History of Physics Group is well versed on William Rowan Hamilton

An evening to appeal to anyone with an interest in poetry, physics or the history of science – A Poetic View of William Rowan Hamilton – was held at the IOP’s London premises on 14 June 2016, but a report of the event sadly slipped down the agenda during the political maelstrom of the two weeks that followed…


Happily, though, the voices that recited on that occasion can now be heard in a series of recordings made available by poet and physicist Professor Iggy McGovern, who talked about Hamilton on that balmy June night and enlisted 11 readers to perform poems from his book, A Mystic Dream of 4.

A sonnet sequence based on the life of the 19th-century mathematical physicist (himself something of a poet), the book contains poems written as if from the perspective of 54 people whom Hamilton knew, and two whom he influenced long after his death: Irish rebel and politician Eamon de Valera, a devotee of his algebra, and physicist Erwin Schrödinger, whose eponymous equation contains the Hamiltonian function (though in a quantum mechanical version, rather than the classical one).

Among the characters whose imagined thoughts are captured in verse are the man who bankrupted his lawyer father by not repaying huge legal costs, friends, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, the author Maria Edgeworth and Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, a poet and the mother of Oscar, as well as relatives and colleagues.

Each of the four sections starts with a contribution from one of the four personified “parents” of the quaternion, as Hamilton put it – geometry, algebra, metaphysics and poetry – and ends with a commentary by Death.

Though his personal life was plagued by alcoholism and depression, and he yearned for his first love, Catherine Disney, throughout his marriage to Lady Helen Hamilton, resulting in attempts at self-harm by Catherine and by him, his work made him one of the most eminent mathematicians of his time.

Hamilton discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication (i2=j2=k2=ijk=–1), an achievement marked with a plaque under the Broom Bridge in Dublin, where he said that the solution came to him while out strolling with his wife. He claimed to have scratched the equation into the wall.

He was made the Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Dublin University while in the final year of his undergraduate degree, aged just 22, he predicted conical refraction and he corresponded with some of the most celebrated authors and poets of his day. He also lived through turbulent political times, and flirted with the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church (represented by Pusey among others in the poems)

At the event in June, organised by the IOP’s History of Physics Group, McGovern told the story of Hamilton’s life, interspersed with the readers performing some of the poems and McGovern adding further commentary, finishing with a Q&A session in which he confirmed that several 19th-century scientists wrote poetry and yes, Hamilton really did attempt to calculate the velocity of Christ’s ascension.

The readers included poets, mathematicians, scientists, historians of science and some who span more than one category.

Recordings of the poems are available by McGovern plus nine of the other 11 performers.

