Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), October 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)


Over the past 300 years, Wales has made a substantial contribution to the development of science. Welsh-born scientists and/or those working in Wales include an impressive number who pioneered entirely new branches of science.

Prominent examples are the mathematician Robert Recorde, the statistician Richard Price, the crystallographer WH Miller, the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, the astronomer Isaac Roberts, the meteorologist David Brunt, the orthopaedic surgeon Robert Jones and the chemist Donald Hey.

It is appropriate that the second of Wales's three Nobel laureates, Brian D Josephson (b.1940), is a physicist.

The other Welsh-born laureates are Bertrand Russell, and the Swansea-born economist Clive Granger (1934-), who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2003.

The roll-call of scientists is matched by the list of inventors: William Grove invented the fuel cell; David Hughes the microphone and teleprinter; Sydney Gilchrist Thomas developed the Basic method for manufacturing steel from phosphate ores; Edward Bowen produced the first airborne radar; Lewis Boddington designed the angled flight deck for aircraft carriers; and Donald Davies invented 'packet switching' for the electronic transmission of data.

Wales's achievements in science, disproportionate to its population and size, have prompted the physicist Phil Williams' wry suggestion that our national anthem's description of Wales as 'a land of poets and singers' should be changed to 'a land of scientists and inventors'.

The prominence of science in Wales owes much to the Welsh Intermediate Education Act (1889) which led to the establishment of a network of secondary schools.

Ezer Griffiths, who became a world authority on the measurement of heat, stated that had it not been for the opening of an intermediate school in Aberdare, he would have become a coalminer like his father.

Many secondary schools in Wales established an enviable tradition in the sciences.

Ammanford Grammar School produced a remarkable number of professors, including Fred Nash (physics, Nottingham), Wyn Roberts (chemistry, Cardiff), Colin Grey-Morgan (physics, Swansea) and Eric Sutherland (geography, Durham).

This record was matched by Bishop Gore School in Swansea, with Sir Sam Edwards (head of the Cavendish Laboratory), Lord Flowers (physics), Sir John Cadogan (chemistry, St Andrews) and EG Bowen among its famous alumni; and by Gowerton Grammar School which boasted Sir Ieuan Maddock (physics), Sir John Maddox and Sir Granville Beynon (radio) among five former pupils who were elected FRS.

The establishment of the colleges of the University of Wales was of central importance.

Until the First World War, Wales's science departments were small, with few students and inadequate facilities.

As a result of developments during that war, there were a large number of changes in scientific research and teaching - many of them revolutionary.

Since the Second World War, the number of science graduates has increased markedly and the quantity of published material has grown exponentially.

The tradition continues. One of the most ambitious and exciting scientific projects of all time is the Large Hadron Collier (LHC), at CERN, Geneva, the most powerful particle accelerator yet conceived.

When complete, it will be used to search for the Higgs boson - the particle that is believed may hold a key to the history of the universe.

In charge of the LHC is Lyn Evans (1945-) from Aberdare.

The scientist who 'enabled computers to talk to each other' was from Treorchy, Rhondda.

Davies invented 'packet switching', an essential component of all modern data transmission. After graduating in physics and mathematics at Imperial College, London, he worked under Alan Turing at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington.

In 1966 he proposed that in transmitting a large file of data along a crowded information channel it would be best to fragment it into short 1024-bit packages that travel independently and are re-assembled at the destination. …

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