2015 €15 Coin Honours Nobel Laureate Ernest Walton

Posted on: 20 March 2015

A €15 limited edition silver proof commemorative coin to honour Nobel Laureate Ernest Walton, former graduate and professor at Trinity College Dublin, and his ground-breaking achievements in the field of physics has been launched by the Central Bank of Ireland.

It is the second in the Central Bank of Ireland’s Science and Invention series.  Ernest Walton, with John Cockcroft, shared the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering work on the transmutation of a nucleus by artificially accelerated atomic particles. The coin, designed by Rory Breslin, gives an artist’s impression and explanation to the equation E=mc2. 

Ernest Walton graduated with joint honours in mathematics and physics in 1926 and obtained his Masters degree at Trinity in 1927 after which he went to Cambridge to do his PhD. It was in Cambridge that the momentous collaboration between Walton and his fellow physicist, John Cockcroft, began which exploited linear acceleration methods to induce nuclear disintegration by artificial means, as observed by Ernest Walton, on April 14th, 1932. It was the first time that Einstein's E=mc2 was verified directly in a nuclear reaction. His and Cockcroft's success, using artificially accelerated particles for experimenting on the atom, meant the research into the nature and structure of the atom was no longer restricted by having to rely on natural sources of radiation. In 1934 Walton returned to Trinity College and was the Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy from 1946 until his retirement in 1974.

The coin launch took place in Trinity in the Fitzgerald Building named in honour of another great Trinity physicist, George Francis Fitzgerald, who in 1889 made an important contribution to what became the theory of relativity. Walton worked and researched in this building when he returned from Cambridge.

Just outside the Fitzgerald building is the sculpture ‘Apples and Atoms’ by Eilís O’Connell, RHA, commemorating the experiment for which Walton won the Nobel Prize. The sculpture was commissioned in 2012 to mark the 80th anniversary of the experiment and to commemorate Walton as a significant figure in the history of the College and in the development of science globally. It reinforces Trinity's special connection with him and is an opportunity to honour him as a scientist as well as a champion of science education, an academic and an Irishman. The sculpture, like the coin, is a way of honouring Walton, and making him a household name.

Ernest Walton generously presented his papers to the college library in 1993 and his family subsequently donated his Nobel medal. This has helped make Trinity a centre for Walton research – Professor Emeritus in Physics, Vincent McBrierty, has written and lectured extensively on Walton’s life and work.