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March 17, 2009 | By:  Rachel Davis
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The elusive gentleman scientist

I checked out the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New Haven and was disappointed to see guys with broken noses, girls with mascara running down their cheeks, and way too many cigarettes. Americans have taken a day meant to commemorate St. Patrick and tainted it. Rather than an excuse to get drunk, the day should acknowledge Irish contributions to science, culture, and literature.


Take Robert Boyle, a fine example of the gentleman scientist. A gentleman scientist is a financially independent scientist who pursues scientific study as a hobby.  Someone like my grandfather, who would teach me quantum theory as a child, probably wouldn’t qualify. Robert Boyle was an Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor, considered to be one of the founding forces of modern chemistry. Boyle’s law states that the pressure and volume of an ideal gas are inversely proportional and represents the basis of foundational chemistry. Gentleman scientists seem to have largely gone extinct. A successful and effective exploration of science today requires resources far beyond the levels necessary for the pursuit of a hobby, so that it is harder to tinker and easier to get out-competed by hotshots.


The Irish physicist John Tyndall discovered the Tyndall effect, which explains why the sky is blue. The Tyndall effect is light scattering by colloidal particles or particles in suspension. The intensity of the scattered light is directly correlated with the frequency, so blue light is scattered more strongly than red light. Thus we have blue skies (when we’re lucky) and beautiful sunsets when there is lots of smog or debris in the atmosphere.


Irish culture, particularly its manifestation in the United States, is deeply linked to the Great Famine in Ireland, which was largely due to potato blight and decreased the population by 20-25%. Approximately one million people died; the catastrophe precipitated a mass exodus of about one million others to the US and other countries. The pain and suffering endured by thousands of people who depended on potatoes for a livelihood illustrate the power of genetic diversity. The selective breeding common in farming societies leads to monocultures: entire farms of nearly genetically identical plants. Such crops are incredibly susceptible to diseases. In this context, new potato plants are not created as a result of reproduction but rather from pieces of the parent plant. This lack of genetic diversity means that the entire crop is essentially a clone of one potato. You can imagine that when a fungal disease was able to destroy this strain of potato, the lives of millions of people were in danger.


Discussions of similar contributions could even be fueled by a beer or two. But there is a clear difference between alcohol as a means to liberate opinions as opposed to an end in and of itself.  

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