In Search of Techne

Ch 1.4: The Aer Lingus Young Scientists

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to

January 13 1971

Last year I started just too late to be able to comment on the Young Scientists' Exhibition. I had at that time some half-formed doubts in my mind; a visit to this year's Exhibition has helped to crystallise them into a coherent critique.

Firstly, let me say that in principle the idea is excellent, and the originality and competence of many of the exhibits is outstanding.

It is not without emotion that someone like myself.....can examine an exhibit in which a teenage girl from Newtownforbes (Co Longford) can display clearly the essentials of the cybernetic approach to techno-economic systems. One is traumatically impressed by the increasing rate of development of human knowledge of what is possible, and the widening gap between the theoretical possibilities and the practical realisations.

I cannot avoid being impressed by the performance of what I can only describe as the Newtownforbes School of Mathematics; I had noticed it last year but simply did not believe it. I am now convinced of its objective existence, and am forced to marvel at the way in which the presence of an inspired teacher, which in Sister Theresa they undoubtedly have, can develop the level of understanding of the whole class to an extent that in my own school experience was reserved to one or two gifted pupils.

However, this brings me to one of my criticisms..... The metaphysical division of science into...'subjects' undoubtedly is a brake on creativity. Whoever classified the exhibits put cybernetics under 'physics' and for some obscure reason put a bionic exhibit under 'biochemistry'. Bionics is concerned with the modelling of biological systems with physical and other analogues, in order to help understand the processes which arise for complex interconnections. It is no more biochemistry than cybernetic economics is physics.

These anomalies will remain for as long as the present anachronistic fragmentation of human knowledge is allowed to persist. Other systems of classification are possible. For example, a piece of research may be said to occupy a connected area on a two-dimensional spectrum, the dimensions being (x) relative importance of matter and organisation (or 'hardware and information' if you like), and (y) relative distance from the routine productive processes of economic life (or time-horizon, if you like).

There are no boundaries on this spectrum, and all the known disciplines can be placed meaningfully in relation to each other. An exhibition structured on this principle would be interesting, in that the juxtapositions which occurred might suggest future collaborations which might not otherwise have taken place.

My second criticism is that all the projects are individual; it is explicitly required that this be the case in the Exhibition rules. This is in line with the Irish academic science tradition, which is basically gentleman-amateur.....(1)

If co-operative projects were encouraged by the Exhibition, the untapped potential of the Newtownforbes mathematicians might be applied to the building of ecological systems in collaboration with a biologist, or economic systems in collaboration with a geographer. Real science only evolves by continuous interaction between theory and practice, and by crossing interdisciplinary boundaries. This is much more difficult to achieve in an individual project within a 'subject'.

Criticism number three: why do the judges not make a report available to explain to the public, who are gazing awe-struck at the winning exhibits, why they consider these to be the best?

The excercise in post-glacial surface geological detective work, which won the first prize, needs a few words of explanation if the public is to understand its background and significance. Likewise the pyro-electrical analytical device (which.... differentiates between substances by the waveforms into which a sine-wave distorts when traces are added to a flame coupled to an electric circuit) needs a few words of explanation to reassure us that the results are reproducible enough to form the basis of an instrument. There are plenty of variables to play with, and the fundamental processes at work are quite complex.

....I am not quarrelling with the allocation of the prizes; I am, however, concerned that justice should be seen to be done....


This individualism, fostered in the young people by their elders, showed up in the attitude of certain students who attended the Irish Physics Students Association conference, which took place in Coleraine last week.

.....The creative potential and initiative, for which the students who organise this annual event are to be commended, run the risk of being thwarted by the negative legacy of this tradition of academic individualism.

This individualistic tradition, whereby a student in a lecture-hall is in individual imbibing knowledge from a teacher, or carrying out an individual research-project supervised by a research-director, has the effect that students grow up with a psychology such that the concept of cross-fertilisation just does not occur to them.

An extreme example occurred at Coleraine, where a certain set, who on their home ground regularly play poker together, turned up at Coleraine, where after conference hours they were to be found in their little in-group playing poker as usual.

A university purporting to teach science which churns out such people is in danger of failing in its mission....

February 24 1971

I attended some of the sessions of the Irish Mathematical Students' Conference, held in TCD last week.

In contrast to the Physics Students' Conference, which depended heavily on invited guest speakers, the young mathematicians were prepared to forge ahead on their own.

This can be fun, but it has its dangers. I found myself asking were they trying to prove that they were able to digest and explain other peoples' ideas, with a view to careers as teachers, or was there a research element in it?

It is not news, in 1971, to exhibit the solution of the cubic equation, as obtained by Tartaglia and divulged by Cardan in 1502. It is, perhaps, of interest to marvel at the sophistication of renaissance algebra, newly imported from infidel Araby. It certainly would have been of interest to know why Tartaglia wanted to keep the discovery secret. Was he afraid of being burnt at the stake? Or was it a 'trade mystery'? Why did Cardan divulge it? Was he the 'entrepreneur', more in tune with the times than the (possibly monkish) Tartaglia?

There is here a fascinating study of scientific enquiry and its interaction with the social obstacles and opportunities, of far more interest than the actual solution of the cubic itself.

I thought the conference as a whole was too theoretical. I looked forward to hearing about 'the application of mathematics to communications' but was disappointed to find that a paper on prime numbers had been substituted.....

I welcome students' conferences; they seem to be much more popular than ever before. But there is need for a more creative interaction between the generations. Can we not have some intellectual leadership from the more active research-minded postgraduates, without heavy-handed domination? I do not believe that student conferences can develop creatively unless there is some transmission of experience across, say a 10-year age-gap. Not can they be of much use if the students are expected to listen respectfully to the over-fifties.

July 28 1971

I have to hand a copy of 'Crystal 71', the magazine of the UCG Science Society. I am indebted to Enda Folan, the Auditor, for sending me a copy.

