seamus dubhghaill

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

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Birth of John Purser, Mathematician & Professor

John Purser, Irish mathematician and professor at Queen’s College, Belfast, is born in Dublin on August 24, 1835.

Purser is the son of John Tertius Purser (1809–1893), the general manager of the well known A Guinness, Son & Co. brewery, and Anna Benigna Fridlezius (1803-1881). He is educated in a wealthy family, which includes artists, as his cousin Sarah Purser, or engineers, as his brother-in-law John Purser Griffith. He is the brother of mathematician Frederick Purser. He receives his early education at the private boarding school run by his uncle, Dr. Richard W. Biggs, at Devizes, Wiltshire. He completes his schooling at Devizes and begins his university studies at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating BA in mathematics in 1856. He is the best mathematician of his year at the University and in 1855 he gains the Lloyd Exhibition.

Purser becomes a tutor to the four sons of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (1800-1867) in 1857. Lord Rosse’s 72-inch reflecting telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known of as the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” is the world’s largest telescope when it is built and continues to hold this distinction until the early 20th century. As well as acting as tutor to the children, Purser does become involved in Lord Rosse’s interest in astronomy but never does any observing.

In 1863, Purser is appointed professor of mathematics at Queen’s College, Belfast, a position he maintains until his retirement in 1901.

Purser is much better known as a teacher than as a researcher, and he has a good number of notable students, including Sir Joseph Larmor, theoretical physicist who serves as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge; Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine; Sir John Henry MacFarland, who becomes Chancellor of the University of Melbourne; and William McFadden Orr.

Purser never marries. When his father dies on April 5, 1893, Rathmines Castle passes to him. He dies at Rathmines Castle on October 18, 1903, a very wealthy man. In his will he leaves £100,000 to his brother Frederick Purser, £40,000 to his sister Anna Griffith and £5,000 to each of her children. In addition to the money, he owns property in Blessington Street, Essex Street and Eustace Street which he leaves to his brother-in-law John Purser Griffith. Other properties and interests that he owns he divides between his brother Frederick and his sister Anna. After his death, his sister Anna and her husband John Purser Griffith move into Rathmines Castle although, at this time, its ownership has gone to Frederick Purser. After Frederick dies in August 1910, the Castle and his considerable wealth passes to Anna.

(Pictured: Portrait of John Purser painted by the artist Sarah Purser, daughter of Tertius Purser’s brother Benjamin Purser. The portrait hangs in Queen’s College, Belfast.)

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Birth of George Francis FitzGerald, Academic & Physicist

Professor George Francis FitzGerald FRS FRSE, Irish academic and physicist, is born at No. 19, Lower Mount Street in Dublin on August 3, 1851. He is known for his work in electromagnetic theory and for the Lorentz–FitzGerald contraction, which becomes an integral part of Albert Einstein‘s special theory of relativity.

FitzGerald is born to the Reverend William FitzGerald and his wife Anne Frances Stoney. He is the nephew of George Johnstone Stoney, the Irish physicist who coins the term “electron.” After the particles are discovered by J. J. Thomson and Walter Kaufmann in 1896, FitzGerald is the one to propose calling them electrons. He is also the nephew of Bindon Blood Stoney, an eminent Irish engineer. His cousin is Edith Anne Stoney, a pioneer female medical physicist.

Professor of Moral Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin and vicar of St. Anne’s, Dawson Street, at the time of his son’s birth, William FitzGerald is consecrated Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross in 1857 and translates to Killaloe and Clonfert in 1862. George returns to Dublin and enters TCD as a student at the age of sixteen, winning a scholarship in 1870 and graduating in 1871 in Mathematics and Experimental Science. He becomes a Fellow of Trinity in 1877 and spends the rest of his career there, serving as Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy from 1881 to 1901.

Along with Oliver Lodge, Oliver Heaviside and Heinrich Hertz, FitzGerald is a leading figure among the group of “Maxwellians” who revise, extend, clarify, and confirm James Clerk Maxwell‘s mathematical theories of the electromagnetic field during the late 1870s and the 1880s.

