The Irish Scientific Elite

Crawford, when considering research orientations, comes up with a triple classification: international luminaries, favorite sons, and stay-at-home innovators. The first category includes Schroedinger, Boltzmann, Mach. The second includes Eotvos of torsion balance fame, and Eder who first applied photometry to the study of spectra. The third includes Hann who pioneered work on the fohn (Alpine wind).

As regards recognition at the centre, according to Crawford the key factor is publication in core journals. This message by the 1930s had certainly got across to scientists in Ireland, and publication in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Dublin Society declined.

The present writer, when he was publishing in high-energy nuclear physics in the 1950s, went for the Physical Review, the Philosophical Magazine of the Royal Society, and Il Nuovo Cimento. Publication in either of the Irish journals was actively discouraged from the top; it was considered more relevant to seek esteem in the international high-energy physics community than in the scientific community in Ireland. The scientific elite in Ireland in the 50s had, with some honorable exceptions, abdicated any claim to leadership in the context of the national culture, perhaps because in the previous decades they had attempted to do so and mostly had been rebuffed.

It is perhaps worth remarking that Il Nuovo Cimento, which in Crawford's analysis would count as a fringe journal, achieved core status for a period in the niche market represented by the high-energy nuclear physics community, thanks to the status of Amaldi, Fermi, Rossi and others(8), an example of the Exner process (see below).

This issue had previously been addressed by Fitzgerald and by his uncle G Johnstone Stoney(22), when it was beginning to appear on the horizon. Both 'took a hard line' on the importance of local publication; cross-links with Scotland were discussed, as a counterweight to the machinations of the London elite, of which both were critical. Thus this key factor affecting peripherality, identified by Crawford, was anticipated by the scientific elite in Dublin in the 1890s.

The Exner circle is an instance of the procedure whereby a leading innovator mobilises people and resources round a programme in a well- defined problem area.

Exner pioneered the Vienna Institute for Radium Research, and developed a research style in which innovative approaches to instrumentation were important. They explored, among other things, atmospheric electricity, and one of the circle, Hess, was the discoverer of cosmic rays. Schroedinger was also part of the circle. The Exner group got into controversy with Rutherford in Cambridge in the 20s over the extent of the applicability of the alpha-particle bombardment approach to disintegrating the nuclei of light elements.

Despite excellent instrumentation, the Exner group in the end admitted defeat; the measurements in the last resort depended on the human eye's ability to pick up scintillations. There was a link with Sweden via Pettersson, who was a student of Arrhenius. This was an attempt of the fringe to unite and beat the core, which failed.

It is relevant that at about the same time, the Radium Institute was set up in the RDS in Dublin, on the initiative of Joly(3), primarily to supply the Dublin hospitals with radon gas in glass needles for use in cancer treatment, a method pioneered in Dublin.

This might be taken as an example of the work of a 'favourite son' (Joly) taking up the role of 'stay-at-home innovator', taking advantage of the niche provided by the international prestige of the Dublin medical establishment.

Shortly after this Walton(23) and then O'Ceallaigh(24) went to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, on the basis of which subsequently they achieved 'international luminary' status, Walton to the extent of the Nobel Prize, O'Ceallaigh however less so, and without significant recognition within Ireland.

In conclusion, it can be said that the Irish scientific potential, at the start of the nation-building period, and during the early stages of independence, was close to 'core' status, and was quite comparable with, or even superior to, that in comparable peripheral States. It can be argued that the neglect of this important aspect of the national intellectual capital was among the factors contributing to our relative decline, as tracked by Joe Lee(25).

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