NUI Galway Student wins 2020 Mary Mulvihill Award

James Hayes
May 20 2020 Posted: 10:56 IST

NUI Galway student James Hayes is the 2020 winner of the €2,000 Mary Mulvihill Award, the science media competition for third-level students that commemorates the legacy of science journalist and author Mary Mulvihill (1959–2015).

To mark the book’s republication, this year’s competition invited entries on the theme of ‘Our scientific heritage’. It encouraged students to submit projects and works in text, audio, visual or mixed formats that explored places, artefacts, personalities, and issues—such as public awareness or conservation—relating to Ireland's scientific and industrial heritage.

Students from seven third-level institutions across the country submitted entries that covered a broad range of topics, including a history of the Dunsink Observatory, an environmental campaign to preserve Bantry Bay’s kelp forests, and biographical essays on diverse figures, including computing pioneer Kathleen McNulty and microscopist Mary Ward.

The winning entry from James Hayes, ‘Cabra’s Scientific Banksy: The Story of William Rowan Hamilton and Quaternions’ is a biographical essay about mathematician William Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions. Hayes deftly weaves in references to graffiti artist Banksy, Alice in Wonderland, the Angolan basketball team, an 1813 mental arithmetic contest of eight-year-old prodigies and the early days of NASA’s space exploration programme.

A native of Knockcroghery, County Roscommon, and a past pupil of Roscommon CBS, James Hayes is a first-year student of Mathematical Science at NUI Galway. At seventeen, he is the youngest winner of the Mary Mulvihill Award. In addition, he is the first male winner of the award and also the first winner to come from a college outside of Dublin.

Hayes focuses on the “flash of genius” Hamilton experienced in October 1843 when he carved the equation that had just come to his mind into the stones of Broombridge on the Royal Canal near Cabra, in Dublin. This makes Ireland’s most famous mathematician “Cabra’s scientific Banksy” in the title of Hayes’s essay, and the bridge is designated as “the birthplace of modern algebra”.

Hamilton had been struggling with complex numbers in three dimensions, which could not be multiplied or divided. He realised he had to use four dimensions, hence the name, quaternions. James Hayes writes: “Hamilton’s carvings represent the basic rules of multiplication for these quadruples. It was a discovery that sent reverberations throughout the mathematical world and whose implications and application survive to this day.” These applications are found in computer graphics and computer vision, including, for example, in self-driving cars.

“James Hayes took on a familiar story but one that often struggles to explain the scientific breakthrough at the heart of the question – what are Quaternions? The science was clearly, accurately, and succinctly presented, in the midst of a well-researched and flowing narrative that brought Sir William Rowan Hamilton to life for new audiences,” said Nigel Monaghan, Keeper, National Museum of Ireland, Natural History, and a member of the judging team.

“Mary’s family is delighted with the announcement. James Hayes’ winning essay echoes Mary’s passion for communicating Ireland’s scientific heritage and it is wonderful to see this fine tradition continuing. The subject of his essay connects nicely with her audio guide to the Royal Canal,” said Mary’s sister Nóirín Mulvihill, who is co-chair of the Mary Mulvihill Association.

The usual presentation of the awards at an event in Dublin cannot take place, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 2020 marked the first year that the winner of the Mary Mulvihill Award was also invited to attend the Robert Boyle Summer School in Waterford and Lismore, although this event has been postponed for the same reason.  

For further information on the award and on past winners see:


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