Some months ago they asked me if I would contribute an article. I declined, as I felt that my function would be better fulfilled if I were to review it....

I received the review copy some two months ago.....and was, regrettably, disappointed..... I felt I should wait for some time before commenting, until I had found an angle that would enable me to turn an negative review into something positive.

Student magazines are worth watching, not because they are necessarily hot-beds of creativity (although sometimes posterity finds them important: 'Icarus', which first appeared in the 40s and ran for about 5 years, has been given serious evaluation in the literary pages in recent months), but because they give some insight into what the rising generation think important.

This issue of 'Crystal' contains an editorial interview with Professor Colm O h-Eocha....touching on....national and regional science policy..... There is am implied criticim of UCG as regards its failure to take up the NSC-sponsored idea of an Industrial Liaison Officer to build up university-industry contacts.

This, together with an article by Professor Peter Scott of California, completes the amount of the contents that is to be regarded as serious comment. The latter contributes some thoughtful paragraphs on the physics of the Galway environment, and sounds a warning based on the American experience against over-dependence on science-based gagetry.

Why then are the student contributions so unsatisfactory? One expects brightness and some questioning of the assumptions of their elders. Instead....there is a dull conformity, a regurgitation of textbook ideas....

On the positive, and mainly literary side, there is am imaginative piece by Pat Holland in which eroticism lurks behind imagery redolent of William Blake; also a little piece by Anne Webster entitled 'Death of a Cockroach' with some poetic charm.

There is a call for 'liberalisation' of scientific education by Michael Delaney; the author criticises the university authorities and government departments for thinking in terms of specialist, vocational-type degrees in the various branches of science... the makings of a good approach, but he does not argue with the necessary toughness.

To turn now to the rest of the material: I suppose it is no harm to have historical accounts of the Bomb, the discovery of the planets of the solar system etc. For as long as there are no proper lectures in the history of science, students will fill in the gaps by random reading, and articles like this are the result. Their dullness is due to the idea derived from school history-teaching that history is a chronacle of facts, which occur one after the other. The existence of a thread of causes and effects, each interacting with its neighbours, and with inexorably advancing technology as a key element, is absolutely essential to the understanding not only of the history of science, but also that of economics and politics.

What is interesting about the Bomb saga is not so much the technical details about uranium and plutonium isotopes, but why Fermi was in the US, how Hahn and Strassman managed to avoid getting involved to the same extent in Germany, the influence that the Bomb and its technology had on physics subsequently, etc. It is too much to expect a student magazine to cover all these angles; all it can do is express the need for exposure to the history of science.....

(The first artificially induced transmutation was done by Cockroft and Walton: Ernest Walton, not William Walton, the composer!)

I have little patience with the type of whimsey that takes the heroes of the school arithmetics 'A, B, and C' (the fellows who did ditches at different rates) and attempts to endow them with characters. This vein was exhausted by Stephen Leacock in the 30s. Nor do I buy the type of humour that takes ordinary human activity (waking up in the digs with a hangover, for example) and dresses it up in ill-digested jargon about elimination reactions and absorbtion maxima.

The rest is didactic stuff on group theory, turbojet engines, the rainbow, carbon fibres, food additives (a welcome call for better legislation here, by Nuala Donoghue), DNA and artificial satellites. The object is such material, presumably, is to prove that the aouthors can read outside the course, and to inform readers of the existence of an extra-curricular world, a laudable enough aim.

Why do I find it wanting? I suppose because it contains little of no echo of direct experience, or sense of social responsibility, no sense of involvement in the regional problems of Galway. I sympathise with the 'cri de coeur' of the disillusioned scientist who opted out; he should parhaps think through his position before descending into nihilism.

Finally, please spare us the type of gossip-column with in-jokes which effectively restrict the circulation to Galway.

Despite what I have said, this little magazine should be bought and circulated on a national basis. An enquiry to the UCG Science Society will.....presumably elicit a price, this important piece of data having escaped the attention of the printer.

It should be circulated in order to encourage thoughtful criticism, emulation, competition. What happened to 'Kosmos', the TCD student magazine which was extant two or three years ago? If there was one such in each college, it would be possible to use some of the material as the basis for an annual with a national circulation, provided there existed the means of endowing such a journal with continuity of editorial policy...

Thing are happening on the regional scene which could find an echo in publications like Crystal, if the students had their collective ear to the ground. There are some technology-based industries starting up in the Gaeltacht, with which various university departments might creatively interact, if they are not doing so already....

January 26 1972

Each year I view the Young Scientists Exhibition with mixed feelings. On the one hand I am impressed by the range and originality of the ideas; on the other hand I am depressed by the knowledge that an appreciable fraction of the enthusiasm will decline into disillusion as the young people grow up and face the problems.

By and large, however, I am convinced that it is a positive and creative event. It is clearly here to stay; it has become an institution. The prize-winners' dinner, where the judges and the judged rub shoulders, has developed its own ritual. The earlier top prize-winners, now maturing, grace it with their presence. There is a uniformly good record of achievement among them.

There appears to be a trend towards awarding prizes to people who seek to develop an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. This year's top prizewinner, Sean Mac Fheorais, approached a seemingly trivial problem: 'Why do dragonflies have dark spots two-thirds the way down their front wings?' with a range of techniques worthy of a major research laboratory employing a large staff. He made little real progress in any of the channels he tried, but that is not the point. His dynamics of wing vibrations may not have yielded a correct theoretical model, nor was he able to test his hypothesis quantitatively, but he knew that the approach was relevant, and he did what he could.

Any one of his angles alone would hardly have rated a mention, but taken together they constituted an imaginative experimental strategy, which with the necessary resources would have paid off with real basic knowledge of insect aerodynamics.

