was William Rowan Hamilton?
used to carry on, long trains of algebraic and arithmetical
calculations in his mind, during which he was unconscious of
the earthly necessity of eating; we used to bring in a ‘snack’
and leave it in his study, but a brief nod of recognition of
the intrusion of the chop or cutlet was often the only result,
and his thoughts went on soaring upwards."
Edwin Hamilton (his elder son)
Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865) was an
Irish physicist, and astronomer and one of the world's great mathematicians.
Born at midnight on August 3, 1805, he spent his entire life in
the environs of Dublin.
A child prodigy,
his genius first displayed itself in the form of a wonderful power
of acquiring languages. As a child, his linguist uncle James taught
him 14 languages (Bell 1986, p. 341).
At the age
of 17 Hamilton taught himself mathematics. Dr. John Brinkley,
Bishop of Cloyne, is said to have remarked in 1823 of an eighteen
year old Hamilton: “This young man, I do not say will
be, but is, the first mathematician of his age.”
career at university was perhaps unexampled. Amongst a number
of competitors of more than ordinary merit, he was first in every
subject and at every examination. He achieved the rare distinction
of obtaining an optime for both Greek and for physics. In fact
Hamilton became Andrews Professor of Astronomy in Trinity College
Dublin even before he had completed his undergraduate degree.
an error in Laplace's Celestial Mechanics. He predicted conical
refraction in biaxial crystals, which was soon experimentally
observed by Lloyd. Hamilton also extended the least action principle
described earlier by Maupertuis. His work in physics proved significant
for the development of quantum mechanics. Hamiltonian mechanics
is used today to determine orbital trajectories of satellites
and was used for the recent Mars mission.
He is best
known however for his discovery in 1843 of quaternions, an important
mathematical expression used in describing 3D spaces in computer
graphics. As he passed Broombridge he etched the formula into
the stone parapet of the bridge.
in 1865 but he remains today a towering figure in mathematics.
He was deeply interested in philosophy and enjoyed writing poetry,
being a close friend of Wordsworth. Knighted in 1835, he was the
first foreign member elected to the National Academy of Science
(USA) in 1865.