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Synge Week: 23-30 March

About J.L.Synge

In 1897, John Lighton Synge was born on 23 March. He spent 47 years with DIAS, initially as a Senior Professor from 1948-1972, and Emeritus Professor until his passing on the 30 March 1995. 

J.L. Synge was an Irish mathematician and physicist, whose seven decade career included significant periods in Ireland, Canada, and the USA. He is credited with the introduction of a new geometrical approach to the theory of relativity.

One of DIAS’s most influential publications was published by Synge in 1960 titled, Relativity: The General Theory. Following this publication DIAS became the leading world centre for research in general relativity for the next decade. The full impact of Synge’s marriage of geometry and relativity was not appreciated until several decades after his work, but it had a profound influence on the subsequent work of Penrose and Hawking on black holes and the geometry of the universe.

DIAS are fortunate to have a copy of his Autobiography, an insight into his life in his own words. Each day, over the next week, we will post an excerpt from this document to mark Synge Week.

23 March Monday: Ancestry, Childhood & School Days

24 March Tuesday: University

25 March Wednesday: Toronto-Dublin-Toronto

26 March Thursday: Columbus, Europe & Carnegie Tech

27 March Friday: Dublin

Family Matters

As I wrote earlier, I married Elizabeth Eleanor Mabel Allen in 1918. She had a stroke in 1973 and was in hospital for six weeks. She lost her speech entirely, but it was restored by a speech – therapist. In fact she seemed to be making a complete recovery and was able to drive her car again. But then she had an epileptic attack, and these attacks occurred from time to time until her death on 21 September 1985 in Monkstown Hospital. Epileptic disorders seem to be little understood, and I do not know whether what she suffered from was genuine epilepsy, if there is such a thing.

The cause of her death was a heart condition she had had for some time. Water rose in her lungs and her heart could not cope with it. This condition occurred several times during the summer of 1985, and we had nurses in the house on a 24 – hour schedule. Her death (at the age of 89) was a release from a situation which she bore with great courage. Now, living alone, I feel her loss very much, although I have now a freedom I did not have for thirteen years during which I never knew when one of her attacks might come on. During those years, and indeed until less than a year before her death, she would come with me in the car when I went shopping twice a week, and we would take long drives in the country. These she enjoyed very much , and the strange fact is that she never had an epileptic attack during any of these drives.

Our eldest daughter Margaret (always called Pegeen) was born in Toronto 20 September 1921. She passed the years 1925-1930 in Dublin and attended Alexandra School. Returning to Toronto in 1930, she went to High School and then to the University of Toronto to study architecture, in which she graduated first in her class. When we left Toronto in 1943 to go to Columbus, Ohio, she stayed in Toronto and in due course married Douglas Dryer, a lecturer (and later professor) of philosophy. They had three children.

Pegeen had some slight mental derangement in 1963 and committed suicide in hospital in Toronto.

Our second daughter Cathleen was born in Toronto 5 May 1923. She too passed the years 1925 -1930 in Dublin and attended Alexandra School. In fact she insisted on going there at an unusually early age . She likewise returned to Toronto in 1930 and went to High School with Pegeen. In the University of Toronto she took the Honours course in Mathematics and Physics and then went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; after that she went to New York University to work with Richard Courant. There she is now (1986), Director of the Courant Institute, establishing a precedent as the first woman to hold such a position.

Cathleen married Herbert Morawetz. He and his family escaped from Czechoslovakia before the German invasion of 1939. He studied chemistry in Toronto and in due course became professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic. His particular field is polymer chemistry, on which he has written two books. They have four children.

Our third daughter Isabel was born in Dublin 18 March 1930, and went with us to Toronto that summer . She stayed there until 1943; then she came with us to Columbus, Ohio. She displayed unusual musical talent, and special music lessons were part of her education. In fact, we thought at one time that she would become a concert pianist; but it didnt work out that way. When we finally returned to Ireland in 1948, she came with us. But she preferred Canada and returned to Toronto. There she married George Seddon, a lecturer in English in the University. He was Australian, and they went to Perth in Western Australia. He changed his subject from English to biological science , and went to the U. S. A. to study. They returned to Perth, then transferred to Sydney, and finally to Melbourne, where they are now. They had no natural children, but adopted two.
I have dealt with my descendants. I should say something of my sister and brothers.

My sister Ada was nine years older than me. She was very different from her three brothers, who were very shy, whereas she was not. But she was born too soon to enjoy the emancipation of women. Our father sent his three sons to Trinity College, Dublin, but the idea of a university education for his daughter probably never occurred to him. She got the social trimmings – music lessons , art lessons, and so on. She tried to become a nurse , but in those days that started with scrubbing floors, and she did not stick it out. I do not think she would have shone academically, but she was intelligent. As a boy my cultural education owed much to books which she had bought out of money given her for her lunches.

My eldest brother, usually called Hutchie, was seven years older than me. Up to a point, he influenced me greatly in my boyhood. I say “up to a point”, because, although physically strong, he never participated in games and never got into the sea. Consequently I despised him on the physical side in spite of his seven years’ seniority. But on the intellectual side I had a very great admiration for him. I have still. In our family there was a singular lack of communication. I have already told how Hutchie abandoned his academic career when he inherited a share of the estate of J. M. Synge, and how he was the prime mover in getting Hamilton’s papers published. I should pass on to 1930 when he published several papers in the Philosophical Magazine. These included one on the design of a multimirror telescope. When they built such an instrument in Arizona, the American astronomers searched the literature, and allowed Hutchie priority in the invention, although his design was not practical without the assistance of computers.

After our mother’s death in 1935, Hutchie developed paranoid symptoms and was declared insane in 1936. He lived in a nursing home until his death by a stroke in 1957 .

My brother Millington was a much more ordinary person. He had no particular intellectual qualifications, but he was a hard worker a nd became one of the leading physicians in Dublin . His relationships with Hutchie were peculiar. As boys they were companions, but over the years some rift developed between them, based I suspect on jealousy regarding the affection of our mother. She preferred Millington, but Hutchie could not get on without her. In fact, after Hutchie had been declared insane, the relationship between him and Millington amounted to a hatred.

Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning, this autobiography has a dual purpose. First, to inform people (in particular my descendants) about my life. Secondly, to provide material for a biography of me as a scientist. I think the first has been done in a fairly satisfactory way. But it seemed to me, on reading it over, that there is more to be said. My friend and colleague, Professor John Lewis, told me I was missing an opportunity to describe how my mind works, and mentioned G. H. Hardy’s book A Mathematician’s Apology.

Let us get our dates right. Hardy’s dates were 1877 – 1947. His book first appeared in 1940. It was reprinted in 1941 and 1948, and again in 1967 with a foreword by C. P. Snow. I reviewed this last for the Irish Times of 14 October 1967. His book invites comparison with a book entitled The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field by Jacques Hadamard published in 1945 and reprinted in 1949 . Hadamard’s dates were 1865 – 1963. Thus, although Hadamard overlapped Hardy at both ends, they were roughly contemporaries.

I had casual encounters with both these men, but never any real conversations with them. Some time about 1928 I had an exchange of letters with Hardy about a paper by a student of mine with which a referee had dealt with rather harshly – too harshly in Hardy’s opinion. He was at that time President of the London Mathematical Society. I recall that he also expresed admiration for a couple of papers by T. S. Broderick on the convergence of series.

The reader of this may well wonder where I am wandering off to – this is my autobiography, not a biography of Hardy. Well, I am trying to find out about myself by studying the reactions of my personality to the personalities of others . The small incidents just referred to seem to me to be good: it is good to encourage younger men and, in admiring Hardy for this, I admire myself: a significant part of my epitaph might read: “He encouraged younger men! ” .

I would like to dig a little more deeply into Hardy perhaps it might reveal a little more about myself. I did meet him once. In 1944 Veblen paid a visit to Europe, and he and I were taken to Cambridge by Col. Schwarz – I think Veblen brought Hardy some recent baseball scores – Hardy had an obsessive interest in ball games. It was a dull visit.

In some ways Hardy’s book is disappointing. It would I think be much better without Snow’s Foreword. This presents Hardy as rather a figure of fun and is much too long, with so many quotations from the book itself that on~ is bored rereading t hem, and boredom is something highly undesirable. Or was Hardy really a bore himself?

I mentioned Hadamard’s book. It is much deeper, but shares with Hardy’s the fundamental message that the essential feature of good mathematics is an intrinsic beauty. With that I agree, at least to the extent that I know (or think I know) what beauty is . If you stare long enough at any word , its meGnine disselves.

Hardy is petulant and displays a quite extraordinary lack of appreciation of what lies outside his particular field of interest. But let me try to put him in historical perspective . We have to go all the way back to the Greeks, and try to unravel the strange relationship between mathematics and physics. No ! That way madness lies. Rather let us follow a definition given by Veblen and Hodge: any subject is defined by the activities of those who accept the label assigned to them: “Geometry is what geometers do!”

Schrodinger-in-the-Hand-of-God-by-John-Synge-The-picture-is-also-sometimes-known-as-God-by J.L Synge

So take four labels: Pure mathematics, applied mathematics, theoretical physics, experimental physics. Which am I? Which was Hardy? Which was Hadamard? The only one of these minds available to me is my own. Experimental physics? I did very little of this, but the idea of doing it in a big way certainly has its appeal . And yet I think that if I did experiments I would always be hankering after their explanation – theoretical physics. Theoretical physicist then? I dont really think so. Anyone who, like myself, regards quantum theory as an intellectual mess cannot call himself a theoretical physicist in 1986. But what about relativity, special and general? Certainly I have devoted much energy on relativity, but in some way I lack a real curiosity as to whether results are true, in accord with observation.

Applied mathematics has been my permanent interest since I was a student, with geometry running a close second, and so to some extent I am a pure mathematician; relativity combines the two.

There is no doubt that Hardy was a pure mathematician and proud of the fact. His references to Einstein ring false. Hadamard was primarily a pure mathematician, but without Hardy’s prejudices against applications.
If I were to sum up my basic motivations, I would put curiosity first and ambition second. The difference between the two is that curiosity can be satisfied – when I have done some work I forget it – but ambition never. And yet I feel that ambition is silly. It is all very well, if you are looking for a job, to be able to say that you have written so many papers and books, that in certain restricted scientific circles one may claim to be the greatest living Irishman, but one knows that time will soon sweep all that away .
It would be most amusing to believe in eternal life. I would like to talk to Hardy and Hadamard. I would like to tell Hardy that the problems which physics suggests to mathematicians are by no means as dull as he seemed to think, and I would like to discuss with Hadamard the problem which currently interests me – I think it might very possibly interest him. And I would apologise to Hadamard for stealing one of his ideas without proper acknowledgment. Such meetings are unfortunately impossible.

Yet meet we shall, and part and meet again
Where dead men meet, on lips of living men.

I thought I would end up with that quotation, but then I remembered a volume entitled General Relativity (Oxford 1972) published for the Royal Irish Academy in my honour. It contains a list of my publications as of that date, and there is an Introduction about me. One does not expect complete honesty on such an occasion, but I would rather like to think that I deserve some of the flattering remarks. Perhaps I should add some reflections from within.

There is a legend that there was a gypsy woman somewhere in the ancestry of my maternal grandfather, James Price. That might explain genetically why I have been a wanderer, scientifically and geographically. Although there are great gaps in my scientific equipment – like Hadamard, I could never get my teeth into group theory – I think I have ranged more widely than most. I might easily have stuck to classical subjects in which I was well trained as an undergraduate (dynamics, hydrodynamics , elasticity), but I wanted to take part in the new subjects, and in due course I mastered relativity but not quantum theory. Since I spread myself so much, I never felt I could regard myself as an authority on any subject.

I am a rather slow thinker, always trying to boil subjects down to their essentials. or what I regard as their essentials, and with me that usually means that I have to see the matter in a geometric form. While I share the general view that Einstein was the outstanding physicist of our time , he did not have a geometrical mind, and it took me twenty years to feel at home in genera l relativity. Descartes had some interesting things to say about understanding an argument: it has to fuse into a unit in the brain . This unification came to me only when I recognised the metric ds as a measure of time recorded by a standard c lo ck. The principle of equivalence, so important to Einstein in his act of creation, is nonsense when you examine it closely: at a given event space-time is flat if the Riemann tensor vanishes, and curved if it does not vanish: there is no question of an accelerated observer.

The Royal Society of Canada has founded an award in my name, and my conscience asks me whether I deserve this honour. I certainly took my academic duties seriously, both in research and teaching. I am not quite sure what a good teacher is. I was perhaps excessively afraid of breaking down, of losing the thread of the argument, and s o I prepared my lectures with great care. I also tried to speak clearly and not interpose my body between the blackboard and the class. All this sounds pretty obvious, but at the end of the day it seems that some of those whom I taught , in Canada and elsewhere, became academically distinguished .
It might be helpful to anyone charged with writing about me to have some names of one-time students of mine, although they are now old, and some dead.

  • A. W. Tucker, geometer, one time head of mathematics at Princeton .
  • A. J. McConnell. geometer, one time Provost of Trinity College, Dublin.
  • E. T . S . Walton . Nobel laureate with Cockcroft.
  • M. Kaplansky, now President of the American Mathematical Society.
  • C. S. Morawetz . hydrodynamist. Director of the Courant Institute.
  • A. J. Coleman, one time head of mathematics at Queen’s University, Kingston. Ont .. Canada.
  • A. E . Schild , relativist, now dead .
  • R. Bott , geometer. professor at Harvard University.
  • W. Israel, relativist . recently elected F.R.S.


• Mathematical Papers of Sir W. R. Hamilton, vol. I (Editor, with A. W. Conway) 1931,
• Geometrical Optics 1937, Principles of Mechanics (with B. A. Griffith ) 1942,
• Tensor Calculus (with A. Schild) 1949,
• Science and Nonsense 1951,
• Geometrical Mechanics and de Broglie Waves 1954 ,
• Relativity: the Special Theory 1956,
• The Relativistic Gas , Kandelman’ s Krim , The Hypercircle in Mathematical Physics 1957,
• Relativity : The General Theory 1960,
• Talking about Relativity 1971 .

Written in 1986