There is virgin soil here; we have a good theory of air flow over wing surfaces on the scale, and at the speed, of aircraft. Birds are scarcely understood; with insects we are quite in the dark. Sean Mac Fheorais suggests that there is a visual feedback loop in the control system of the dragonfly, and that this is the role of the spots, rather than as a dynamic element in the wing system, whether in the form of stiffness or mass. Obviously with a high-frequency flapping-wing system there must be some very precise control system at work, with rapid response. Anyone who has watched a dragonfly will have noted its manoeverability.. Presumably it is a predator....

I gather that I am not very popular with the judges for having held out for group projects rather than individual ones. I am unrepentant.

I understand that it has been argued that a group project would be more susceptable to undue influence by the teacher than the individual project. The opposite is the case, if the analogy with the legal system is valid. It is harder for a teacher to drill a group to consistency than a single person; in a group project you have a number of witnesses who can be cross-examined.

The group project, if it became the norm, would have a healthy efect on scientific research in Ireland. I feel that the attitude of the judges in this matter is a reflection of the strength of the individualistic tradition which is ingrained in the present generation of mature scientists who have spent most of their careers in Ireland. One has to have worked abroad to sense this.

It is also alleged that group projects would be harder to judge. I agree, but the excercise in judging a group project would be salutary for the judges. Maybe a group project among the judges might come out of it!

Possibly the way to introduce group projects would be to allow a completely open class, without subdivision, with the proviso that the participants in the group should specialise in approaches to the problem from the angles of different disciplines. Thus one could have a collaboration between two students having complementary strong subjects: a goegrapher and a mathematician, or a physicist and a biologist.. or whatever. Group projects within one discipline are, of course, more dubious. The advantage of the group is not force of numbers so much as the approach from different angles. Sean Mac Fheorais was, in fact, a group under one hat.

June 14 1972

The Galway students's magazine 'Crystal', edited by John Carroll, is much improved by comparison with last year. It still displays some signs of amateurishness, such as a failure to display a price and a publication address.....(and) a compulsion to fill space with print. It is considered wasteful to end an article decently half-way down the page; the blank space, lest it offend the eye, must be filled with weak jokes and titbits of wonders. It reduces credibility of the whole if some of the quoted sensational bits are wrong, like the four lines on relativistic aging on page 58.

Having got the carps out of my system, let me compliment the editor on having produced a readable and interesting publication. It has a strong ethical content, which starts with an editorial call for concern with social reform, and is echoed by Dr Donal Hurley, of the Department of Mathematics. Dr Hurley concludes:'...the physical and social sciences have precious little to contribute to the change process....the leading task therefore is to do whatever one can to maximise the political seff-consciousness and self-awareness of the social forces now trying to pull themselves together...'

An anonymous letter to the editor expands the theme further and attacks the snobbish motivation of most university students, pointing out the greater relevance of the regional colleges, and attacking the practice whereby university staff tend to stay in the narrow area of research in which they did their PhDs.

The author calls for the development of links between UCG and the Galway Regional College. It is a pity that he or she has to shelter beind anonymity.

Brendan O'Connor has a constructive article on shellfish. The Carna laboratory is to be finished by August of this year....there will be 20 jobs for graduates and technicians, and the results will be available for commercial application in the west.

Michael Delaney has a pungently ironical piece:'...a drug is a substance which if injected into the big vein of a rabbit's ear produces a paper...' and '...for those who do not wish their readers to study their data in detail.....(there is) an ingenious device at Dublin Airport which separates speakers from their slides for 24-48 hours, by which time a lecture or meeting may be safely over....'

Tobias Joyce has a stimulating critique of science fiction, turning his hand to the genre himself with a short story on a time-travelling theme. There are theological undertones. A traveller from the 22nd century, on time-safari in the first, is tricked into breaking the rules, converting some water into wine, to please a lady. He has to act out the part from then on!

The rest of the issue is a mixed bag which includes pop-maths, dental caries, food, the 'crown of thorns' starfish. There is an article on the brain as a pattern-recogniser, contrasted with the computer as a routine number-cruncher, by Sr Ann Crowley.

How can publications like this get circulated away from their home ground? They are obviously uneconomic from the trade angle. Could they not build up a system of agencies in all colleges, whereby the students in each would be aware of the writings in all?...

January 17 1973

I hope eventually to get around to looking at trends and fashions in the Young Scientists Exhibition, which has this year received good coverage in the news columns.... I noted particularly Mary Kelliher's survey of non-destructible rubbish, Fergil Colohan's study of the Achill basking shark and Eoin Kearney's study of lichens in the Shannon area as pollution indicators.

I was interested in John Carley's study of whey as a food for mussels in Wexford. This is a knife-edge situation: too high a concentration of milk by-products into the rivers could cause explosive growth of algae and have a contrary effect. The tendency for whey is to dry it for animal feed; ultimately it will become an important source of lactose. Noel McGahern, of Gormanstown, is shadowing the Agricultural Institute work on pollution in Lough Sheelin by silage effluent.

John O'Shea, of Castleisland, produced a study of stammering, which for some obscure reason was classed under 'biochemistry', confirming my unease about the 'subject' classification.

There is a case for having an 'open' class, where interdisciplinary work, or other such work not easily classifiable, could be placed. There is also a case for a 'group project' class, which might or might not involve an interdisciplinary approach, but which would involve two or three students, each with a defined role, in co-operation. If this caught on it might perhaps have the effect of cutting down the number of entries..... while not reducing the level of participation.

Mary Rooney, of Muckross, did a good job on the Liberties of Dublin.. Enda McGuinness, of Castleblayney, contributed to the co-operative tradition. Joan Lynch of Castleisland is well hooked on Irish music. I mention these just to illustrate how, once you include a category labelled 'sociology', all of human culture can be brought in under the umbrella. I welcome this; it is a step back towards the integrated view of human culture, which for a period was in some danger from the wave of technological philistinism originating in 19th century England.

