Monday 20 October 2014

Why Birr is the final frontier for our budding scientists

Lady Alicia Clements

Published 25/07/2014 | 02:30

Picture posed
Picture posed

It's probably not surprising that I am so excited about the launch of the New Science Galleries in Birr. My nickname as a child was Little Miss Don't Touch because I had such a curious mind and always wanted to touch things or take them apart to see how and why they worked.

The Science Centre Galleries at Birr Castle Gardens are ideal for children who like to explore and figure out how things work. Birr is the historical heart of science in Ireland, the result of generations of one family with a passion for science and engineering, who have lived at the Castle since 1620.

Before our family returned to Birr, my father, Lord Rosse, was a senior official of the United Nations Development Programme, we moved around the world to accommodate his various postings. I was educated on three different continents and in three different languages.

I returned to Birr in 1980 when I was 10, living with the historic Great Telescope as the backdrop to my happy childhood, however I had no interest in it whatsoever until I went to university. When it came to choosing a degree I opted to study Aeronautical Engineering in Kingston University, London.

In my third year in College, I wrote a 10-page paper on 'The Remarkable Engineering Discoveries of The Parsons'.

While astronomy didn't appeal to me the engineering side and the design around the Great Telescope itself was fascinating. I began to think more and more about all the history associated with my home and ancestors; the Third Earl's Telescope and his discovery of the spiral form of the nebula in Canes Venatici, a galaxy more than 10 million light years away, the visit to Birr of Charles Babbage, the father of modern computer science, Countess Mary Rosse, wife of the third Earl and her darkroom which remained in the castle as she left it – the oldest surviving darkroom in the world.

The 4th Earl of Rosse was fascinated by the moon and his drawings from that time have proved surprisingly accurate. There was also Charles Parsons; his younger brother who invented the turbine engine for boats in the 1890s which eventually led to the design of today's jet engines.

We were lucky to have most of the original manuscripts so I could indulge myself by delving into papers and family history. I would go back to college with facts that would amaze my lecturers such as that the castle had electric lighting before London, indeed we have light bulbs pre-dating Edison's patent of the light bulb. (Sadly too we have the record for the world's first fatal traffic accident in 1869, when Mary Ward, a cousin of the Parsons, was thrown from a steam-propelled car built by the young Charles in the workshops at Birr. After the death he smashed it out of sadness, but for that Birr may have been the hub of early automobile industry too.)

Ironically, while everyone in the UK knew about the Great Telescope at Birr and Charles Parsons features heavily at the Institute of Engineers in London, we weren't sharing this story with people in Ireland.

I feel strongly these were Irish achievements which we need to use to inspire the next generation of budding young scientists. And so with the support of Government bodies we developed Ireland's Historical Science Centre which told the story of all the different scientific discoveries at Birr.

In recent times the museum was becoming quite dated and thanks to Fáilte Ireland and the Birr Scientific & Heritage Foundation as well as many other enlightened people, the new Science Centre Galleries opens today. It focuses on the people behind all the discoveries – the human stories around the science – their working and family lives, and the local people, many of whose descendants still live in Birr and all contributed to bringing it together.

For me the Science Centre is vital to ensure we continue to encourage generations to study science. I firmly believe in children having fun with science, that's what we are trying to do this time in Birr, like the W5 Science Museum in Belfast, encouraging children to ask why and how. At Birr we are continuing on the scientific tradition to this day with the most up to date solar spectronomer led by Trinity College, which allows data received from the sun, by radio waves, to be sent to scientists all over the world.

With my family, including my two brothers Patrick and Michael, we are working together, to make Birr a perfect family destination. I see it as a domain of discovery for everyone.

Lady Alicia Clements is an engineer and daughter of Lord and Lady Rosse of Birr Castle, Co Offaly.

Irish Independent

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