Archibald Rowan was Hamilton’s godparent. Hamilton’s father was Rowan’s agent and he borrowed money to fund his employer’s exile following the abortive United Irishmen rebellion in 1798. When Rowan welshed on this debt Hamilton’s father was made bankrupt, resulting in the dispersal of the family; Hamilton was raised by his uncle James Hamilton in Trim. The sonnet is read by Paul McAvinchey. mcaPaul McAvinchey is a retired teacher with a strong involvement in The Arts in Ireland. A former board member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and of The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, he serves on the John Hewitt Society’s board and committee. The society’s include the annual John Hewitt International Summer School and related literary events in Armagh, Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland.
Sydney Hamilton was Hamilton’s aunt, who resided with her brother James and taught in his diocesan school. Her many letters to Hamilton’s parents reveal the academic brilliance and precociousness of their son. The sonnet is read by Lesley Saunders. saundersLesley Saunders is the author of several books of poetry. She has held several poetry residencies, including at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science. Her book of poems on scientific subjects, Cloud Camera, was described in The Poetry Review as “the most intelligent and thrilling book of poetry I’ve seen in several years”. She is a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, London.
Maria Edgeworth and Hamilton were introduced by the Vicar of Trim, who was courting one of Maria’s many sisters and half-sisters. Hamilton was a lively conversationalist and the famous novelist became a friend and confidante. The sonnet is read by Mererid Puw Davies. daviesMererid Puw Davies is senior lecturer in German at University College London. She is the author of two volumes of poetry in Welsh, and her poems have been published in several anthologies, including the Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry. Her poetry has been translated into various languages and she has read at international events, such as the Leipzig Book Fair and the Vilenica International Literary Festival in Slovenia.
Charles Boyton was Hamilton’s tutor at Trinity College Dublin. He had been made aware of Hamilton’s genius when the then schoolboy solved a mathematics problem that Boyton could not. Boyton schemed to have Hamilton appointed professor of astronomy while still technically an undergraduate. The sonnet is read by Tony Crilly. crillyTony Crilly is emeritus reader at Middlesex University in London. He is the author of a biography of the 19th-century mathematician Arthur Cayley and has written books popularising mathematics including the widely translated 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know and Big Questions in Mathematics.
Lady Hamilton gave Hamilton three children but the marriage struggled under adverse conditions. Lady Hamilton was often unwell and spent long periods recuperating in her mother’s house. Her husband suffered from depression and an obsession with his first love, Catherine Disney. Lady Hamilton was witness to the eureka moment, the discovery of quaternions. The sonnet is read by Susan Hitch. hitchSusan Hitch is a philanthropic strategist, broadcaster and academic. She works with the Institute For Philanthropy and the Centre for Cities and is a visiting professor in public policy at King’s College, London. She was formerly a regular presenter on arts and culture on Radio Three Nightwaves and a fellow in medieval English literature and language at Magdalen College, Oxford.
James MacCullagh was professor of mathematics at Trinity College, and his work is regarded as being of the same order as Hamilton’s. He too suffered from depression, and he claimed precedence regarding some of Hamilton’s discoveries. He took his own life in his college rooms. The sonnet is read by Michael Foley. foleyMichael Foley retired from lecturing in information technology at the University of Westminster in 2007. He has published four novels, four nonfiction books, five collections of poetry and a collection of translations from French poetry. His most recent publication is the non-fiction book Isn’t This Fun? Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves.
George Airy was Astronomer Royal and a frequent visitor to Ireland. He had earlier been a candidate for the chair that Hamilton secured. Hamilton’s biographer (and confessor) blamed Airy for causing Hamilton to break his pledge to abstain from alcohol. The sonnet is read by Denis Weaire. weaireDenis Weaire is professor emeritus in Physics at Trinity College Dublin. Together with his graduate student Robert Whelan he discovered a counter-example to Lord Kelvin’s conjecture on the most economical division of space into cells of equal size. This structure was an integral part of the design of the aquatic centre used in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He also has a strong interest in the history of science.
Peter Guthrie Tait was the mathematician who championed Hamilton’s quaternion algebra, against growing opposition from “the vector men”. Hamilton’s unease about precedence delayed the publication of Tait’s own book. The sonnet is read by Andrew Whitaker. whitakerAndrew Whitaker is a retired academic, appointed professor of physics at Queen’s University Belfast in 1999. His recent research has focused on fundamental aspects of quantum theory, in particular the quantum Zeno effects and aspects of Bell’s Theorem. He also has an interest in the history of science and his most recent publication is John Stewart Bell and Twentieth-Century Physics: Vision and Integrity.
Erwin Schrödinger is included on the grounds that much of Hamilton’s ideas found expression in his wave mechanics. His 17-year tenure at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies included the centenary of the discovery of quaternions. The sonnet is read by Jim Bennett bennetJim Bennett is a retired museum curator and historian of science. He was Director of The Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University from 1994–2012 and appointed professor of the history of science in 2010. He has been president of the British Society for the History of Science and president of the Scientific Instrument Commission of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science.
Hamilton wrote that his quaternions had four parents, namely: geometry, algebra, metaphysics and poetry. The sonnet sequence is divided into four sections, each introduced by a sonnet in the voice of a parent. The sonnet is read by Iggy McGovern mcgovernIggy McGovern is fellow emeritus in physics at Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of two volumes of poetry, and his poems have been included in several anthologies. Prizes include the Hennessy Award and the Glen Dimplex Award. His most recent publication is A Mystic Dream of 4, a poetic biography of the 19th-century Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.
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Heather Pinnell

Heather Pinnell

Heather is the IOP news editor, writing news for the Institute’s website. Before joining the IOP in 2005 she was a journalist specialising in education. She has a BA in English and a BSc in physics.
Heather Pinnell

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