It is hard to be original in physics at school level. I liked where people used a physical technique to measure a socially important phenomenon, as did Noel Caffrey, of Shannon, for aircraft noise. I was impressed by Liam Bennetts's approach to the chess openings by a statistical study of a measured topological advantage. If this is original, it is work of a high order. If he got it from books or papers, I thank him for drawing to my attention a range of concepts which aree useful tools for visualising situations in areas much wider than chess.

I also admired Hamish Logan's 'which' job on the various computer systems open to him. This shows a keen appreciation of the existence of a buyers' market in an overproduced piece of over-sophisticated hardware. In Portora, apparently, they teach them business sense, in the best Northern tradition.

This year, instead of a dinner for the prizewinners and judges, they had a stand-up bunfight for everybody. This, I feel, is a positive step, as it lowers the divide between the 'ins' and the 'outs'.

February 28 1973

I have had the chance to look at the statistics of eight of the nine Young Scientists Exhibitions, thanks to a set of catalogues kindly loaned by Margaret Coyne of the Aer Lingus Education Section.

There emerges a pattern of trends and ratios which gives many insights into both our educational system and our attitudes, as expressed in what is thought to be important.

In Physics, for example, the boys consistently outnumbered the girls; there is a big dropout of girls between the junior and senior levels, while the boys tend to participate more as the enter the senior grades.

This undoubtedly reflects inequality of opportunity; the girls are shunted off to do typing and cooking, while the boys are supposed to aspire to become Nobel Prize winners.

The overall trend in Physics is neutral; there is a steady 40 per annum.

Chemistry shows the same pattern: dropout of senior girls, more senior boys than junior, a steady total of about 20, stabilised after an explosive start of about 60 in 1966(2).

In Biology, however, a different pattern is emerging. Here things started in 1966 with a huge entry of 79 girls and only 16 boys; by 1973 the boys had pulled up to equality; for boys to take biology seriously is welcome. However, the superior resources available to boys schools is again asserting itself: the boys senior participation remains comparable to the junior, the senior girls dropping in 1973 to a mere quarter of the junior entry, compared to half in 1966-68.

In Mathematics the numbers have held steady (except where dominated in 1970-72 by whole classes from one school.....) at about 20.

Geography/Geology has climbed up again into the fifties from a low of 34 in 1970, having declined from an initial 72.

The short-lived electronics class was, I feel, a mistake. Why not have an engineering class, which would draw together the principle and the practice? Many of the physics entries are, in fact, engineering prototypes.

Biochemistry has also had a slump, followed by a recovery; it is now running in the 40s, after a low of 11 in 1970. Girls here outnumber boys, and hold up well at senior level.

In Sociology, which started in 1970, the girls consistently outnumber the boys, and participate more as seniors than as juniors. Total participation is now in the 80s, having risen from 18 in 1970. Boys in 1973 were 34 and girls 52.

I have not had the chance to analyse the distribution of winners; I don't think this is relevant...

I can make some comments and suggestions. Why, for example, is it necessary to have separate categories for boys and girls? We are not here dealing with athletics. If boys' entries were judged along with girls it would enable the relative standards in boys' and girls' schools to be evaluated. There is no evidence that girls are second-class citizens as regards ability, although they may be as regards resources allocated. Judgine separately helps to perpetuate second-class citizenship, where it exists.

Finally, may I re-iterate my plea for the encouragement of group and interdisciplinary projects. One can envisage a group project within one discipline, with co-ordinated distinct responsibilities. A further step towards complexity is a group project involving more than one discipline.

Working together in co-operation is natural to most peoples in most epochs. The individual, competitive approach that we are cursed with at present is a temporary lapse from grace, characteristic of a small number of agressive European nations in recent centuries. Group projects in science, however, are now the norm in the world at large, even in the Anglo-US arena of individualist competition. Only in Ireland has individualism in science survived, in a sort of 19th-century backwater, perpetuated in the research traditions of the higher education system. A look at the Royal Irish Academy Research Register will confirm this picture.

The Young Scientists Exhibition provides an opportunity to break this negative tradition, and to unleash on the higher education system a generation of young people who know how to work co-operatively.

July 4 1973

I now come round to reviewing 'Baile' and 'Graticule', published respectively by the UCD and QUB Geographical Societies. Both contain a soul-searching element: what is geography for? Why geography? To train teachers to give dull lessons at school?

Baile has a number of articles by students covering urban problems, rural-urban interaction, sociological and educational interesting introduction to the current thinking...a training-ground for writing.....useful to help an aspiring geographer coming up from school. Here, perhaps, is an untapped market; unfortunately, there is neither a price nor a publication address, a common failure among student publications.

Graticule is wider-ranging, with some good satire. There is international concern: Norway, Iceland, Britanny, Morocco, Afghanistan; an interesting group of small, fringe contries, suffering from 'big neighbour' problems. There are micro-studies of the Norhtern Ireland scene, an introduction to statistics and other evidence of social responsibility and diversity. I would mark 'Graticule' as a more serious publication than 'Baile'. It sells at 12p, but again there is no publication address.

I feel that geography is to be encouraged as a scientific study because it is fundamentally complex, interactive and interdisciplinary. All branches of specialist science can be drawn upon in the development of complex, quantitative models of human group behaviour in a physical and economic environment. Geographers have tended to have an inferiority complex relative to the 'hard' sciences. This they must get rid of; they must become tough and quantitative enough with their integrative approach to get to be the key people in planning departments, with the whip-hand over the engineers and the economists.

Geography was the first of the sciences to recognise the key role of interactive effects between the elements of a system. There is more to a system than its components. Systems engineers, economic planners and operations research consultants are beginning to learn painfully what geographers have known for decades: that human society is close-knit and cause-effect relationships cannot easily be disentangled.

What has held geographers back from recognition is their failure to come to grips with the quantification of their laws. They fear, rightly, the spurious exactitude of a quantified but imprecisely-known system. It has not yet dawned on them that imprecision itself can be quantified and measured. There is a preliminary article in 'Graticule' which constitutes a preliminary attempt to make good this omission.

