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Mathematics at TCD 1592-1992

years of
by T. D. Spearman


William Rowan Hamilton was born in Dublin in 1805. He attended his uncle's school in Trim, in County Meath, and displayed a prodigious and precocious talent. He read widely in the classics, learned a large number of languages, and enjoyed writing verse. It was with considerable reluctance that he was later to accept the verdict of his friends, who included Wordsworth and Coleridge, that his greater talents lay elsewhere than in poetry. At the age of sixteen he was given a copy of Bartholomew Lloyd's Analytical geometry. This awakened his interest in mathematics in a decisive way: `Ill-omened gift! it was the commencement of my present course of mathematical reading, which has in so great a degree withdrawn my attention, I may say my affection, from the classics.' His interest in geometry persisted after he entered the College in 1823. While still and undergraduate he wrote his first paper Theory of systems of rays, which was a major piece of work in geometrical optics. In 1827 Brinkley resigned from the astronomy chair on his appointment as Bishop of Cloyne, and the Board, with some forecight and imagination, appointed the young Hamilton, just about to graduate, in his place.
Hamilton made contributions of major significance and remarkable originality in three quite distinct areas. One was in optics, another was in dynamics, and the third was his discovery of quaternions. Today every student of mathematics or physics learns about the Hamiltonian function. The way of looking at dynamics which Hamilton developed has been a source of insight, as well as a technique of enormous value, in both classical and quantum dynamics. His original contributions place him among the great mathematicians and mark him out as one of Ireland's outstanding scientists. The bequest of Provost Andrews provided for the establishment of Dunsink Observatory and for endowment of the Chair of Astronomy. From 1792 until 1921 the Andrews Professor of Astronomy also held the title of Royal Astronomer of Ireland. Hamilton held this position, and lived in the Observatory, from 1827 to 1865.

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