is, physically interesting; it should repay study by more refined techniques than are available to the traditional agricultural scientists. Yet the cultural gap between traditional physics in Ireland, and those in agriculture who seek solutions with engineering-type techniques to problems in the area labelled 'soil physics', has to date remained unbridgeable.

I myself made an attempt to bridge the gap in 1960, when I made my first career-change (basic physics into industry). I got hold of some Rothamstead soil physics review articles, and tried to interest the (then embryonic) Agricultural Institute in them, without success. There were then, and still are, blind areas on both sides. So I am not surprised that there is still an empty slot for physics in agriculture in the conference programme. It will be interesting to see how it gets filled, if what it is filled with is relevant, and if anyone in Ireland is prepared to take note of it.

This conference should be attended by scientists and engineers connected with any industry where scientific technology is important.....

October 21 1975

The inaugural meeting of the Materials Science Group of the Institute fo Physics (Irish Branch) was held in Trinity College on September 1974. Although the meeting was judged to have been a success by its organisers, the need to relate to the needs of industrial technology was admitted. The major themes of the second such conference, held in Queens University Belfast on September 19-20, were the science and technology of semiconductors, and materials science in engineering.

Keynote lectures were given by Dr P C Newman, of Plessey ltd, and Professor Crosland of QUB. A wide-ranging collection of contributed papers was presented, on topics such as the physical basis of clothing comfort, NMR in polymers, organic laser media, semiconductor materials, microwave devices and superconductors.

The formal lecture programme was supplemented by exhibitions, in both the Physics Department and the Ashby Institute, where there was displayed an impressive collection of classical apparatus used by Faraday and Kelvin, which contrasted with modern techniques used in materials research (including laser-Raman and surface Auger spectroscopy, optical thin films etc), and with modern industrial processes (eg friction welding, structural component design and semiconductor fabrication).

The organising committee, Professors Lissberger, Imbusch, Roberts and Dr Duncan are to be complimented on the quality of both the lecture programme and the exhibitions. The only disappointing feature was the small number of representatives of industry, research organisations and educational establishments in the Republic.

January 27 1976

On October 14 last year I gave advance notice of the coming international conference on Physics in Industry, organised by the Royal Irish Academy under the auspices of IUPAP.

I have now seen a nearly complete draft of the programme, and I find it difficult to repress a sense of excitement. This promises to be the most important international scientific event ever to take place in Ireland. I do not say this lightly. International conferences have in the past come and gone, usually staying within their discipline and 'level of application', leaving behind scarcely a ripple on the surface of the Irish academic and industrial 'establishment'.

This conference, in contrast, sets out quasi-consciously to 'rock the boat' and to draw to the attention of the allocators of finance in Ireland that there are opportunities in high-technology industry for realising an economic return for our investment in third-level education, the fruits of which we have for decades been scattering to the four winds without a thought.

Some of our emigrant scientists will be returning to participate, or to read papers on the fruits of their researches abroad, and, hopefully, to stir the consciences of the politicians and administrators who erected the barriers to, or failed to to take up the opportunities for, the development of physics in Ireland up to now.

I note particularly Denis Keefe, from Princeton, who is reading a paper entitled 'Rock-excavation by pulsed electron beams'. Keefe was in UCD in the fifties; he was involved with a major team effort which included also the Institute of Advanced Studies and the universities of Bristol, Milan and other centres of expertise in the physics of high-energy particles. The policy of UCD then towards its junior staff was such as to make a move to the US by people of the calibre of Keefe practically inevitable. Clearly he has stuck consistently to his original field, and is now on the verge of moving with it into an applications area which in the fifties would have been regarded as science-fiction.

The calibre of this conference may be judged by the speakers who will give the keynote papers. These include LM Branscombe (vice-President and chief scientist of IBM), AG Chynoweth (Director of the Materials Research laboratories, Bell Telephones), GA Smolensky (Ioffe Physico-technical Institute, Leningrad) and JMA Lenihan (Director, Glasgow University Department of Bio-engineering).

The conference is streamed, and participants will have the chance to concentrate on the stream which interests them. The main divisions are new technologies and materials, communications and data-processing, biological applications, social aspects, optics/electronics and acoustics.