Though I have not yet met one, I conjecture that someone who has a degree in maths or physics, and has managed also to qualify in geography, would make a good 'systems approach' person; he or she might even be able to advise the EEC how to get rid of the 'butter-mountain', reduce the production-cost of food and reduce pressure on urban housing with one single legislative reform......

August 29 1973

('Youth Science Fortnight' is an event sponsored by the Council for International Contacts, involving the attendance of groups seleected from various countries at various scientific events, and visits to research centres, in Britain. The selection is done by the RDS. Fifteen first-year students are selected from an entry of 100 or more. Some 500 attend altogether. The RDS has assembled a panel of sponsoring firms.)

.....I asked the participants if they would like to submit an article describing their experience. The one published today is the one I judged best.....

I am slightly dubious about the value of this kind of exposure. Up to now, industrial support for projects of this nature has tended to be a sort of ritual lip-service to science...... The crunch will come when the younger generation, enthused by the head-start into science that they have had, will go looking for a job.

_ (Extracts from article by Fionn Murtagh) opening ceremony at the Institution of Electrical Engineers at Savoy Place, where most of the lectures and debates took place...

...The use of the EMI brain-scanner for examining brain-tissue...

.....'Man and his Food'.....covered the whole spectrum of changes in food production.....intensive farming.....synthetic foods.

..Problems of interdisciplinary research and planning.....biologist and conservationist vs economist and mathematician.....

...Spectroscopy in the vacuum ultraviolet...

..Visits to industrial research establishments....Dollis Hill....magnetic bubble domains....optical communications.....superconductivity...

..a forum on 'survival' scientists who are supporters of the Pugwash movement....third world and nuclear disarmament....

..Very well organised.....too short...

January 9 1974

I have had the chance to spend some time with the judges of the Young Scientists Exhibition and have met some of the teachers and exhibitors..... I feel I have enough material to enable me to re-open the discussion on the basic organisation and philosophy of the event.

Firstly, why are there so few vocational schools represented? This suggests to me that the exhibition is seen as an academic thing, opening the road to a brilliant university career in 'pure science', and that the vocational teachers see it in some way as 'not for the likes of us'. It way also reflect the fact that the vocational teachers are hard-pressed, underpaid family men, who take a hard-line trade-unionist approach to extra-curricular activities, as indeed do the lay secondary teachers. The teaching orders, on the other hand, have the will and the ability to dedicate their spare time to an activity which gives them some personal fulfillment.

In order to even things up, it would be necessary for the Department of Education and the VECs to take steps to recognise teaching hours devoted to helping students with extra-curricular project work.

This however would not be enough. The whole orientation of the exhibition needs to be slanted more towards the technology end of the science-technology spectrum, if the vocational teachers are to be encouraged.

How do we do this? Well, there is another problem, and I suggest we can solve the two with one move. The other problem is that there are too many exhibits.

I suggest that the organisers could with one move accentuate the technological aspect and carry out an acceptable creaming: introduce a set of eliminations on a regional basis, using the Regional College facilities, and drawing on the College staffs for the judging.

This would have the useful side-effect of drawing to the attention of secondary schools the existence on their doorsteps of a third-level technological educational system, which needs good student material, being at present starved, due to the academic university-orientated traditions of the secondary schools.

Secondly, why is no effort made to recognise the artificiality of the classification by 'subject'? This constraint is imposed for the convenience of the judges, who like the boundaries neatly defined. It leads to all sorts of anomalies, and is quite unfair, in that the probability of winning a prize is inversely proportional to the numbers who enter under a particular subject.

I will return later to to expand on this classification problem, with some specific examples.

Thirdly, why have separate classes for girls and boys, if, as apparently is the case, they are in fact judged together?

There is, of course, a case for grouping by age.....this should be re-defined as junior, middle and senior, middle corresponding to first year senior cycle and senior to final year...... in the senior group it would be necessary to get the Department of Education to recognise project work for examination credits. Is this so far-fetched(3)?

It has been argued by some among the judges that a successful recipe has been found which should be kept going as it is. I disagree. How do you measure success? High participation..... but if the motivation is the secondary-school rat-race to the university, then it is success for the wrong reasons.

I think the very 'success' of the recipe is its greatest danger...... it could become, and indeed is becoming, a cosy annual ritual, which everyone, including the judges, enjoys hugely. Indeed, so highly valued is the judging process that judges rarely if ever retire. This is highly dangerous. There ought to be a recognised rate of turnover among the judges, with say one third dropping out each year.

This conservatism among the judges came out when the organisers, at a judges meeting, ventured to raise the question of group projects.. All sorts of arguments were found as to why this couldn't be done: the teacher would dominate the group, difficulty of judging, loss of the prized title 'Young Scientist of the Year',etc.

I am sure these arguments are all very valid, from the angle of the academics who promulgate them. Individualism is rampant in Irish academic circles to an extent which is unique in the world....elsewhere group work is the norm. It is high time that the practice of working together was introduced to science in Ireland. What better way of starting it than through the Young Scientists Exhibition?

Group projects, I suggest, might be organised under the following rules: (a)not more than 3 people to participate (b)to be problem-orientated rather than subject-based (c)the roles of the members of the group to be made explicit.

They could be introduced, initially, in a class of their own, alongside the present system. In the new 'group project' class there should be no distinction between boys and girls, and the class should initially be confined to seniors.

If eliminations at regional level are brought in, group projects would have the right to skip them and go direct to the all-Ireland event. They could usefully appear at the regional event, enhancing the interest of the event and gaining dry-run experience, but without being judged, ...otherwise you complexify the regional judging....

As a further step towards abolition of the artificial subject boundaries, there is also the need for an 'open' class. Into this would go all the present anomalous projects which are not happy in a subject classification....

