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Science
THE MATERIAL WORLD
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Thursday 16:30-17:00
Quentin Cooper reports on developments across the sciences. Each week scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.
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Listen to 7 December
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QUENTIN COOPER
Quentin Cooper
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Thursday 7 December 2006
The Leviathan of Parsonstown
Chief Guide John Joyce looks on as Quentin Cooper winds the handle to convey engineer Michael Tubridy to the observing position of the Leviathan of Parsonstown.

For this special edition of The Material World, Quentin Cooper visits the Republic of Ireland to see two iconic national treasures which are both benefiting from the latest science.

The Leviathan of Parsonstown

The third Earl of Rosse was a keen amateur engineer, mathematician and astronomer. When he inherited the family estate at Birr Castle, 100 miles west of Dublin, he started experimenting with building telescopes.

In 1845 he completed what became known as the Leviathan of Parsonstown, a huge telescope six feet in diameter and 60 feet long. Everything from the three ton mirror of polished brass to the complex cast iron supports was designed and fabricated on this rural estate.

Lord Rosse used it to study strange fuzzy patches in the sky that were called nebulae. With his powerful new instrument he was able to see that they had a complex spiral structure and he began to draw and catalogue many of them. We now know them to be distant galaxies like our own Milky Way, star cities of a billion suns.

By the First World War, the great telescope had fallen into disrepair, but now it has been restored to its former glory - almost completely rebuilt in fact! Quentin Cooper visits the Leviathan and hears about its history, restoration and future from Chief guide John Joyce and consultant engineer Michael Tubridy.

Trinity College Library

Trinity College Dublin has an historic library. Beneath its spectacular 19th century barrel vaulted roof are stored more than 200,000 books, among them one of the nation's greatest treasures, the ninth century illuminated Book of Kells.

The library itself was never designed with conservation in mind. Dust from atmospheric pollution and from thousands of visiting scholars and tourists have accumulated on the volumes, and the slowly decaying books themselves give out damaging chemicals.

Keeper of manuscripts Bernard Meehan and keeper of conservation Susie Bioletti tell Quentin about an ongoing project to clean the books and analyse the dust so that they can be protected better in future.

The book of Kells itself has come in for the greatest scrutiny. It is housed in a special case with controlled temperature and humidity but the latest scientific techniques are being applied to probe its secrets in more depth. Researchers are using a technique called Laser Raman spectroscopy to analyse the different coloured pigments in the beautiful illuminations in the book.

The hope is eventually to trace many of the colours to their sources, be they plant dyes or exotic minerals from distant lands.
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