TCD Scientist Receives Royal Irish Academy’s Premier Award

Posted on: 23 February 2005

Prof. Denis Weaire, Head of TCD’s Physics Department has been awarded the premier award of the Royal Irish Academy, the Cunningham Medal. The highlight of his research was the discovery of the Weaire-Phelan structure: an ideal structure of equal-sized foam bubbles with the least possible surface area. This research was published in 1994, supplanting the 1887 conjecture of Lord Kelvin. That it has the lowest possible energy (or surface area) remains to be proved, but all attempts to beat it have failed in the last decade and the two Irish scientists, Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan, still hold the world record for the most efficient structure of this kind. Awarded every three years for “outstanding contribution to scholarship and the objectives of the Academy”, the Cunningham Medal was first presented in 1796. Ireland’s finest scientists and scholars have been amongst its recipients, including Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the greatest scientist Ireland has ever produced; Sir William Wilde, polymath and father of Oscar Wilde; and Frank Mitchell. Throwing Shapes, a large stainless steel sculpture representing the Weaire-Phelan structure, was unveiled by Senator Mary Henry today (23 February) in Trinity College. Physics Department staff member Dr. Wiebke Drenckhan developed the detailed design, based on that of Weaire and Phelan, and it was executed by colleague David Grouse in the Department’s workshops. It can be viewed in the entrance hall of the SNIAM Building. The Weaire-Phelan structure is the inspiration for the architectural design of the structural framework of the Water Cube, the national swimming centre for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.