As regards the alleged problems of judging the 'open' and 'group' classes, I have not the slightest doubt that if the present panel are uneasy, others could be found to supplement their number, who would be both acceptable to them and at the same time prepared to face exposure at this new (for Ireland) frontier.

Would it be the end of the world if the 'YSY' title were shared, if a group project were to win? After all, Nobel Prizes sometimes are!(4)

To summarise, by combining the impact of regional eliminations with the addition of two new classes 'open' and 'group', the present trend towards cosy academic ritualism could be halted, and a new trend initiated towards a co-operative approach to technological advance.

January 23 1974

I am indebted to my old friend and sometime colleague, Barbara Miller, for making explicit the attitude of some of the judges to my remarks on the judging procedure....she made an admirable statement of the traditionalist.....position in her letter on January 12.

I am, of course, unrepentantly a 'group interdisciplinary project' advocate.... let the coming generation judge which of us is right. I have enough 'fan mail' to support me in my feeling that time is on my side.

Let me add a few specific points...from the exhibition itself.

For example, there are a couple of cases where biologists go into physics without any quantitative feel for what they are doing, as in the case of those who attempt to study ultrasonic or electrical effects on bacteria. Collaboration with a physicist here would help.

Many biological processes have a statistical component, which would be strengthened by collaborating with someone strong in mathematical statistics.

Where a whole group from one class enters.....concentration of effort into one integrated project could produce useful work. Even if the teacher does play some co-ordinating role, I don't see that this is in any way 'cheating', as some judges seem to fear. Whether the pupils are working as technicians for the teacher, or a scientists in their own right under flexible project leadership, would soon come out under cross-examination. A group approach to the problem attacked by Una Luddy (which was 'highly commended' and related to predators on the edible mussel) might have taken the project up to the level of a useful piece of applied biology, with economic implications. The field could perhaps had been extended to include response to nutrient regimes, study of the microbiology of the mussel in polluted environments, using expertise which was in evidence from other members of the class.

The so-called 'biochemistry' class bristles with anomalous entries. Energy turnover related to activities, dieting analysis, effect of smoking, dominant eye and hand etc are....if anything human physiology. Bactericidal properties of deodorants are hardly 'chemistry'. Not is alcohol production by fermentation 'chemistry'; if the classical splitting into 'subjects' means anything, this is precisely where chemistry takes off into biochemistry, with the aid of enzyme systems.

Avogadro's number, if anything, is 'physics' rather than 'chemistry'. Place names and their origins is hardly 'sociology'; rather it is on the borderline of history and linguistics. Nor is the Dublin water supply 'sociology'; if anything it is 'engineering', or it might be 'urban planning' and so come in under 'geography'.

The study of the relationship between religion and nationality could marginally class as 'sociology'; it deserves better to be placed in a 'history' class, raising the issue of whether history can be considered a science. There are those, including the writer, who would argue in favour of this proposition. This particular study would be improved by a knowledge of statistical methods, suggesting the need for a group approach.

The contribution of the Dodder to the socio-economic life of Dublin is, if anything, economic geography rather than sociology. Nor are dreams; psychology, surely, this.

Traffic problems can be approached from a sociological angle, but this is by no means complete. Peoples' opinions can be misleading; in this field there is a basis of measurable fact.

There is great scope for a group project on urban planning, with different pupils taking different angles: sociological, engineering, transportation, technological, ecological etc. The teacher could provide some loose co-ordination, chairing the group meetings, but each would get to understand all. It would be very good for budding road engineers to be subjected to this at an early age. They wouldn't then drive motorways through the hearts of living communities with disregard for human factors.

The mathematical entries seem to have been weak, relatively speaking; despite the fact that its first prize ended up as the YSY. Historical studies of paradoxes and of the computation of 'pi' are interesting but not very original. One useful piece of work, which I wish I had time to follow up systematically, was by Miriam Slevin, Laurel Hill, Limerick, who compared computer languages by studying a set of problems in each of them. There is a world of research needed in this neglected field, which, if explored, would yield many insights into the influence of language structures on human thought.

Full marks, too, to the Wicklow Vocational School, for developing a contact with the Sugar Co computer. The winning project of Richard C Elliott, of Portora, was a mathematical simulation of an evolutionary system on the computer. This, although classed as mathematics, was in fact theoretical biology.

I could go on and on. I think I have made my point that the subject classification as it stands is both inadequate (in that, for example, it excludes engineering) and unfair (in that the prize probability is in inverse proportion to entry number per class); it also stands as a barrier to the development of the interface areas between the subjects, where the real action is (as, for example, in mathematical biology).

If Richard Elliott had entered under Biology would he have ended up as Young Scientist of the Year? I doubt if he would have broken through the conventions of the biological fraternity. So by entering under 'mathematics' he 'bucked the system'. This constitute, I feel, a form of 'gamesmanship' which is imposed on competitors by the 'subject' structures. All credit to him that he won through....

The fact that he won with this particular project will help to put an end to the hegemony of the 'subject' system. Next year, perhaps, such projects as his will go into an 'open' class, or (if a mathematician collaborates with a biologist), into a 'group' class. That is, if the present panel of judges can be persuaded that this would not be the end of the world.

I have has negative responses to my 'regionalisation' proposals. This I feel reflects the fact that people tend to look to Dublin over the heads of the Regional Colleges. The fact that in those few VEC schools which do enter the teachers are extremely co-operative does not detract from my observation that they are under-represented. Nor is it in contradiction with my suggestion that the explanation for this may be rooted in the marital status statistics of teachers in the private sector as compared to the public sector.

If, as my correspondent suggests, there is a trend away from practical subjects in the vocational schools, then, in the words of Brendan Behan: 'God help the Irish; if it was raining soup they'd be out with forks!' If this trend continues in VEC schools, due to the artificially fostered concept that an 'academic' education is superior, then the sooner someone shouts 'stop' the better. There should be no distinction between academic and vocational schools, and all pupils should have some exposure to all arts, crafts, sciences, as well as those other areas of culture broadly labelled 'humanities'.

