Small-to-medium Peripheral States

In analysis of science within nations, we can carry the Olby et al type of analysis further, and look at the 1981 Nobel Symposium which took place in Sweden; the proceeding were edited by C V Bernhard et al (13) This looked systematically at science at the time of Nobel, and had inputs from 25 authors, mostly from Sweden, though 2 were from Britain. Here in the index, not surprisingly, Arrhenius gets 41 mentions, Bohr gets 14, Berzelius 4. Eotvos gets a mention, as does our own Fitzgerald, who is absent from the Olby et al publication. Maxwell, in Scotland, gets roughly equal weight from Olby et al and Bernhard et al, as do Bohr(8) and Einstein.

It might be argued that in comparing publications like this, which review comprehensively well-defined topics, one can perhaps 'normalise the signal' on references to those universally acclaimed 'international luminaries' in the Crawford(14) sense (see also below where I expand on her work on the Nobel Prize process), like Einstein, Maxwell or Bohr; and then draw conclusions about the perceived roles of the others.

On this convention, it could be argued that in the Olby et al perception Hamilton and Lord Kelvin count as 'universally acclaimed'.

(This procedure of course ideally would require that the scopes be comparable; in this case the scope of Olby et al is broad, while the Bernhard et al is finely focussed on a well-defined period, which happened to include Fitzgerald.)

What this suggests is that the view from a nation (such as Sweden) outside the central core-group (Britain, France, Germany) is more likely to be defensive of its own national identity, and to be uneasily conscious of core-group hegemony, and therefore perhaps generous to other fringe-nations.

The reference to Fitzgerald(11) is interesting; it is in an article by Heilbron (15) on 'Fin-de- Siecle Physics', and it relates to the question of equivalance between matter and energy, and the nature of the 'ether'. Ostwald proposed the idea, but his German chemist friends rejected it with contempt. Fitzgerald '..answered for the British: "that may be all right for the Germans, who plod by instinct, but a Briton wants emotion in his science, something to raise enthusiasm, something with human interest"..viz a mechanical model.'

What I find interesting here is not the perceived Britishness of Fitzgerald, who was hard-core Unionist. Parnell in the 1880s, if he had come into office as Prime Minister under the Dominion-type Home Rule political settlement then on the agenda, would have had difficulty in retaining him in Dublin as a link into world-class science. This is at the core of the problem of Irish cultural and national identity.

The interesting angle is that he takes a basically human view, similar to Tyndall in the Olby et al quote mentioned elsewhere. It is a long way from the Gradgrind image of the scientist in English literature; it is closer to the creative Irish Protestant tradition which has dominated Irish literature, with Wilde, Shaw, and Yeats.

Elisabeth Crawford(14), who was one of the co-editors with Bernhard of the Nobel symposium material, has used the Nobel Prize awards as a method of analysis of the role of nationalism and internationalism in science. In this contest she provides some further insights into centre-periphery relations.

(She also analyses the effects of World War 1 on scientific relationships between the protagonists, but this while of interest is not immediately relevant to the current argument.)

The periphery here is eastern and central Europe, primarily the Austro- Hungarian Empire and successor-States. She makes use of Ben-David's model(16) for her analysis, with some critical addenda. I dwell on this because it suggests an approach to the analysis of science in Ireland viewed as peripheral to Britain as core, against the background of which its role in the emerging national consciousness can be assessed.

In eastern Europe the educational system was already modelled on the German. Crawford looks at the institutional arrangements for research, the intellectual innovations produced at the periphery, the recognition they got at the centre, and the emergence of specialities and work orientations specific to the periphery.

To do this she takes as raw material the 81 Nobel Prize nominators and nominees for physics and chemistry in Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia from 1901 to 1939. Note that she does not take the actual winners; this would be too small a population. Those who made it to nominator or nominee status however form an accepted elite and a larger population.

(It would not be feasible to do this for Ireland, as the numbers would be too small. It would however be possible to devise an analogous selection process in the context of the award of the status of FRS, of which in Ireland in the 1890s-1900s there were a significant number.)

With this population she analyses:

  • dependence on the centre for training in the career paths;
  • the innovative status of the research orientations of the nominees;
  • recognition of their work by citation at the centre;
  • specific research styles (eg the Exner Circle).
At this point it may be appropriate to return to the Irish context, and to make use of Sir Robert Kane as an example of the role of a key scientist with mainstream standing in a peripheral situation. (We make this link again later).

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