The following selection of key papers from these main groupings is made with a view to whetting the appetites of engineers in Ireland, and stimulating that fraternity towards improving their lines of communication with applied physics; also of physicists who seek to find practical and marketable outlets for their skills. This is the opportunity of a lifetime to pick the brains of the world, on our doorstep. The organisers, with IUPAP blessing, have made it easy for contacts and follow-ups to develop in Ireland by the enlightened expedient of having a special reduced fee for local participants, 5 per diem, of 15 total.....

In the field of new technologies I note a review paper by I Maleki (Polish National Academy) 'Applications of Ultrasonics to Material Technology'; also M Schlesinger (University of Windsor, Canada) on 'New photo-imaging processes for industrial use'.

Under 'Optics/electronics'.... SG Lipson (Technion, Haifa, Israel) has a paper on 'dynamic correction of optical instruments'.

In 'social aspects' there are studies of employment patterns, small industries, the university-industry interface. JE Ripper Filho (University of Campinas, Brazil) has a review-paper 'Appled Physics in a Developing Country'.

Under 'Energy', D Hurtley (University of Warwick, UK) has a paper analysing the energy utilisation pattern in the conventional automobile, as a basis for innovative energy-saving designs.

Under 'communications and data-processing' the field is dominated by advanced computer technology and satellites; there is a suggestion of an operations-research approach to system evaluation by dynamic model-building.

In 'acoustics' the emphasis is on industrial and environmental noise.

The biological section divides naturally into agriculture and medecine. There are seven papers in the former section, including one from the Agricultural Institute (title not yet available). The others are from the UK, USA, Canada, Holland, Sweden. The techniques covered include proton activation analysis. I understand that the Agricultural Institute will be observing this conference closely, with a view to gaining insights into the 'physics in agriculture' scene as it exists abroad. To date this has been a blind area in Ireland, for both physics and agricultural research. I can claim to have been pointing this out at intervals over the past 16 years; I won't labour the point as I went into it on October 14 last.

The medical section has a paper from Papua, New Guinea, on the dispersion of solutes during blood flow, suggesting that an awareness of the utility of physical techniques in medecine is not a preserve of the developed countries.


This is an appropriate time to comment on the annual conference of the Irish Physics Students' Association, which took place in Galway on December 31-January 3 last. It was the eleventh in the series. An excellent tradition has been established; it is taken seriously by the principal researchers, who use it for review-papers, which they present without condescension as shop-windows for their wares. The conference was commented on favourably by M G Ebison, the education officer of the Institute of Physics, London, who admitted that they had nothing like it in Britain. Indeed, it could be said that his after-dinner speech, a jeremiad about the decline of physics in Britain, was out of tune with the youth and optimism of the occasion.

Highlight of the conference was Dr Tom Murphy, of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, who surveyed the field of geophysics, covering the techniques which are currently in use for the discovery of petroleum and metallic ores. In this economically important field, Dr Murphy remains the principal repository of know-how in Ireland. His work is a mine of information on which the oil and mining companies have been assiduously drawing. The main impact of the paper was to remind the students that there is still no provision for systematic training for people to work in this field in the national interest.

A small positive step in the basic work, an aerial magnetic survey of the Republic, was planned for 1975 but was cancelled due to financial pressures. There are clearly blocking agencies at work in the Department of Transport and power, or possibly Finance, that are preventing the development of a national geophysics capability, as an element in the process of national control of resources.

Dr Murphy's paper can be taken as a signal to the students to start agitating, with the necessary political pressure applied through the Union of Students in Ireland, for proper attention to be paid to geophysics. If a relatively small number of women can, withsome petitions and a Mansion House meeting, get 10M pounds from a bankrupt State for the 'equal pay' principle, I fail to see why the USI can't get 0.5M for geophysics, if it marshalls its forces and presents the economic arguments relating to the resources issue in the required respectably conservative mode.