I admit that there are problems in regionalisation; I place this step in priority below the need for an 'open' class and group projects. I agree change should not be radical. I do not advocate a clean sweep of judges, one needs continuity. A 20% annual retirement would be about right, I suggest.

February 6 1973

I am flattered that Professor Spearman has taken up the defence of the current judging procedure, following in the footsteps of Barbara Miller. This shows the importance that the judges attach to the event, and to its discussion in these columns. I welcome the fact that the points I made are been taken so seriously by people of such academic distinction.

However, I must question the logic of Professor Spearman's contribution. Stripped to its bare bones, his argument is as follows: 'Johnston's criticisms are not valid because the panel of judges has considered the matter and decided otherwise'. Indeed.

I feel I must counter-attack on the question of whether or not some of the points I raise 'really matter'.... The suggestion is that I am tilting at windmills. I think it does matter if the effect of the subject classification is to draw down scorn from a chemistry judge on the quality of entries in 'subject X' (not chemistry), as I heard with my own ears.

Also I think it matters if the effect of the subject-classification is to discourage people from looking across the boundaries. Professor Spearman says that there is no evidence for this. When was a statistical experiment set up to test this hypothesis? Is there any move on foot to do so? My statement constituted no more than a hunch, an insight, suggesting the need for such an experiment.

Finally, I think it matters if people are discouraged from working co-operatively at an early age. It makes it more difficult for them to learn this art when they are university students. the effect of the individualism which ir rampant in Ireland ir only too well known to people who have the task of trying to get something done. You meet, and make an arrangement. A will do X, B will do Y; you agree to meet again at time T. You try to meet again; B doesn't turn up, or Y is undone, so that step Z, which depends on X and Y being completed, has to be postponed. This all-too-familiar story underlies 90% of business practice in Ireland, making it a rare pleasure to deal with someone reliable, the 10% who deliver on time.

To get students to do group projects successfully would be an educational procedure such as to transform the Irish scene in the direction of competence and reliability. The Young Scientist Exhibition is a powerful lever whereby this important educational device could be introduced, and the teachers made aware of its educational potential.

May I add that I am not decrying the single-minded advance of the individual at the boundaries of the subject, as Professor Spearman seems to suggest. This is one of the ways whereby science advances. We need specialists who know their subject in depth. Those of us who have become generalists would be lost if we could not draw on them. If I was worried about the convergence of an iterative algorithm, I would go to David Spearman (or perhaps tohis colleague John Miller) and ask him, before spending money on computer-time. But let us have all things in due proportion. There is room in the exhibition for technique-oriented people who will tend to be specialists, and problem-oriented people, some of whom will tend to be generalists. An ideal team would be one generalist looking towards the problem and aware of the possible techniques, backed by one or two appropriate specialists.

April 3 1974

There were some interesting features (about the Student Project Exhibition....organised by the Irish National Productivity Committee) which distiguish it from the Young Scientists Exhibition.

Firstly, only 6% of the teachers involved are science teachers; commerce, civics and geography together make up 83%. This it is apparant that the INPC Competition and the Young Scientists Exhibition, between them, have succeeded in in widening and deepening the split between science on the one hand and technology and economic life on the other.

Thus Student Project '74 covers a broad spectrum of technology and economic life, with emphasis on the problem area, while the Young Scientists Exhibition, conservatively sticking to outdated specialist classifications, stands in the way of problem-oriented thinking. It is to the credit of the exhibitors in the YSE that they manage so often to slip through the straitjacket with good practical projects.

The INPC competition would be strengthened if it had more scientific technology in it. This weakness, I suggest, is because the YSE, possibly being considered more prestigeous by the science teachers, attracts the cream of the potential technological expertise, orientating it in the direction of the science degree and the emigrant ship.

There are two other positive features lacking in the YSE that mark the INPC competition as important. Both of them I have attempted to persuade the YSE judges to introduce; up to now I have been told that they are impractical. These features are:

(a)the existence of group projects: 5593 students carried out 1057 projects; only 14% of all projects were single-handed.

(b)the regional structure based on the County Development Teams.

The INPC structure would be improved, I feel, if it were to include the Regional College as the regional organisational centre. The role of the INPC competition is clearly to develop entrepreneurial skills. Without technology, such skills are crippled, just as without science technology becomes a craft mystery, subject to dark, ill-understood forces of change and obsolescence.

I know I am going to be unpopular for saying this, but could we not contrive to amalgamate the two competitions, combining the best elements of both, into a single national event, with regionalised preliminary events based on the Colleges of Technology?

The combined competition could be judged on criteria covering science, technology, entrepreneurial skill and social significance. If the judges' hair stands on end at the contemplation of this task, I make no apology. These are the lines on which I consider that they ought to be thinking, and I am comfident that increasing numbers of young exhibitors will back me up, sooner or later.

June 5 1974

I acknowledge receipt of 'Pendulum', an annual forum for Galway student engineers in which they practice the art of communicating and philosophising.... I would like to commend it for having the beginnings of a sense of social responsibility....

I cannot help contrasting it with Crystal, the Galway science students' publication, which seems to prefer to factilitate students showing off what they know, rather than stating problems and suggesting solutions. Not that Pendulum in entirely free from show-off...

One of the problems in Ireland is to get science to interact with technology. A beginning would be for Pendulum and Crystal to amalgamate under one management committee, with some continuity of experience and some semi-professional editing.

If it spread itself to the other colleges, it could become quarterly, and perhaps, with the help of the College authorities, fully professional. There is a crying need for an all-Ireland student periodical embracing science and technology, and with a consistent socially responsible policy.

Perhaps the College industrial liaison officers and/or appointments officers might like to get together and sponsor a small conference of present and past student science and engineering editors, in order to pool experiences?

