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Three Centuries of Physics in Trinity College Dublin

by Eric Finch, Fellow Emeritus, School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin

Paperback: 252 pages
Publisher: Living Edition
Price: €20.00 (+P&P)

Please contact physics@tcd.ie to order your copy.

Trinity College Dublin was founded in 1592, which was when the mediaeval traditions of learning were giving way to the discoveries and insights of Copernicus and his successors in the scientific revolution then taking place. Dr Finch describes how, within College, physics as now understood can be dated to the late 17th century with the work of scholars such as the Trinity graduate William Molyneux. His book on optics, the earliest in the English language, clearly demonstrated his enthusiasm for the ‘new learning’ as opposed to older mediaeval notions.

The sequence of Erasmus Smith’s professors and their colleagues, beginning in 1724 with Richard Helsham, forms the basic framework underlying most of this account. In particular, the 19th century was a golden age for Trinity physics, and Humphrey Lloyd, William Rowan Hamilton, James MacCullagh and George Francis Fitzgerald were among the most well-known physicists anywhere of the time. It was during this century that modern concepts appeared in Trinity such as moderatorships (honor degrees), laboratory work for undergraduates, the notion of a physics department, the perception of physics as a professional discipline rather than a gentleman’s pursuit, the expectation that a lecturer or professor should engage in research and should teach only a limited range of subjects rather than all of them, inter-university and international research collaborations, and so on.

In complete contrast, physics in Trinity largely stagnated for several decades following Fitzgerald’s death in 1901, apart from the 1930s during the professorship of the talented and ambitious Robert Ditchburn. His successor, the Nobel Laureate E.T.S. Walton, was also able to sustain the study of physics in College, but despite his conscientious care and meticulous teaching the department remained starved of resources. Eventually, a revival in the fortunes of Trinity physics began in the 1960s. This heralded a remarkable period of strong and continuous growth under the leadership in subsequent decades of Brian Henderson and his successors, as was witnessed by Dr Finch after he was appointed in 1972 to the physics department.

It is the overall purpose of this book to guide the reader through the fascinating story of Trinity physics and to analyse the background to and reasons for the various successes and frustrations experienced through the centuries.