One final word on the IPSA conference as a cultural event. The IPSA conference is a training-ground for future organisers of IUPAP and other relevant international conferences. In the training-ground should be embedded a realisation that a conference is a showcase for national cculture. The IPSA students will find this when they go abroad, in no uncertain terms. Yet the cultural level of the evening music at the IPSA conference was the de-nationalised lowest common denominator of Anglo-Saxon pop. Under some pressure from one disgusted English participant, one Irish tune was grudgingly produced.

I do not want to cast aspersions on the organisers, who had to work with the material to hand (ie the Galway City cultural wilderness). May I however appeal to students not to reject the national cultural heritage, but consciously to defend it, for the excellent pragmatic reason that if it gets lost irrevocably (as it is in serious danger of doing), fewer people will be interested in coming to Ireland for conferences, for sabbatical years, or as entrepreneurs. People come to places because they like them to be different and interesting and culturally exciting. They do not only come to hear papers on physics.

April 6 1976

I attended the Physics in Industry conference (March 9-16) which I heralded in this feature on January 21. Readers will remember that I promoted it with some enthusiasm, as an opportunity for engineers in Ireland to get a preview of the frontiers of technology which will become of practical interest in a decade or two. It should also have been an opportunity for physicists in Ireland to see how the technological frontiers of physical experimentation relate to the development of productive technology in other countries, and for strengthening the tenuous linkages between science and technology in Ireland.

In neither case, I fear, was my optimism justified.

Although there was good material, of interest to innovation-minded engineers, the number of members of that profession who came to sample it could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Apart from a considerable fund of material in areas such as ultrasonics which are of interest in non-destructive testing, there were two contributions by UCD physicists which might have interested them. One was the use of some radio-astronomy equipment to pick up Indian TV live from a satellite, from the fringe of the directional beam aimed at India. This is part of a monitoring programme which is done in conjunction with RTE. In communications there is enough rapport between physicists and engineers for the latter to know to go to the former for a 'frontier job'.

More spectacular was the contribution of Denis Keefe, who was at UCD in the Fifties and is now at Berkeley, California. Dr Keefe, together with a team which included a mining engineer and an engineer familiar with particle accelerators, had done a feasibility study for a tunnelling machine which would be a factor of 10 or more faster than the traditional 'drill and blast' system. This would be highly relevant (say) for a Dublin underground railway system.

They studied a system consisting of an electron beam, carrying current of the order of kiloamps, of energy 10 MeV. It is technically feasible to produce such a beam with a linear accelerator, at the present state of the art. The efficiency of conversion of mains input to electrons at the rock face is of the order of 50%. They had done some experiments with laboratory accelerators, and showed slides of shattered rock-samples. The beam penetrates about a centimetre and sets up acoustic shock waves.

In an engineered design, the linear accelerator would be carried on railway wagons, and the shattered rock would be carried off by a vacuum system. The whole system looks credible, and well worth spending one or two millions on, if by its performance it would cut the cost of what could be a 100M pound operation. It is a pity that some mining engineers were not there to have their imaginations stretched by a preview of what physicists can produce (sometimes) when they are induced to turn their frontier technology towards solving practical problems.

Why does this not happen more often? My reading of it is that physicists have been through a period when money in the big centres was easy to get, so they stayed at the frontier. Funds are drying up, so that physicists are, so to speak, beginning to adapt to quasi-wartime conditions(23). Perhaps we are entering a new creative period for physics, evolving in the direction of practicality with the weapons of 'big science'. The gap between them and the engineers is narrowing, to the extent that they are beginning to shout across it, although with frequent losses of signal against the background noise.

This conference was planned by IUPAP specifically to explore (a) problems of relevance of physics in developing countries (b) problems at the interface between physics and engineering. Ireland was a good place to study both problems on a workshop basis. Yet no effort was made by the organising committee to set up workshops in which leading Irish physicists and engineers would have met with some of the world's top experts, and spent time defining their problems and specifying first-approximation solutions specific to the Irish context.

The experience of the 1972 Dublin conference of the International Federation of Operations Research Societies (IFORS) was available; the latter had established such a 'workshop' structure, with a very positive effect on OR in Ireland subsequently. The organisers of the IUPAP conference however obviously did not know to take this up, despite the fact that many OR people in Dublin, and indeed on the world network, are physicists by training(24).