In 1883, following from Maxwell’s equations, FitzGerald is the first to suggest a device for producing rapidly oscillating electric currents to generate electromagnetic waves, a phenomenon which is first shown to exist experimentally by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1888.

In 1883, FitzGerald is elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1899, he is awarded a Royal Medal for his investigations in theoretical physics. In 1900, he is made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

FitzGerald is better known for his conjecture in his short letter to the editor of Science. “The Ether and the Earth’s Atmosphere” explains that if all moving objects were foreshortened in the direction of their motion, it would account for the curious null-results of the Michelson–Morley experiment. He bases this idea in part on the way electromagnetic forces are known to be affected by motion. In particular, he uses some equations that had been derived a short time before by his friend the electrical engineer Oliver Heaviside. The Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz hits on a very similar idea in 1892 and develops it more fully into Lorentz transformations, in connection with his theory of electrons.

The Lorentz–FitzGerald contraction hypothesis becomes an essential part of the Special Theory of Relativity, as Albert Einstein publishes it in 1905. He demonstrates the kinematic nature of this effect, by deriving it from the principle of relativity and the constancy of the speed of light.

FitzGerald suffers from many digestive problems for much of his shortened life. He becomes very ill with stomach problems. He dies on February 22, 1901 at his home, 7 Ely Place in Dublin, the day after an operation on a perforated ulcer. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.

A crater on the far side of the Moon is named after FitzGerald, as is a building at Trinity College Dublin.

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Establishment of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) is established in Dublin on June 19, 1940 by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera under the Institute for Advanced Studies Act, 1940. The Institute consists of three schools: the School of Theoretical Physics, the School of Cosmic Physics and the School of Celtic studies. The Institute under the act is empowered to “train students in methods of advanced research” but does not itself award degrees. Graduate students working under the supervision of Institute researchers can, with the agreement of the governing board of the appropriate school, be registered for a higher degree in any university worldwide.

Shortly after becoming Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera investigates the possibility of setting up an institute of higher learning. Being of mathematical background, de Valera is aware of the decline of the Dunsink Observatory, where Sir William Rowan Hamilton, regarded as Ireland’s most influential mathematician, has held the position of Royal Astronomer of Ireland. Following meetings with prominent academics in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, he comes to the conclusion that astronomy at Dunsink should be revived and an institute for higher learning should be established.

The Institute is initially located at 64 and 65 Merrion Square and consists of the School of Theoretical Physics and the School of Celtic Studies, to which the School of Cosmic Physics is added in 1947. It is modeled on the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, which was founded in 1930. Most importantly, Erwin Schrödinger is interested in coming to Ireland, and this represents an opportunity not to be missed. The School of Celtic Studies owes its founding to the importance de Valera accords to the Irish language. He considers it a vital element in the makeup of the nation, and therefore important that the nation should have a place of higher learning devoted to this subject.

The founding of the Institute is somewhat controversial, since at the time only a minority are successfully completing elementary education, and university education is for the privileged. By this reasoning, the creation of a high-level research institute is a waste of scarce resources. However, Éamon de Valera is aware of the great symbolic importance such a body would have on the international stage for Ireland. This thinking influences much of de Valera’s premiership.

Work by the Geophysics section of the School of Cosmic Physics on the formation of the North Atlantic demonstrates that the Irish continental shelf extends much further than previously thought, thereby more than doubling the area of the seabed over which Ireland can claim economic exploitation rights under the international law of the sea. Fundamental work in statistical mechanics by the School of Theoretical Physics finds application in computer switching technology and leads to the establishment of an Irish campus company to exploit this intellectual property. The Institute has also in recent years been one of the main agents helping to set up a modern e-Infrastructure in support of all Irish research.

In 1968 the Royal Society recognises de Valera’s contribution to science in establishing the Institute by electing him to honorary fellowship.

Currently the Institute has its schools located at three premises on the Southside of Dublin at 10 Burlington Road, 31 Fitzwilliam Place and 5 Merrion Square. It also maintains a presence at Dunsink Observatory in north County Dublin.

(Pictured: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies School of Theoretical Physics, 10 Burlington Road, Dublin)