The Hamilton Year 2005 at DIT

“Hamilton 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 mathematician?

William Rowan 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.

There are three good reasons for which we owe Hamilton this year of commemoration.

Firstly, he 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 theory.

Thirdly, Hamilton 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.

In addition to these achievements, Hamilton had a less well publicised and equally human, fallible side, to which all of us should relate.

For 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.

Despite being 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.

For the romantics:
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.

For the poets:
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:

“You send me showers of verses which I receive with much pleasure…yet have we fears that this employment may seduce you from the path of science”

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!

For 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.

Quaternions 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!

For the alcoholics:
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.

One particularly 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.

For the religious:
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.

For the crusaders:
Professor Sen of the Department of Pure & Applied Mathematics at Trinity College Dublin said in a recent interview about Hamilton:

“People 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.


June Robinson