The organising committee in Ireland (as distinct from the IUPAP programme committee) was however composed entirely of academic physicists, without significant industrial experience, to the extent that it failed to realise that it needed to set up such workshop procedures, and to work diplomatically on the Irish engineering fraternity, drawing them in on the planning, so as to ensure a high degree of support for the actual conference by its primary target market.

There was material in this conference that engineers would pay 50 pounds per day to pick up at a short-course in the US or Britain, and all on our doorstep for a fiver.

Clearly we are in the presence of a disastrous marketing crisis in the dissemination of technological knowledge. The physicist in Ireland doesn't realise that there is a market for advanced technology, and the engineer in Ireland doesn't realise that he has the producers of advanced technology living next door to him.....

You haven't heard the end of this particular argument.....

April 20 1976

On two recent occasions I have witnessed evidence that there is a streak of naivite among technologists in Ireland, in their view of the outside world.

The first was at the recent Physics in Industry conference..... the general strategy (of which) was not only to build bridges between the basic physics research frontier and industrial applications, but also to look at the problem of relevance of physics research in developing countries. I gave a preliminary critique on April 6, promising more. Here is an instalment.

At the final session, which was supposed to be drawing together the experience of the conference as regards the achievement of its goals, one of the Irish participants gets up and makes a speech in the form of a series of questions, asking the assembled company in effect to propose solutions to our problems for us. Needless to say, he was ignored, and the discussion rolled on with the momentum derived from the accepted star-performers.

These questions could have been answered, had we set out to implement an organised brain-picking operation, with a selected few of the star-performers, meeting separately from the main conference in a 'workshop' channel. But to expect distilled relevant opinion to come out of thin air, without having worked to get it, shows a degree of inexperience. This is a consequence, perhaps, of the niggardly attitude displayed by our administrators towards travel to conferences, rather than any failings on the part of the individuals concerned.

The second event was less excusable. I did not manage to get to much of the Natural Gas Utilisation conference, organised by the Institute of Chemical Engineers, but I did hear one of the open discussions..... Again, some naive Irishman stands up and asks some questions regarding how to predict (eg) trends in nitrogen fertiliser demand, and other relevant world market intelligence germane to the natural gas business.

The hydrocarbon technologists being tougher and less gentlemen-academics than the physicists, the riposte came quickly, in the form of an offer to supply a consultant, and a listing of relevant conferences in the recent past, coupled with the remark that no Irishman had been seen at any of them. This is a clear signal to the State agencies responsible for oil and gas development to 'get their finger out', staff up with trained personnel, and get wired in to the international network(25).

April 27 1976

The Rank Prize Fund constitutes an attempt to establish a prestige award in applied science along the lines of the Nobel Prizes in pure science. The fact that the former is not so well known as the latter is an unfortunate reflection on the relatively low prestige attached, at least in Britain, to the art of making devices which work usefully. The inventor usually draws a salary, and the manufacturer, to whom the patents have been assigned as part of the contract of employment, makes the money.

In this prestige-desert it is pleasant to be able to congratulate Dr Stanley Nielsen, Secretary of the National Science Council, on his winning a share of the Rank Prize for Opto-electronics, for work done at the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, in 1958....

The 1958 device consisted of a cadmium mercury telluride semiconductor which could be used as a detector for infra-red radiation at ordinary temperatures, with sensitivity and response-time sufficiently good to permit a TV-type display.

Thermal images have many applications in industry and medecine; in almost any system you can think of, the pattern of hot and cold spots has diagnostic value. There are, of course, military applications, in systems requiring night vision.


Anyone who has used gas chromatography for analysis will realise that there are many occasions when it is not sufficient to observe a pattern of peaks on a chart, you have to take steps to identify positively each peak.

One obvious way to carry out this identification is by means of infra-red spectroscopy. Sophisticated equipment has been developed in the US which combines these two techniques 'in real time', using fast Fourier transforms. This equipment gives an instant signal, but is expensive.

