No science enthusiast could ever deny acknowledging this great renowned personality, i.e., Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Being a prominent Irish mathematician, Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College Dublin, and Royal Astronomer of Ireland, William made acclaimed contributions to optics, classical mechanics, and algebra. Best known for his reformulation of Newtonian mechanics, now called Hamiltonian mechanics, he also discovered the quaternions – a number system that extends to complex numbers.
A young mastermind :
Born on August 4, 1805, in Dublin, Hamilton is showed traces of immense talent at a very early age. At the age of 3, he was sent to live with his uncle James. His uncle who was a linguist, soon figured out that there was something spectacular about Hamilton. He discovered that his nephew was a keen student, and had a tendency to pick up knowledge very quickly.
At the age of 3, William could read English fluently. When he turned 5, he could translate Greek and Hebrew. By the time he was 12, he had mastered German, French, Italian, and Spanish and had a working knowledge of Syriac, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Hindustani.
When William Rowan was 16, his uncle realized that William needs to excel in mathematics and classics at college, so he gave him a copy of a textbook written by Bartholomew Lloyd, professor of mathematics at Trinity, who played a fundamental role in awakening his interest in mathematics. Moreover, by the age of 16, William successfully mastered a huge part of Newton’s Principia.
William learned a lot from his uncle in his teenage years. Later, at the age of 18, he achieved first place in the entrance examination for Trinity College and eventually joined a well-regarded school of mathematicians associated with Trinity College. There, he studied both classics and mathematics and was awarded Optimes (off-the-chart grades) twice. During his bachelor’s, he wrote a crucial paper on optics accepted for publication by the Royal Irish Academy in 1827. And owning to his brilliance, he got appointed as Andrews Professor of Astronomy and Royal Astronomer of Ireland while he was still an undergraduate.
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In mathematics, William Rowan is well known for his description of the quaternions, a number system that extends the complex numbers and is applied to mechanics in three-dimensional space. However, despite originally being a mathematician, he also made some important and significant contributions to optics and classical mechanics. In 1827, he presented a theory of a single function, now known as Hamilton’s principal function, that brings together mechanics, optics, and mathematics. This theory helped in establishing the wave theory of light.
In another work, he developed his great principle of “Varying Action,” which predicted that a single ray of light entering a biaxial crystal at a certain angle would emerge as a hollow cone of rays. This discovery is still known by its original name, “conical refraction.” Moreover, in his youth, Hamilton owned a telescope and became an expert at calculating celestial phenomena, such as the locations of the visibility of eclipses of the moon.
In 1833, Hamilton created a revolutionary reformulation of Newtonian mechanics, now called Hamiltonian mechanics. Like Lagrangian mechanics, Hamiltonian mechanics is equivalent to Newton’s laws of motion in the framework of classical mechanics. The revolution theory of Hamiltonian mechanics put forward by Hamilton has further contributed significantly to the formulation of statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics. It is still an important tool used by researchers worldwide for various reckonings.
Legacy of Sir William Rowan Hamilton:
During his lifetime, Hamilton achieved numerous honors for his remarkable contributions. He was knighted by the lord-lieutenant and was then elected for the president’s chair in the Royal Irish Academy in 1837. He was also made a corresponding member of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In 1864, he got elected for the first Foreign Associates in the United States National Academy of Sciences.
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The equations formulated by him later came to be known as Hamilton equations in classical mechanics. In 2004, a student society was founded in Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which was named HAMILTON SOCIETY in his honor. The initial H of Hamilton is used to denote the algebra of quaternions in honor of Hamilton. Moreover, the Central Bank of Ireland also issued a coin in his honor while celebrating his 200th birthday. The list is indeed endless.
Hamilton was someone who never seemed to be satisfied with a general understanding of a question until he had mastered every aspect of it. Truly, his legacy and contributions are a thing to celebrate.
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