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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

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Birth of Mathematician William Rowan Hamilton

william-rowan-hamiltonSir William Rowan Hamilton, Irish mathematician who makes important contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and algebra, is born in Dublin on August 4, 1805.

Hamilton is the fourth of nine children born to Sarah Hutton (1780–1817) and Archibald Hamilton (1778–1819). He is part of a small but well-regarded school of mathematicians associated with Trinity College, Dublin, which he enters at age eighteen. He is said to have shown immense talent at a very early age. Astronomer Bishop Dr. John Brinkley remarks of the 18-year-old Hamilton, “This young man, I do not say will be, but is, the first mathematician of his age.”

Trinity College awards him two Optimes, or off-the-chart grades. He studies both classics and mathematics, and is appointed Professor of Astronomy just prior to his graduation. He then takes up residence at Dunsink Observatory where he spends the rest of his life.

Although Hamilton regards himself as a pure mathematician rather than a physicist, his work is of major importance to physics, particularly his reformulation of Newtonian mechanics, now called Hamiltonian mechanics. This work has proven central to the modern study of classical field theories such as electromagnetism, and to the development of quantum mechanics. In pure mathematics, he is best known as the inventor of quaternions.

Hamilton’s scientific career includes the study of geometrical optics, classical mechanics, adaptation of dynamic methods in optical systems, applying quaternion and vector methods to problems in mechanics and in geometry, development of theories of conjugate algebraic couple functions, solvability of polynomial equations and general quintic polynomial solvable by radicals, the analysis on Fluctuating Functions, linear operators on quaternions and proving a result for linear operators on the space of quaternions, which is a special case of the general theorem which today is known as the Cayley–Hamilton theorem. He also invents Icosian calculus, which he uses to investigate closed edge paths on a dodecahedron that visit each vertex exactly once.

Hamilton retains his faculties unimpaired to the very last, and steadily continues the task of finishing the Elements of Quaternions which occupies the last six years of his life. He dies on September 2, 1865, following a severe attack of gout precipitated by excessive drinking and overeating. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.


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Birth of Arthur William Conway, UCD President

arthur-william-conwayArthur William Conway FRS, President of University College Dublin between 1940 and 1947, is born in Wexford on October 2, 1875.

Conway receives his early education at St. Peter’s College, Wexford and proceeds to enter old University College, Dublin in 1892. He receives his BA degree from the Royal University of Ireland in 1896 with honours in Latin, English, Mathematics, and Natural Philosophy. In 1897, he receives his MA degree with highest honours in mathematics and proceeds to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, becoming University Scholar there in 1901. Also in 1901, he is appointed to the professorship of Mathematical Physics in the old University College and holds the Chair until the creation of the new college in 1909. He also teaches for a short time at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

Conway marries Agnes Christina Bingham on August 19, 1903. They have three daughters and one son.

One of Conway’s students is Éamon de Valera, whom he introduces to quaternions which originate in Ireland. De Valera warms to the subject and engages in research of this novelty of abstract algebra. Later, when de Valera becomes Taoiseach, he calls upon Conway while forming the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Conway is remembered for his application of biquaternion algebra to the special theory of relativity. He publishes an article in 1911, and in 1912 asserts priority over Ludwik Silberstein, who also applies biquaternions to relativity. This claim is backed up by George Temple in his book 100 Years of Mathematics. In 1947 Conway puts quaternions to use with rotations in hyperbolic space. The next year he publishes quantum mechanics applications which are referred to in a PhD thesis by Joachim Lambek in 1950.

In 1918, Conway is the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate in South Londonderry and in the National University of Ireland, coming in second in both.

Conway continues his scholarship in the field of mathematics and theoretical physics, and makes a special study of William Rowan Hamilton. With John Lighton Synge, he edits the first volume of Hamilton’s mathematical papers and, with A. J. McConnell, he edits the second volume of Hamilton’s mathematical papers. Conway is also active in college life, being appointed Registrar, a position he occupies until his election as president in 1940. He retires in 1947 from the presidency of UCD. In 1953, some of his writings are edited by J. McConnell for publication by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

He is elected President of the Royal Irish Academy from 1937 to 1940.