Dr Val Rossiter, of the TCD Engineering Science Department(26) has come up with an inexpensive device (on which he holds a provisional patent) whereby the gas chromatograph peaks can be sampled for subsequent off-line analysis in an infra-red spectrometer. The new system brings combined IR/GC analysis within the scope of any laboratory using GC and having access to conventional IR equipment, without the need to invest in the expensive 'real-time' combined system.

Dr Rossiter has formed his own company, Accuspec ltd, to manufacture and market this device.....

December 14 1976

Sensationalism in announcing scientific discoveries is on the whole to be deplored. It is also unethical to announce discoveries without appropriate allocation of credits. The case of the new 'charmed' particle(27), which was discovered by an international team led by Professor E H S Burhop, of University College, London, and announced on November 2 in a joint press-release from UCL, Imperial College and the Open University, exhibits evidence of both these sins, at least as regards its handling by those responsible for feeding the Irish media.

The collaboration involved a team drawn from three universities in Britain, together with laboratories in Brussels, Rome, Geneva, Dublin, Mulhouse and Strasbourg. The laboratory at CERN, the European nuclear research centre was also involved; in this case however the actual experiment was done using high-energy particles generated at the Fermi Laboratory, Batavia, Illinois, USA. The Dublin laboratory referred to is the UCD Physics Department, and is directed by Dr Alex Montwill.

The basic facts of the discovery have been described adequately in layman's language by Dick Grogan on December 3, in the news columns. The background, which did not emerge in the press reports, includes the remarkable come-back of nuclear emulsion technique, which enjoyed its heyday in the fifties, being superseded by the bubble-chamber as the prime detector for high-energy nuclear events. In this 'belle epoque', the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies played a leading role in the development of the basic techniques of measurement of particle velocity, momentum and mass.

To suggest that a tradition of nuclear research '...began in UCD under Professor TE Nevin', without filling in the rest of the Dublin background, is misleading, in view of the primary role played by the Advanced Studies Group under Professor Cormac O Ceallaigh in that epoch. In fact, O Ceallaigh was responsible for developing the key nuclear emulsion techniques when working in Bristol on leave of absence from UCC, whence he brought them back to Dublin when he took up the Advanced Studies post in 1953.

The UCD group was subsequently built up with substantial technical assistance from DIAS; both groups participated in the major European collaborative work with nuclear emulsions in the fifties, which helped to identify and characterise the rapidly expanding family of sub-nuclear particles to which the recent 'charmed' particle is the latest edition.

The group in UCD then declined, losing its key people to the US, largely due, I suspect, to the system of temporary appointments which then obtained in UCD. It is to the credit of Alex Montwill that it was kept alive during the lean years, so that it has now been able to re-assert its value where one of the properties of nuclear emulsion is of prime importance, namely its ability to detect particles with very short lifetimes.

The DIAS group has in recent years developed other techniques altogether, and directed its attention towards the cosmic-ray 'heavy primaries'. However I feel that the key seminal role of DIAS with regard to high-energy nuclear physics in Dublin should not be forgotten.....


1. See Chapter 5.2 (Scientific and Technological Information) for the critique of the Register to which this remark is relevant.

2. See Chapter 2.2 (Philosophy of Science) on this date for some remarks on specialisation, convergence etc.

3. A land-reclamation scheme sponsored by the Department of Agriculture.

4. I met an Irish physicist in 1980 who had gone to NASA with high hopes in the 60s, and had subsequently been shed during its retrenchment. He had ended up working as a building contractor.

5. Centre Europeen de Recherche Scientifique, a European high-energy physics collaboration which pre-dates the EEC; Ireland has not yet become a member, despite the role of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

6. Professor CBA McCusker, who worked on extensive air-showers (ie ultra-high energy cosmic ray events) in Dublin in the 50s, subsequently went to Sydney, in the wake of Harry Messel, his predecessorin the Institute of Advenced Studies. The latter had managed to raise fairly lavish funding for cosmic-ray work in Australia. It was widely reported in the press about this time (October 1970) that McCusker had discovered a 'quark', a theoretically possible object, named in a tradition derived from Lewis Carroll via Finnegan's Wake (proving that physicists are cultured), three of which may combine to make a proton. If this had turned out to be true, he would by now have got the Nobel Prize. There is a tendency for scientists who remain in the same field of basic research to seek significant discoveries with increasing obsessiveness, so that they tend to stake their reputation on a premature publication, which then gets debunked.

