Robert Boyle tops ‘greatest Irish scientist’ poll

Published 12 April 2010

Who are Ireland’s greatest scientists and inventors? That’s what we asked you to tell us, after RTÉ launched a poll last month to find the greatest Irish person ever – the RTÉ shortlist didn’t include any Irish scientist, engineer, inventor or mathematician.

Our poll has just closed, and here is how you voted.

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle was your most popular choice, with almost one third (32.2%) of your votes. Next were the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (21.2%) and Ernest Walton (17.8%), who won the Nobel Prize for smashing the atom. poll results – top 10 Irish scientists:

1. Robert Boyle, who turned chemistry into a science

2. William Rowan Hamilton – the algebra he invented in 1843 helped to put a man on the Moon more than a century later

3. Ernest Walton, whose pioneering work began the atomic era

4. Kathleen Lonsdale, the X-ray crystallographer who revealed the structure of benzene and diamond

5. Dorothy Price, instrumental in the fight against tuberculosis, introducing the BCG vaccine to Ireland in the 1930s

6. John Tyndall, the first person to answer the question “Why is the sky blue?” successfully

7. Harry Ferguson, who revolutionised farming when he invented the modern tractor

8. Sir George Gabriel Stokes, for his important contributions to fluid dynamics, optics and mathematical physics, including Stokes’ theorem

9=. Fr Nicholas Callan, who invented the modern induction coil, still used in car ignitions

9=. Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine

9=. William Thompson, who formulated the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics

More scientists

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Ireland has a rich history of contributing to the world of science, and besides the people on our shortlist you made plenty of other suggestions too, including:

  • Francis Beaufort, the hydrographer and creator of the Beaufort scale for indicating wind force
  • John Bell - as one contributor to the poll wrote, “his inequality allowed aspect to verify spooky action at a distance”
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was a very popular choice. As another contributor put it, “still very much with us, and arguably Ireland’s greatest living astrophysicist – she discovered pulsars”
  • John Desmond Bernal “for X-ray crystallography work and designing the floating ‘mulberry’ harbours used in D-Day landings”
  • George Johnstone Stoney, “the first person to suggest the existence of electrons and one of the first advocates of women’s rights to higher education”
  • John Joly, “pioneer of the study of radioactivity in rocks and inventor of a method of colour photography”
  • Lord Kelvin, who is widely known for developing the basis of Absolute Zero temperature
  • Robert Lloyd Praeger, the naturalist and historian
  • Robert Mallett – “his contributions to the fields of engineering, seismology, volcanology and ballistic ordnance were of global significance”
  • Thomas McLaughlin, chief executive of the ESB, who advocated the Shannon hydroelectric scheme and rural electrification
  • Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh for his work in theoretical particle physics and the O’Raifeartaigh Theorem
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