Trinity’s School of Physics celebrates 300 years

Department marks its tercentenary with an extraordinary gathering that brought together staff, past and present, and alumni

Last month, I attended a most unusual event, the tercentenary of the School of Physics at Trinity College Dublin. Not many university departments can boast a lineage of 300 years and the occasion certainly didn’t disappoint. Indeed, it was an extraordinary meeting in a department with an extraordinary legacy.

One reason was that the event was open to all alumni. Thus, attendees mingled with former professors, lecturers, postgraduate supervisors, postgraduates and undergraduates. I was particularly pleased to encounter students I had supervised in the lab as a postgraduate, several of whom have gone on to prestigious positions in industry and academia. I was also delighted with the use of name tags – so much easier to quickly recall former colleagues, students and mentors.

There were many noteworthy events during the meeting, not least a lively opening address by Provost Prof Linda Doyle, followed by a fascinating talk by Dr Eric Finch on Erasmus Smith Professors of Physics down through the centuries. The latter span quite a spectrum, from Richard Helsham (later physician to Jonathan Swift) to George Francis FitzGerald (whose work was an important milestone in the development of the theory of relativity). There were also many side events such as a masterclass on setting up a successful research group, a workshop on science communication and a lively “Physics in 3″ competition, where PhD students were given three minutes to describe the topic of their research thesis to a lay audience.

Another highlight was a talk by Marian Woods, daughter of Ernest Walton, former Erasmus Smith Professor and Ireland’s only Nobel laureate in physics. Walton’s work on splitting the atom at Cambridge in 1932 is world-renowned, but Marian gave an intriguing talk describing her life as a student in the physics department in the 1960s, a unique experience as both the only female in the class and the daughter of the head of department.


During this presentation, I was reminded that, although Walton had retired from teaching when I was at Trinity in the 1990s, he often took the time to chat with the physics postgrads at coffee time, regularly claiming that he was “a very ordinary scientist who happened to be in the right place at the right time”.

While there is no truth in the first part of this statement, the second part is undoubtedly correct. It is important that scientists from small nations have the opportunity to participate in “big science” experiments at world-class laboratories and, for this reason, it is welcome news that Ireland is finally to become an associate member of Cern, the European centre for particle physics.

The reunion was not all about science. On the first evening, we were treated to “Physics Meet Poetry”, an event where former students and colleagues of Iggy McGovern, Professor Emeritus of Physics and well-known poet, read from his collection of sonnets based on the life of the world-famous Trinity physicist William Rowan Hamilton.

Another unusual event was a theatrical performance by Professors Stefan Hutzler and Richard Duckworth, featuring a musical re-enactment of 19th-century research on sound using vintage physics instruments owned by the school.

Yet another highlight was a session in which a number of high-achieving graduates – from a former head of department at the European Commission to the current chief executive of the American Institute of Physics – gave a brief overview of their career after graduation. Another graduate, currently the chief executive of a well-known investment company, spoke about her work in raising awareness in London’s financial circles of the need to accelerate the transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. As she pointed out, the looming climate crisis is undoubtedly the biggest societal change since we all graduated.

After the careers event, many of us retired for a drink in the setting sun at the Pavilion overlooking the cricket pitch, a time-honoured Trinity tradition. As a postgraduate, I spent many enjoyable Friday evenings sitting on the steps of “the Pav” among the students while our lab spectrometer gathered data. Perhaps this is one reason it took many years to complete my PhD.

The celebrations closed with a banquet in the famous dining hall at Trinity. Once again, I was struck by how many of my former professors attended and were clearly still active in research. Truly, many scientists never really retire . . .

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh is a senior lecturer in physics at the South East Technological University (Waterford) and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics.