Brushing Up: Apples and Atoms by Eilís O’Connell

To the right of the playing fields in Trinity College is the pavilion, and to the left, an old building. At the corner of this building are five symmetrical balls of different sizes, joined vertically to form a shiny stainless-steel sculpture.

Each sphere reflects and distorts the fields, the pathway and the people that pass; the stripes painted on the path appear on each ball at different angles and in varying sizes, which move as you walk toward the sculpture, creating a funky pattern.

When it was unveiled in 2013, some websites, like Oxygen.ie, compared the sculpture – entitled ‘Apples and Atoms’ – to a sex toy. But the real inspiration for the piece has nothing to do with sex.

Instead, it’s actually meant to celebrate scientist Ernest Walton, who was a professor of natural and experimental philosophy at Trinity for 28 years and who, the sculptor found through her research, seems to have been a great guy.

Good with His Hands

Walton made good at a young age. He was 23 when he won a scholarship to leave Trinity and go help scientists at the University of Cambridge to build a particle accelerator.

At Cambridge, Walton worked alongside scientist John Cockcroft and, in 1932, the pair split the nucleus of an atom for the first time. It was a lithium atom.

At the time, Albert Einstein said that it was the first demonstration of his well-known equation E=mc². In 1951, Walton and Cockcroft won a Nobel Prize in physics for their work.

When the eightieth anniversary of this feat came around, Trinity College decided they should mark it. The university invited six artists to come up with ideas to commemorate how great Walton was. Eilís O’Connell’s design of polished stainless steel was picked.

O’Connell is a veteran of Irish sculpture. Her work was first exhibited in the mid-1970s, and she had surged to the forefront of Irish sculpture by the mid-1980s with her patinated and painted works of bronze and steel.

When presented with Trinity’s invitation, O’Connell threw herself into researching Walton’s life.

Physicists all over the world had known that it was possible to split the atom and generate tons of energy, in theory. Both the Russians and the Americans were spending a fortune attempting to do so, said O’Connell, via email.

She believes Walton’s edge came from the fact that he was exceptionally good with his hands, and he could make things. Most other physicists didn’t have any experience in making three-dimensional objects.

“If he couldn’t make it himself, he found companies and fabricators who could follow his drawings,” she says.

A Minimalist

O’Connell researched Walton’s drawings and admired how he conveyed a huge amount of information with a brief sketch and a bit of text. This minimal approach inspired her design.

“As part of my research I found Walton’s original drawings in the Cambridge archives and I was struck by their simplicity and clarity,” explains O’Connell. “Spheres as a formal sculptural element appealed to me as hand-beaten copper spheres were made to create spark gaps for the particle accelerator.”

The sculptor also spoke to Walton’s daughter Marion about the great physicist’s everyday life. “I was greatly impressed with what she told me about both his teaching and family life,” says O’Connell. “He was a very humble and likeable man.”

She learnt that Walton had a small shed in his back garden where he would make things for his lectures, to demonstrate theories for his students. He also once tried to make an electric cake mixer for his wife.

“He was a popular and engaging lecturer for his entire life, and I wanted the sculpture to focus on not just his achievements, but also on his life in general,” O’Connell says. “A man is not defined solely by his academic achievements but also by the memories he leaves behind in others.”

She wanted to allude to all of Walton’s character: his intellectual rigour, his ability to build the particle accelerator, and his skills as a father and a teacher.

O’Connell discovered that Walton’s favourite hobby was gardening, and that he kept fruit trees. This was handy for O’Connell, an artist known to fuse organic and constructed elements in her work.

Alongside the shining, modern piece of sculpture, she planted some Irish apple trees to reflect – quite literally – the more personal side of his life.

As O’Connell tells it, the use of mirror-polished steel was also significant. It suggests a sense of timelessness; the reflections on the sculpture are ever-changing, just as the world of science is always making new discoveries.

And look closely and you’ll see that the petite sphere on top of the sculpture appears to be slipping off the largest one. That, says O’Connell, indicates the sense of uncertainty that surrounded the hundreds of experiments and failures that Walton encountered over the years.

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Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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