Science Week

Science Week

There has never been a man like my father for answering a question with a question. Maybe it was his way of dealing with four inquisitive children when he was bringing us up, but I doubt it. I feel he probably came hard-wired that way. In any case, it was, and still is at times, like being stuck in a Socratic dialogue where we would ask, “Dad, why does that happen?” and get the response, “I don’t know. Why do you think it happens?” There must have been something to it because my three siblings are all now scientists of different hues. They are people who actively seek what they do not know and question what they do know in an effort to try to understand the universe better. I am the black sheep, a politician, who does the opposite, pretending to know the answer to all things at all times, irrespective of whether I do.

On clear winter nights, my father used to bring us outside with a telescope and point it skyward. Through it, usually after much foostering and cursing under the breath, we would eventually find Jupiter and see the same moons that Galileo glimpsed in around 1610, a view that challenged the orthodoxy of geocentrism. My father would wonder aloud how the father of astronomy would envy the view we had with all the benefit of what has been learned since.

It is apt that we mark Science Week here. Before Deputy Denis Naughten leaves, I want to thank him for keeping it on the Oireachtas agenda each year. I congratulate him on his appointment as Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Working Group on Science and Technology. It is always important for Ireland to be represented on these international bodies.

We owe so much for the world we live in to the achievements of science and what it has unlocked in our lives, from the polyester in my tie to the broadcast equipment in front of me to the vaccine in my arm, from the inner workings of the atom to the Webb telescope which looks back to the dawn of our universe. For all we owe to our scientific community, I wonder if we celebrate scientists in the same way we celebrate our poets or writers. Hardly a week passes in here without a quote from an unsuspecting and blameless Irish poet being shoehorned into a speech on something or other. However, how often do we quote scientists of note? If I stopped a person in the street, they would surely be able to name three Irish writers, three Irish sportspeople or three Irish bands, but how many would be able to name three Irish scientists?

We are lucky in Waterford to be able to lay claim to at least three scientists of note who have helped us to a better understanding of the world we live in. Robert Boyle is perhaps the best known. Boyle’s Law, as anyone who studied physics or chemistry in school will know, sets out the inverse relationship between volume and pressure in a gas at a constant temperature. It applies everywhere in the universe except perhaps in the Dáil Chamber, where regardless of the amount of gas expelled, both volume and temperature tend to increase with pressure. Our inverse relationship here tends to govern the relationship between pressure and the length of time before a decision is required. That is a very niche joke and I am very proud of it.

Calmast, the STEM engagement centre of the South East Technological University, SETU, plays a central role in the celebration of Science Week. The centre commemorates Boyle each year in Lismore and Waterford city with the Robert Boyle Summer School which, if anyone needed any further excuse to visit Waterford, takes place next year from the 22 to 25 June. I am sure the Minister of State would be made welcome if he decided to travel.

Boyle once remarked that “The book of nature is a fine and large piece of tapestry rolled up, which we are not able to see all at once, but must be content to wait for the discovery of its beauty, and symmetry, little by little, as it gradually comes to be more and more unfolded, or displayed.” For all the more we have unrolled that tapestry since his time, the tapestry is no less beautiful, though I fear we may be unravelling some of that world at the same time.

We in Waterford are also happy to lay claim to Earnest Walton, a physicist and a Nobel laureate, though in truth he lived in Waterford for a short time. As he was born in Abbeyside, just across from Dungarvan – a very important distinction in Waterford – we have as much a claim to him as any. We recently honoured him in renaming the Telecommunications Software & Systems Group research centre in Waterford the Walton Institute, which is fitting considering the quality and range of scientific research that happens at the Carriganore campus of SETU.

Walton is best known for his work with John Cockcroft to construct one of the earliest types of participle accelerator. In experiments performed at Cambridge University in the early 1930s, Walton and Cockcroft became the first team to use a particle beam to transform one element to another. According to their Nobel Prize citation: “Thus, for the first time, a nuclear transmutation was produced by means entirely under human control.” Particle accelerators are now central to the work of evolving our understanding of how our universe functions at a sub-atomic level. In that context I warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement that the Government will this year consider applying to become members of CERN, where much of that groundbreaking research happens.

Walton told us, “A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence.”

That is a timely exhortation to anyone attending COP27. By now, the science on the subject of climate change is unequivocal, and we must begin to bend the full weight of human intelligence and ingenuity to a challenge that is, in truth, the moonshot of this generation.

The work of the third Waterford scientist of note who I want to mention gives some foreshadowing to the fragility of the natural systems that we take for granted and that have nurtured our civilisations and our scientific achievements. John Palliser was born in Dublin. He served in the Waterford militia from 1839 to 1863. He was a geographer and explorer. Following his service in the Waterford militia and hunting excursions to the North American prairies, he led the British North American Exploring Expedition, which investigated the geography, climate and ecology of what we know today as western Canada. His warnings about the unsuitability to agricultural development of the area now known as Palliser’s Triangle were ignored and went unheeded. Palliser reported that the region, including what is now known as south-eastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan, was too arid for farming. The area was nonetheless settled for farming and was subsequently devastated in the Dust Bowl drought, which wreaked such damage, both economic and ecological, in what is sometimes termed the dirty 30s in North America. It is impossible for me to read that without thinking of the pastoralists of East Africa at the moment, whose lives and livelihoods are being shattered by changing climatic conditions resulting from human-induced climate change. Scientists predicted that too.

To return to that little boy in a backyard in Butlerstown looking down a telescope at the moons orbiting a distant planet, one is reminded of the words of another famous scientist, although, unfortunately, not an Irish one in this case. Sir Isaac Newton said in his letter to Robert Hooke: “If I have seen further than you, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” From where we are now standing, on the shoulders of the likes of Boyle, Walton and Palliser, we can see further and clearer than ever before, from the electron to the Big Bang. We are the only things, the only entities that we know of in this universe who ask that question that my father turned back on me and who can look at the universe and ask “Why?” In some sense, we are the universe trying to understand itself. We unroll more and more of life’s rich tapestry of which Boyle spoke and understand more and more about the forces and relationships that govern our existence with each passing year. We have a clearer understanding too of the challenges we face. I fervently hope that we can apply the intellectual honesty of which Walton spoke and apply the learnings of science to protect the fragile environment that allowed the homo sapien, the thinking primate, to make these advances in how we understand the world around us.