September 11 1974

(An article by Ruairi Brugha, who had participated in the annual International Youth Science Fortnight, covered the happenings therein. In his concluding paragraph, which he wrote in Irish, he referred to having developed the practice of communicating in Irish with the other Irish in the group, and that this practice had been noticed by the Scottish and the Welsh, who took steps to distinguish themselves from the English under the influence of this cultural example.

International events only have meaning where there are well-defined nationalities to participate in them. Irish nationality, alas, remains somewhat crippled and embryonic.)

...May I say that there is an increasing need for a prestige-type event like this which is orientated towards engineering and applied-science? There is evidence that the prestige attached to the honours courses in basic sciences is drawing an undue proportion of the best brains in that direction. Many of these, when they have their degrees and research experience behind them, will find that if they are to survive they will have to become engineers and/or managers.

It could be argued that there should be more provision for this in the training, and less of an implied stigma on those who 'drop out' in the direction of the dirty world of applications and development of useful working systems from a base in some scientific technology.

January 24 1975

After leaving a decent interval for the dust to settle.... I can now give some sort of an evaluation of the Group Project innovation which was introduced into this year's YSE. (Some of the judges' comments were quite hostile and heated.)

Let me summarise what I proposed......

(a)not more than three per group

(b)problem-oriented projects

(c)explicit roles for members of the group.

In response to some criticism from judges and others I expanded at some length (on January 23) and suggested a few potential group projects, including one in the field of urban planning.

Again, on February 6 I defended my stand on the obsolescence of the subject classification.........on April 3 I noted the INPC 'Student Project 74' competition..... thus over January to April of last year I was able to specify the nature of the problem....

As well as the group projects, I called for.... an 'open' class, and 'engineering' class, regional eliminations based on the RTCs and recognition of project work for the Leaving Certificate.....

The response of the exhibition organisers to my proposals was to introduce the group projects. The rules of the game, however, are not as I would have liked them. In this sense, they are not 'my' group projects; I need to take this stand to defend myself from irate judges who blame what they call the 'poor quality of the group entries' on the group principle, and consequently on me personally.

How do they differ from my recipe? Firstly, I understand that they were judged as a separate stream, there being little or no interaction between the group judges and the other (specialist) judges. Thus a group competitor had no chance of ending up as the YSY, and the group projects consequently had 'B-stream' status(4).

Secondly there was no attempt made to bring out the idea of specialisation within the team. Enquiry elicited the fact that this had sometimes taken place, but the value of co-ordinated specialisation had been only dimly realised, and such as occurred took place more or less accidentally. The brilliant exception was the group which won the European Architectural Heritage Award; the co-ordination of of specialist work here was excellent and explicit. If it had been looking at a scientific or technological problem, it would have constituted an ideal group recipe.

Thirdly, the groups had been labelled with the names of the individual group leaders, which is not in the scientific tradition (all names, in alphabetical order, is the norm). This, which was done for administrative convenience, had the effect of distributing credit unfairly. Enquires among the groups, however, showed that in nearly all cases the 'group leader' had been chosen by the group itself.

In spite of appearances, the group work was seldom if ever on a 'master/slave' basis, and good working cohesion seems to have been achieved.

So by and large I feel that the group projects have got off to a reasonable start, and are here to stay.

The group projects were 'open', rather than subject-based. I repeat that there is need for a non-group 'open' class for interdisciplinary projects, and, may I say it loudly, there is need for 'engineering' to be given explicit recognition as a class.

January 20 1975

..I feel I must keep up my commentary on the structure of (the YSE); this I know has been influential in guiding the development towards diversity and away from subject-ruts. The group projects in their second year seem to be accepted as part of the scene, despite the initial opposition. They appear to present an easier threshold, which enables more people to participate. There appear in some cases to be problems in integrating the various contributions into a coherent whole made up of complementary parts. The goal of the group judges ought to be to pick out those which have a sensible division of labour between complementary specialists, rather than those which simply put in more hours to collect and analyse data.

The path to fame still remains the individual project, and the way forward for the entrant who cuts his or her teeth on project work with a group is presented in individualistic terms. Thus the groups appear in a 'B-stream'.

I submit that we ought to work towards a situation where the winning group project, with all its implied difficulty in the field of co-operative management and human relations, would have higher status than the YSY. This, again, will be unpopular with the judges; I am unrepentantly asking for the moon.

I welcome this year the first explicit recognition of engineering, though the category has been defined in association with physics, which narrows it somewhat. I note that this category has attracted a relatively high proportion of vocational schools, which is all to the good. Theere were entries under 'chemistry' which would have been happier under 'chemical engineering'.

There is, I feel, a touch of gamesmanship in the procedure whereby an unorthodox project (once it has some mathematical analysis) is entered under 'mathematics'. There was one (A 3-Minute Mile?) which is basically quantitative physiology; it was put under biochemistry for judging. This is a good way of getting the attention of the judges, who have to argue where it should be classed......

Aer Lingus is to be commended for keeping up this important annual event, despite the 'hard times'. It is good to see a long-term view being taken with regard to our primary national resource.


1. See also Chapter 5.2 (Scientific and Technological Information) for a critique of the 'individual project' approach as expressed in the Academy Research Register. The entries are on 5/5/70, 10/3/71, 24/3/71 and 29/12/71.

2. The physics/chemistry ratio appears to have stabilised at the inverse of the ratio of the sizes of the corresponding university honours schools. Can this be because most of the physics YSE entrants go on to do engineering? Or because chemistry as a school subject lacks 'glamour'?

3. This has remained at the level of a reference in the opening speech by the Minister (in 1983 by the Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald), with declaration of intent to do better, for as long as the writer can remember. It has been standard practice in the North, under British legislation, for decades. One wonders what the NSC and now the NBST have been doing all this time.

4. The 1983 YSY award was won jointly by a group of young engineers from Northern Ireland, who submitted an industrial robotics project. The complementary skills were mechanical engineering, electronic engineering and microprocessor programming.

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