OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

SCIENCE

``He elucidated the laws of nature and applied them to the welfare of mankind. ''

Inscription below Lord Kelvin's statue in the Botanic Gardens, Belfast

The Irish are known throughout the world for a number of traits and talents, good and bad. Among the former is the spectacular talent for words, for poetry, literature and the theater. Among the latter is the propensity for addiction especially to alcohol. But, for me, there is a different talent that has gone virtually unnoticed. I refer to the contributions to the fluid and thermal sciences by Robert Boyle, William Rowan Hamilton, George Gabriel Stokes, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Osborne Reynolds and others (see "Into Fluid Mechanics"). I like to think that I was, in some small measure, a beneficiary of this different gene. Growing up we hardly heard of any of these people. This despite the fact that I was born within a hundred yards of where Reynolds was born. These outstanding scientists never featured in any list of great Irishmen. No plaintive songs recalled their exploits on highways and battlefields in lands near and far. Strange what the world has chosen to remember and what it has chosen to forget. One reason for the amnesia is that like so many gifted Irishmen before and since most of these men were forced by dint of tradition and circumstance to seek outlet for their talents in other lands. Thus, for example, Kelvin and Reynolds lived out their productive lives in the great academic institutions of Glasgow and Manchester respectively. Perhaps that is why their Irish origins are rarely mentioned.

   
James & Margaret Earls and children John & Mary Earls

My own genetic aptitude may, in large measure, be inherited from my maternal grandfather, John Earls. John was a son of the lowland Scottish tradition, his forebears having crossed the Irish Sea sometime in the 1600s to settle as tenant farmers on the rich land and soil of Northern Ireland. Indeed family legend tells of several ancestors who were brothers and who brought with them from Scotland, impressive farming expertize so that they were remembered as ``professors of biology''. Mixed with that knowledge of the soil was a knowledge of the sea for, until 100 years ago, the main highways for people and produce were the coasts of Ireland, Scotland and the islands in between. And since the coasts come as close as 15 miles, the journey across was an everyday event for the people of those times. Many of my ancestors settled in Islandmagee, a peninsula within sight of the Scottish mainland. There John Earls was born on Dec.23, 1874, the son of a prominent local farmer, merchant and lay preacher by the name of James Earls and his wife, Margaret. James also taught Sunday school and thus the family became known for their breadth of knowledge and commitment to education. John prospered in that rural community and excelled in primary school, driven in part by a strong Calvinist tradition. When he needed to move up, his father arranged for him to attend a craft school in the seaport of Larne. Though not far away by the standards of today the journey to Larne required a ferry crossing and overnight stays with an uncle in Larne, a considerable commitment.

Later John was sent to Dublin to acquire a teaching certification that would allow him to pursue the only profession realistically open to a young man of his background, namely the opportunity to become a schoolteacher. In Dublin, he trained at the Marlborough Street Training College and graduated from the old Royal University with a bachelor's degree. This qualified him to become a teacher in the new system of National Schools being set up to serve the children of Ireland. Having completed his certification he moved back north, to the burgeoning industrial city of Belfast where he served as principal of Ballynafeigh National School during the years 1902-1904. In 1904 he moved up again, having been appointed as a Lecturer in Mathematics at the Belfast Municipal College of Technology. In 1907 he moved into the College and in the following year was promoted to be Professor of Mathematics. In 1910 he became chief assistant to the principal. When his boss joined the army in 1915 Professor Earls continued as assistant principal and later vice-principal. In 1924 he became head of the College of Technology. He was reputed to be a fine organizer and had a special interest in the mechanical and electrical engineering departments. The munitions work that was carried out at the College during the war years was performed under his guidance. Thus John rose from a poor farm boy to become a prominent citizen of the city of Belfast. Along the way he raised an upper middle class family with a son and three daughters. His youngest daughter became my mother.

In early August 1934, John was admitted to a nursing home for a routine appendectomy from which he appeared to be recovering. Tragically something went wrong and he died suddenly on August 28, 1934, some seven years before I was born. Though I never knew my maternal grandfather it seems clear to me that his inclinations and abilities were close to my own. Where John acquired them will never be known but one can see the outline in the knowledge of the soil and the sea.


But I still ask myself, where does it all come from? How much is truly genetic, how much is environmental? Not much in my own upbringing induced in me a fascination with machines. Indeed the machines around me in the village of Magherafelt were fairly mundane by comparison with those in the distant cities. But about one train a day trundled along the single track to the Magherafelt Railway Station just about 200 yards from our house. And we saw the beautiful trains of the American west in the cowboy movies that played on Saturday night in the rudimentary cinema in our village. Even as a young child my very favorite first reader was Thomas the Tank Engine.

When I was just a few years old my father somehow acquired an electric train set, an 0 gauge train and some track. Though this soon became non-functional, the engine, a power source and some pieces of track lay in a box, the source of some frustration to me for I had neither the knowledge nor the ability to make them work. Not that I did not try. I made several unsuccessful efforts to get the engine to run. Later, I took it apart in an effort to try to understand what was wrong and, in doing so learnt a little about electricity and electric motors. But it seemed hopeless. And so, for several years I waited in vain for Santa Claus to bring me my own, functioning electric train set. Finally it arrived one magical Christmas Day and I enjoyed that train and all the additional pieces I added for many years thereafter.

But other mechanical devices also attracted me. We built endless ``carts'' using the wheels from old baby carriages and wooden frames fashioned from boxes and two-by-fours. Later this interest transitioned to bicycles, new and very used, and from these we learnt about chains and gears and bearings. And so to my first old car; to keep this going it was essential to learn about a whole range of mechanical and electrical devices, from starters to carburettors, from batteries to induction coils. By then, of course, the die was cast.

Other electrical devices also attracted me. Very early I understood electric light bulbs, fuses and electric fires. I fitted my attic bedroom with all kinds of lights. And in the process managed to receive several major electrical shocks from the 220 volt, 50 cycle domestic power supply. I even recall rigging a switch under the carpet of the stairs to the attic in order to detect the approach of one of my parents! Little did they know that there were bare wires with 220 volts just underneath the carpet!

Radios were harder particularly since no one in my village had any clue how they worked - not even the physics teachers at my high school. And so radio for me was a completely experimental subject. Someone had given my father a marvellous, broadband radio from a US Air Force aircraft and he had managed to persuade someone in Belfast to build a power supply for it so that we could use it. It had the full range of frequencies, short wave to long wave and a great lighted dial on the front with which to home in on the desired frequency. There was also an eye that guided fine adjustment to the incoming signal. We would play with this for hours trying all kinds of aerials and attempting to identify the numerous languages we picked up.


It is however clear that whatever genetic heritage I may have enjoyed, the seed, like all others, required nurturing. In my own case, that critical component was the result of some good fortune. As I have described elsewhere, I was fortunate to encounter in high school, a remarkable mathematics teacher, Dr. Gwilliam or ``Doc'' as we affectionately knew him. More than anyone (apart from my parents) Doc shaped my life and I look back on him now as a marvellously gifted and inspirational teacher. When I won an open scholarship in mathematics to attend Oxford University, it was largely his doing. Doc had a Ph.D. from Cambridge (in mathematics) though what he was doing teaching in this small Irish high school, I never understood. That was my great good fortune.


Last updated 10/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen