John Bell – The Irish Connection

Andrew Whitaker (Queen’s University Belfast)

Submitted to “Quantum Nonlocality and Reality – 50 Years of Bell’s theorem”.

John Bell lived in Ireland for only 21 years, but throughout his life he remembered his Irish upbringing with fond memories, pride and gratitude.

Ireland has a very respectable tradition in physics, and particularly mathematical physics (McCartney and Whitaker 2003). As early as the eighteenth century, Robert Boyle is usually given credit for establishing the experimental tradition in physics (More 1944, Conant 1970). Through the nineteenth century, luminaries such as William Rowan Hamilton (Hankins1980), James MacCullagh (O’Hara 2003), Thomas Andrews (Burns 2003), George Francis FitzGerald (Weaire, 2008, Weaire 2009) and Joseph Larmor (Warwick 2003) all made very important contributions to the establishment of physics as an intellectual discipline in its own right, while it should not be forgotten that although the academic careers of George Gabriel Stokes (Wilson 1987), William Thomson [Lord Kelvin] (Smith and Wise 1989) and John Tyndall (Brock et al 1981) were spent in England or Scotland, all had Irish origins which they never forgot.

An important aspect of Irish mathematical physics in the nineteenth century was the existence of the so-called Irish tradition studying the wave theory of light and the ether. It was a tradition that was to be important for John Bell and it was to transcend what may be described as the most important event in nineteenth century physics – John Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, and his conclusion that light was an electromagnetic wave (Flood et al 2014). The work of MacCullagh and Hamilton was performed in the 1830s and 1840s, while Maxwell’s mature work was not to emerge until the 1860s.

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