Year is Not Just for the Scientists”
Did you know
that the Irish Government have marked 2005 as the Year of Hamilton,
to mark and promote the bicentenary of the world-renowned Irish
Hamilton’s strong contribution to Irish science is represented
in the façade of Government Buildings (originally the Royal
College of Science) where he stands, immortalised, with fellow
famed Irish scientist, Robert Boyle.
three good reasons for which we owe Hamilton this year of commemoration.
formulated the laws of mechanics in a very original and sophisticated
way, which became known as Hamiltonians. This methodology is still
very much used to solve complex problems in mechanics today.
Secondly, Hamilton developed the theory of Quaternions - a way
of manipulating and handling four-dimensional vectors. This theory
is also being used by some today in attempts at a unified field
was responsible for the development of Hamiltonian circuits -
a way of analysing paths through graphs. This work is now an established
part of modern graph theory.
to these achievements, Hamilton had a less well publicised and
equally human, fallible side, to which all of us should relate.
the local historians:
William Rowan Hamilton was born at 29 Dominick Street, Dublin
in 1805 and died in Dunsink Observatory, Dublin in 1865. It is
presumed that he gained his brilliance from his mother, Sarah
Hutton, who was a descendant of the famous Hutton Coachbuilding
dynasty in Summerhill, Dublin.
a Dubliner, Meath can also claim Hamilton in an honorary capacity.
His associations with this county began when, at the age of 12,
he was sent to the diocesan school of Talbot Castle in Trim. Here,
he flourished under the personal tutorage of his uncle Arthur
and demonstrated fluency in many languages while cultivating his
extraordinary mathematical aptitude.
Hamilton’s life was dogged with the despair of denied love.
At the age of 19, he was introduced to Catherine Disney, an antecedent
of the Walt Disney dynasty, at a dinner party in Summerhill Mansion,
Co. Meath. He instantly fell under her spell and developed a subsequent
life-long adoration. A happy ending was not to prevail and disaster
struck for our young prodigy when Catherine was married off to
William Barlow, an older and more affluent clergyman. This news
sent Hamilton into a serious bout of depression and drove him
close to suicide.
If any consolation
can be taken from this torrid saga, it is that Hamilton’s
love for Catherine was not unrequited. The ill-fated couple said
their final farewells and embraced when Hamilton rushed to see
her two weeks before her death.
Hamilton had also a great love of English and spent much time
writing poetry; so much so that his close friend, William Wordsworth,
once felt it necessary to remind him of his vocation:
send me showers of verses which I receive with much pleasure…yet
have we fears that this employment may seduce you from the path
He was also
a close friend of Constance Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde and better
known under her literary name as ‘Speranza’. Speranza
reputedly wrote to Hamilton and asked him to be godfather to her
imminent son, an honour that he refused. Oscar Wilde was subsequently
born on 16th October 1854; nine years to the day that Hamilton
made his discovery of Quaternions, whose formula he famously scratched
on the wall of Broome Bridge in North Dublin!
the film buffs:
Those with a fetish for the computer animated Lara Croft have
a lot to thank Hamilton for. His most famous discovery of Quaternions
was instrumental in creating her vital statistics.
have also been used to great effect in ‘The Matrix’,
which was awarded an Oscar for visual effects in 1999. So one
could even say that our Irishman has an Oscar for his contribution
to computer science!
During the years in which he struggled to make his quaternion
discovery, Hamilton became depressed and started to develop problems
with alcohol. While it was allayed somewhat when he finally made
the breakthrough, his alcoholism took a turn for the worse when
he was revisited by his only real love, Catherine Disney, in 1845.
intoxicating meeting of the Geological Society in Birr Castle
spurred him to abstain completely for two years until our hapless
mathematician, taunted for sticking to water by his colleague
Professor George Airy, again fell off the wagon. Hamilton never
again managed to free himself from the clutches of alcoholism.
Hamilton took a particularly keen interest in religion during
this time. Traditionally a devout member of the Church of Ireland,
he was visited in 1841 by Nathaniel Pusey, a leader of a radical
theological crusade called the Oxford movement. Hamilton’s
allegiance to his faith wavered temporarily, but recovered and
in 1842 he went on to be elected as a churchwarden of his local
church at Castleknock.
Professor Sen of the Department of Pure & Applied Mathematics
at Trinity College Dublin said in a recent interview about Hamilton:
do not primarily do things because they are useful, but because
they love it. People on the outside world need to hear about
this love and passion for the subject, rather than simply the
usefulness of the subsequent findings”.
Be it for
mathematics, women, literature or liquor, Hamilton’s life
was certainly not short of love and passion.