7. The problem at that time was: why did the ionisation increase as you went up, instead of decreasing, as it should if the energy-source was the radioactivity of the earth. The discovery of the existence of high-energy particles from outer space followed the invention of devices for making their tracks visible, principally the Wilson cloud chamber controlled by geiger-counters in coincidence, using electronic logic circuits. This took place in the 30s, and is part of the pre-history of the modern electronics industry.

8. See Chapter 4.6 (The Sea) shortly before this date.

9. The Sexton interest in laser probes has since evolved towards plasma physics in the nuclear fusion context.

10. Dr M R Redfern, now at UCG, had previously been working in X-ray astronomy in Britain. In 1982 at the IPIB meeting he expressed interest in looking into possible medical uses for extra-low-level X-ray techniques (photon-counting etc); this again illustrates the 'geographical dispersion leading to cross-disciplinary linkages' law.

11. Professor Bradley is currently (1982) collaborating with a biochemist and a geneticist in a project in which a tuned laser is used in molecular surgery, with possible implications in the recombinant DNA field.

12. There is something delightfully Protestant and colonial about this tradition. Rutherford was a New Zealander. The further you are from your source of equipment, the more important is the creative use of the junk-box.

13. Many Irish scientists have done good work abroad, and then on returning home have tried to keep up the same line in isolation, without strong local interaction with other members of a viable group. Such work is nearly always sterile.

14. Being in Holy Orders, and subject to his Bishop, Dr McLaughlin was obliged to relinquish his post at Maynooth in order to run a parish.

15. See Chapter 3.5 (Bio-engineering) November 18.

16. There are no procedures in TCD, or in any Irish University, for the institutional management of patents. Some colleges in Europe and the US do this in an organised way, thereby earning revenue.

17. In this case I feel some credit can be claimed for the influence of this column.

18. At that time occupied by the present writer.

19. The IDA does provide training grants, which can sometimes exceptionally be used for graduate-type labour, but the Irish system was then, and remains, not particularly encouraging to the high-technology entrepreneur rooted in university research.

20. See Chapter 5.1 (DIAS) May 2 1973.

21. I distinguish 'scientific journalism' which reports discoveries (sometimes in 'gee-whiz' mode) from 'scientific criticism'; the latter tries to evaluate events reflectively, relating them to other events and to the general technological, socio-economic and cultural background. The role of the 'science critic' is parallel to that of the music critic. The writer can, with some confidence, claim to have invented the genre in the Irish context.

22. A precursor of Technology Ireland, initiated courageously in the 50s by Jim Gilbert as a commercial venture.

23. Some are, of course, being soaked up by military R&D. Particle-beam weapons are beginning to be taken seriously. Physicists are faced with a moral choice more than ever.

24. There is a credibility gap between those physicists who have remained in physics, and those who have diversified towards operations research etc. The former tend not to treat the latter as a source of valid experience.

25. For more on this theme, see Chapter 3.2 (Process Engineering).

26. This is a type of project which ought to have originated in a physics department. In TCD, because of the strength of the Cavendish tradition (via Walton) in Physics, much work of an applied-physics nature was done in the then Engineering Science Department (eg dielectric constants of pure liquids at high pressures etc). Now that TCD engineering has divided into the traditional engineering specialities, there is room for applied physics to re-assert itself from the physics side of the physics-engineering interface.

27. The key technical factors enabling the experiment to be done were (a) the availability of beams of high-energy neutrinos at the big accelerators (b) the use of spark-chambers to detect the products of the (rare) neutrino-nucleus interactions in such a way as to enable their location in the emulsion to be pinpointed, without the need for extensive random scanning. This technique was subsequently refined by associating emulsions with large liquid-hydrogen bubble-chambers. The late Professor Burhop was the originator of the experimental strategy, which was feasible thanks to the remarkable survival of the international collaborative tradition in emulsion work, over a period of two decades.

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