Maths Week: Ireland’s lack of logic

Guest post by Vincent Kelly

We’re a bunch of dreamers uncomfortable with logic and the scientific method. Ireland overflows with poets, balladeers and songsters. It is brimming with left-side brainers with the gift of the gab. Considering Yeats, Joyce, O’Brien, Beckett and Shaw himself, who could argue with that point?

“You see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things as they never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” – George Bernard Shaw. This quote is often interpreted as a skewed description of where he saw the talents of the Irish race lying. It is supposed to refer to those qualities that saw the Irish make such a disproportionate contribution to English literature in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I think Shaw’s view is still widely held, and that it is a common belief that, notable as are Ireland’s contribution to music and literature, our contribution to science has been relatively meagre.

To support this, I’d bet most Irish people would be surprised to hear that one of the most brilliant mathematicians who ever lived was from Dublin. They may be even more amazed that one of his greatest achievements, dating from the 1840s, is now a key component of numerous applications. These are as diverse as 3-D animation (computer graphics, computer games), aeronautical engineering (black boxes, autopilot, computer aided flight, satellite navigation), quantum mechanics, robotics, molecular dynamics, neuropyschology (MRI scanning), astro-dynamics and bioinformatics. It is also being explored as a tool in the formulation of the “Standard Model” – the theory that aims to describe activity in the universe of the sub-atomic world.

This man was William Rowan Hamilton (left). He grew up in the early 1800s in the Parnell Street area of Dublin. His discovery was of “Quaternions” – vectors in three dimensional space. The maths involved is now a key component in the applications above.

The legend of Hamilton’s moment of inspiration is quite famous. On 16 October 1843, Hamilton was out walking with his wife along the Royal Canal in North Dublin. He was that most clichéd of genius. The otherworldly featherhead was so obsessed with his work that he often had to be reminded that he lived in the real world. So, in this ordinary moment, it was not out of character that Hamilton would have been mulling over a problem relating to his recent discovery. Out of nowhere inspiration struck and the solution presented itself to him. So fearful that he would forget it before he got home, Hamilton carved the formula for the fundamental property of these mysterious Quaternions into a wooden beam of Broom Bridge. It was a moment recalling the  stories of Archimedes running naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!” or of an apple falling on the head of Isaac Newton.

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