Birr telescope receives huge award

Birr telescope receives huge award
Derek Fanning


Derek Fanning


The great telescope in Birr Castle Demesne, also known as the 19th century “Leviathan” or “Monster Telescope”, was the recipient of a very distinguished, European award on Friday afternoon. A ceremony was held at the telescope for the event and a Swedish representative of the European Physical Society presented the award.

The Birr Scientific and Heritage Foundation said it was delighted that the telescope had been recognised as a “European Physical Society Historic Site.”

The EPS Historic Sites Award is a much-coveted award which underlines the importance of places in Europe which are important because of their key role in the development and the history of Physics.

The EPS philosophy is that our scientific cultural heritage is equal in importance to our artistic cultural heritage and should be celebrated as such, and should be preserved for the benefit of humankind.

Lord and Lady Rosse were present for the occasion and said they were delighted with the award. “This is a wonderful occasion for Birr,” commented Lord Rosse. “In fact it’s a wonderful occasion for Ireland as a whole. The Great Telescope is a huge part of Ireland’s scientific cultural heritage. It was built in 1845 by my ancestor the Third Earl and was the largest telescope in the world from 1845 to 1917. Its most famous discovery was the spiral nature of the galaxies, including Nebula M51, now known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. The discovery that Nebula M51 was much more than just dust and gas, that it was actually a spiral of stars, was the very first hint of the existence of other galaxies!”

Also present at the ceremony was the Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan who said he loves the Demesne and is very conscious of what an important part of the heritage of the midlands Birr Castle is.

Lord Rosse said the Demesne and Science Centre was honoured to receive the award. “Today Minister Flanagan unveiled several new interactive features in the Science Centre, which improves the visitor’s experience. The Centre has features about the brilliant design and assembly of the world-famous Great Telescope. This award is an opportunity for us to celebrate the achievements of the past and to address their meaning today and for the future.”

Karl Grandin, from Sweden and Chairman of the European Physical Society Historic Sites Committee, told the gathering at the telescope that the large astronomical instrument behind him has a remarkable and unique history. “This, coupled with the vibrant Science Centre, makes it an ideal choice for the distinction of this award.

“On a personal level, I have wanted to visit the Castle for a long time, so I am very pleased that this event has given me the opportunity! I would like to thank my friend and former President of the European Physical Society, Professor Denis Weaire, for proposing the Great Telescope for the award.

“The current President of the European Physical Society, Professor Petra Rudolf, was disappointed that he couldn’t make today’s ceremony.

“Part of the purpose of today’s ceremony is to also draw our attention to the important point that as Europeans we share a common scientific culture as well as a common heritage.

“The great telescope is the 50th site on the continent to be given this award. The other sites are in 21 countries throughout Europe. There is a brochure about all the sites.

“Recently I came across an interesting story which is very apropos of today’s event. In the Spring of 1857, a countryman of mine came to Birr because he wanted to see the Great Telescope and to meet the Third Earl of Rosse. His name was Robert Thalén and he was touring all over Europe learning about important advances and inventions in astronomy and physics. After some initial difficulties he was allowed into the castle and finally he got to meet with Lord Rosse. He was shown the premises and the workshop. He was greatly impressed by the high technical standards on display and by the attention to detail. At the meeting Robert handed over introductory letters, his business card and several of his scientific papers. Remembering this tradition of handing over something, today I am handing over to Lord Rosse a history of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. I do not know if Lord Rosse and Robert stayed in contact. Robert later wrote an extensive obituary of the Third Earl in a Swedish scientific journal.

“This meeting between the Third Earl and this Swedish physicist shows us that our common European scientific culture was well underway 162 years ago.

“The observations and discoveries made by the Great Telescope was a very important period in the development of astrophysics and cosmology. There was genius and wizardry in Birr Castle Demesne during the 19th Century and it led to a great advancement. The excellent Science Centre and the exciting Radio Telescope tie in wonderfully with that.

“I would like to end by conveying the warmest congratulations from the EPS to the newest Historic Site. I declare the site inaugurated!”

Denis Weaire, Professor Emeritus of Trinity College, was also present. Professor Weaire pointed out that the recently installed ILOFAR radio telescope has rightly generated a lot of enthusiasm. “There could be no more appropriate continuation of the Third Earl’s search for the hidden secrets of the Universe.”

Grainne O’Malley, General Manager of Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre, said she hoped this award would bring even more visitors to the upgraded Science Centre where they would discover astronomical instruments, cameras, photographs and photographic equipment used by the Third and Fourth Earls and Mary, Countess of Rosse, in the middle and late 1800s. Also on display is electrical and engineering equipment originally belonging to Charles Parsons and used in his experiments, as well as a large area devoted to the botanical work carried out in the demesne.

“The Science Centre provides the inspiration for the exceptional educational department of Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre, headed by Alison Delaney. This year they will host seventy STE(A)M workshops connecting with Birr’s wonderful scientific history and the STE(A)M curriculum taught within Irish schools.

“Birr Castle Demesne is a place which has something for everyone. Created over generations it is an environmental and scientific time capsule. It is one of the most extraordinary places in Ireland.”

The poet Iggy McGovern also read out a poem during the ceremony. It’s a fine poem called “Reflections” which expertly describes the making of the speculum mirror for the Great Telescope and brings the reader up to the current day and ILOFAR: “The rest is history; when all was spent / a great-great grandson laboured to restore / his masterpiece, a fitting monument / or fresh TO DO list nailed to heaven’s door: / – how many questions twinkle in a star? / – how many new eyes seek to play their part? / – whose spirit germinated ILOFAR? / The Universe reflected in his Art.”

Iggy also drew our attention to a publication printed in 1848 called “The system of the heavens as revealed by Lord Rosse’s telescopes”. This was written by the famous writer Thomas de Quincey who highly praised the Third Earl and pointed out what a significant thing the Great Telescope was.

Grainne O’Malley affectionately referred to the Great Telescope as the Demesne’s “golden egg”.Dermot McCarthy, Chairman of the Birr Scientific and Heritage Foundation, said the EPS award was an important occasion in the story of Birr. “It is an international underlining of the significance of this place.” He said Birr and Ireland owes a great deal to the Parsons family.

Lord Rosse and Mr Grandin then jointly unveiled the EPS award plaque.

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