A great many of those named in RTE’s ‘10 Greatest Irish People’ list, through not fault of their own one stresses, have absolutely no business being there.
Ipsos MRBI, the same number crunchers whose recent findings catalysed Fine Gael’s latest bunfight, conducted the poll which bizarrely includes no writers (Joyce?), sportspeople (Sonia?), explorers (Shackleton?) or scientists.
And it is in the latter field where Waterford ought to have been represented in any such ‘Top 10’, had the question of course been put before a more representative spread of the nation.
Arguably the country’s greatest ever scientific mind, Robert Boyle (born in Lismore in 1627) remains a name revered in academic circles both in Ireland and Britain – and with good reason.
To mark its 350th anniversary, the London-based Royal Society, of which Boyle was a founding fellow, recently put on display 24 handwritten noted penned by the West Waterford native.
These remarkable documents, penned in the 1660s, underline the brilliance of Boyle’s mind, revealing remarkable foresight about future developments in science and medicine.
Boyle hoped for a world where one day people would live well beyond the age of 40, which was the average life expectancy in the late 17th Century.
The reclamation of youth is also hinted at by Boyle, who contemplated a future where false teeth and hair colouring would be an everyday reality.
Following in the footsteps of Leonardo Da Vinci, he also pondered how “the art of flying” over sustained distances could be achieved, some 100 years before hot air ballooning was invented.
Boyle also hoped that medicine would reach a point where wounds could be cured “at a distance, or at least by transplantation”.
Some 400-odd years would pass before Christian Barnaard performed the planet’s first human heart transplant and we now live in a world where face transplants have escaped science fiction’s exclusive realm.
And the list goes on, many of Boyle’s hopes realised, some not so.
“Boyle’s predictions on the future of science are quite remarkable,” according to Royal Society Fellow Jonathan Ashmore.
“His hopes for the cure of diseases by transplantation and drugs to appease pain and aid sleep have both become inherent features of contemporary medicine and yet these were predictions he was making over 300 years ago.”
Mr Ashmore continued: “We have also seen numerous of his other predictions realised in various ways, including flight, modern healthcare prolonging life, Kevlar body armour, underwater exploration and GPS navigation.”
Looking at RTE’s Top 40 list, later cut to the 10 names featured below, Boyle is nowhere in sight, thus rendering this poll almost entirely farcical.
There’s no room either for Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean, whose feats of exploration and survival in the Antarctic a century ago surely excel the achievements of judging ‘The X Factor’ for example.
In fact, at least in the views of those surveyed by Ipsos MRBI, only two people born before 1800 (Daniel O’Connell and Wolfe Tone) are worthy of making the ‘Top 40’.
Boyle’s enduring legacy has not been forgotten in Lismore, our county’s magnificent Heritage Town and a place that I will never grow weary of visiting.
Since December 2004, the town’s Heritage Centre has featured the Robert Boyle Science Room; where visitors young and old alike can learn about Waterford’s greatest ever mind.
Students can, if they wish, study in the Boyle Room, as well as conduct experiments in such hallowed scientific surrounds (call 058-54975 for further details).
At a time when the numbers studying science at Leaving Certificate level is declining, any Education Minister worth their salt would consider establishing, for example, a Gaisce offshoot honouring Boyle’s legacy.
Alas, the current incumbent doesn’t know her Darwins from her Einsteins so let’s not start holding breath in anticipation of such an innovation.
Thankfully, since 1899, the Royal Dublin Society has awarded the Boyle Medal, which recognises “scientific research of exceptional merit in Ireland”.
Its awarding nowadays now rotates on a biennial basis between an Irish based scientist and an Irish scientist working abroad.
Just as we award and recognise our heroes and heroines in art and sport, it is only right that a country that’s produced so many extraordinary minds honours our great mathematicians and scientists. Boyle himself would undoubtedly have approved.
To conclude, a final comment from the Royal Society’s Jonathan Ashmore on the exhibition (www.royalsociety.org) which features those remarkable 24, Boyle-written pages.
“This document provides us with an amazing window into one of the most extraordinary minds of the 17th Century.” Says it all, really.
That Robert Boyle, widely described as the founder of modern chemistry is not trumpeted more loudly at a Governmental level represents a damning indictment of how we honour our truly greatest achievers.
Alas, in a world where two admittedly well-spirited youngsters without a musical note in their heads can eke out a living in professional entertainment, it’s no surprise that Boyle’s brilliance is lost on so many.
* For the record, RTE’s decidedly contentious ‘Top 10’ reads as follows: Bono, Noel Browne, Michael Collins, James Connolly, Stephen Gately, John Hume, Phil Lynott, Padraig Pearse, Mary Robinson and Adi Roche.