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Posted 18 June 2012

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TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY DICK AHLSTROM, SCIENCE EDITOR, IRISH TIMES, on 16 June 2012, on the occasion of the awarding of the UCD Ulysses Medal to Dr Tony Scott.

You have to be somebody special to be nominated for a Ulysses Medal, the highest honour that University College Dublin can bestow.  It has been awarded to a clutch of Nobel laureates, most recently the Australian immunologist Peter Doherty. It has gone to great Irish writers such as Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien and Thomas Kinsella, and generous benefactors to the national good like Michael Smurfit, and Lochlann Quinn.

So perhaps it may come as a surprise to some that this latest Ulysses award goes not to a household name or a Nobel recipient or a political grandee, but rather to a teacher. Of course anyone who knows Tony Scott will immediately realise that UCD made a wise decision and could not have found a more worthy recipient of its medal.

I can think of very few who have had a bigger impact on the life of UCD, on the communication of science, and on the youth of the nation than John Anthony Scott.

Because of him thousands of school students will know exactly where they will be next January as they troop into the RDS for the 49th annual Young Scientist exhibition, just as tens of thousands more have done over the past five decades of the event.

By the way, did I mention that Tony co-founded the Young Scientist exhibition with Fr Tom Burke? And how many thousands of physics graduates over the years will remember Tony’s academic ministrations while lecturing at UCD as the inspiration that encouraged them to pursue a career in physics?

You have to be committed if you want to be a good teacher, but if you want to be a great teacher, someone who inspires, encourages, cajoles students into loving learning then you also have to be a superb communicator. And Tony Scott is both, an exceptional lecturer who helped his students realise why they wanted to do physics, but also a great communicator of science to the wider world.

At UCD he did both, lecturing, serving as dean of science and also setting up the university’s first public affairs office. I remember him telling me that even when his teaching load dropped because of all his other commitments, he still insisted on being allowed to teach at least one first year physics class each autumn in the hopes of enthusing some if not all of them to stick with the subject.

He had a teaching chore of a different kind when in 1989 he became UCD’s first director of public affairs. This was an innovation for the university. Imagine. Communicating with the outside world. From my perspective of course the outside world meant journalists, hacks looking for a story or a steer on a story, the barbarians at the UCD gates as it were. Tony of course had no difficulty whatsoever dealing with the barbarians given his relaxed style, his willingness to help but also his honesty.

I still have my very first journalist’s contacts book, why I have no idea. Most of the numbers only have five or six digits. But there amongst the earliest entries for UCD was Dr Tony Scott. He was one of my regular contacts if the story had anything to do with physics.

I knew Tony from much earlier days however, at least from 1987. This was the first year that I attended the Young Scientists Exhibition as The Irish Times’ shiny new science correspondent. Tony used to be my secret weapon at the RDS. As a judge he would get an early indication about the quality of entries and he wasn’t averse to helping out a journalist trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

Tony would saunter over to see how I was making out. “Have you seen anything interesting,” he might ask, in a non shalant way. I would offer an option or two, and Tony would nod sagely. But I always had pen to the ready because I knew what would follow. “Have a look at 124 over in the red section,” he might suggest, or “You should see stand 322, interesting work.” Then in a moment he would vanish, leaving me with a steer about likely winners. I can tell you that I sometimes spent as much time searching for Tony Scott at the RDS as I did searching for the top projects.

I could spend the next 10 minutes rattling off his various accomplishments and contributions to UCD and to Irish society in general. Aside from being a dean he was also part of the university’s governing authority. He served on national commissions and participated in government task forces on the teaching of the sciences. He has been an active participant in the Institute of Physics and is a past president of the RDS.

And it is not all about the sciences. He has a passion for music, for sport, the arts and literature. He has a mischievous sense of humour but as much as anything else, think of Tony Scott as a true gentleman in the very best sense of the word. And as my father-in-law used to say, there aren’t many of those left these days.


Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.

(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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Dr Tony Scott with the Ulysses Medal