Edward Hutchinson Synge

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Edward Hutchinson Synge (1 June 1890 – 26 May 1957) was an Irish physicist who published a complete theoretical description of the near-field scanning optical microscope, an instrument used in nanotechnology, several decades before it was experimentally developed. He never completed university yet did significant original research in both microscopy and telescopy.[1] He was the first to apply the principle of scanning in imaging, which later became important in a wide range of technologies including television, radar, and scanning electron microscopy.[2][3] He was the older brother of distinguished mathematician and theoretical physicist John Lighton Synge.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Edward Hutchinson Synge was born in 1891, in County Dublin, Ireland,[4] to Edward Synge and Ellen Frances Price. He was familiarly known as "Hutchie".[5] He was the nephew of playwright John Millington Synge and the brother of John Lighton Synge who edited the collected works of Sir William Rowan Hamilton at Hutchie's urging.[6] He and brother John were great-great-great-grandsons of Irish bishop Hugh Hamilton.[7] He is also the uncle of the mathematician Cathleen Synge Morawetz.[8] Throughout his life Synge was very physically active, pursuing walking, cycling, swimming and sailing. In his later life he took up painting and was good at it.[7]

In 1908 he entered Trinity College Dublin to study Mathematics and old Irish. For three years he was a brilliant student and won several prizes and a Foundation Scholarship in mathematics in 1910. Then at the end of his third year, he came into an inheritance from his uncle John Millington Synge, and in 1913 he dropped out of university.[1]


Starting in 1928, with encouragement from Albert Einstein,[9] Hutchie launched on a period of intense productivity during which he laid the foundation for new kinds of microscopes and telescopes. Nobody, including his famous brother John, appreciated Hutchie's achievements at the time.[10] His work was overlooked for decades,[11] but is now better known thanks to the book The Life and Works of Edward Hutchinson Synge[6] published by Living Edition in 2012.[12]

On 22 April 1928, Synge wrote to Albert Einstein[9] about an idea he had for a new microscopic imaging method in which an optical field scattered from a tiny gold particle could be used as a radically new light source.[13] Einstein replied that although Synge's method appeared essentially unworkable,[14] the basic ideas seemed correct and he should publish his research.[3]

There followed a remarkable period from 1928 to 1932 in which Synge produced all of his key works[5] which he published in the Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science.[15][16][17] Remarkably, he did all of this work alone, without a laboratory, and while living at his home in Dundrum in the suburbs of Dublin.[8] By 1932 he had laid out the theory of the near-field microscope and his description was incredibly accurate.[18]

The idea was ahead of its time.[19] In 1956 a similar theory was developed by John A. O'Keefe[20] and in 1972 Ash and Nicholls gave the first experimental demonstration of the technique using electromagnetic radiation.[21][2] It was not until Synge's original papers re-emerged in the 1980s that his priority was finally recognised.[22]

Synge proposed a design for very large astronomical telescopes, based on multiple mirrors, an idea realised much later in Tucson, Arizona, and elsewhere.[23][24] He also invented a new kind of remote sensing technique using searchlights. Today this is known as Lidar, and uses pulsed lasers.[25][26]

Later life[edit]

According to the people who knew him best, E. H. Synge suffered from what these days would be called Asperger syndrome. Becoming increasingly socially isolated, he dropped out of university in 1913 and worked alone without any support from the academic community until all work stopped in 1932.[8][7] In 1936 he had a mental breakdown and was committed to a Dublin nursing home where he remained until his death in 1957. [27]



  1. ^ a b c Dublin Graduate Physics Programme (2012)
  2. ^ a b Novotny (2007)
  3. ^ a b Novotny (2011)
  4. ^ Edward Hutchinson Synge in 1901 Ireland Census MyHeritage.com
  5. ^ a b Trinity (March 2012)
  6. ^ a b Donegan (2012)
  7. ^ a b c Florides (2008)
  8. ^ a b c Trinity (April 2012)
  9. ^ a b Hebrew (2014)
  10. ^ Trinity (March 2012): Years later John Synge wrote, "In the course of a varied academic career, I never had a colleague as interesting intellectually as Hutchie, for his mind ranged widely over art, literature, history, philosophy and science."
  11. ^ Trinity (March 2012): Hutchie's achievements … have only recently been accorded their proper place in Physics.
  12. ^ Living Edition Publishers
  13. ^ Novotny (2011): The gold particle, Synge argued, would act as a local probe of some sample of interest, with the scattered light transmitted through the sample and into a detector. The sample's image could then, at least in principle, be obtained by raster scanning the particle over the sample surface while continuously recording the detected light's intensity.
  14. ^ In German: prinzipiell unbrauchbar
  15. ^ Synge (1928)
  16. ^ Synge (1931)
  17. ^ Synge (1932)
  18. ^ Donegan (2007) p. 28: "Indeed as far as I can tell, many of the ideas patented by IBM, AT&T and others were completely described by Synge 50 years before the patents were issued. It could not have been luck, since his descriptions are quantitatively accurate and exhibit a knowledge of the technologies necessary to implement his correct notions of how a near-field instrument might work." (From a letter written in 1994 by Michael Paesler of North Carolina State University to Dennis McMullan, author of a review of the prehistory of scanning microscopy published in 1990.)
  19. ^ Novotny (2007): Over the years, Synge's ideas were reinvented several times and his papers resurfaced only in the mid 1980s.
  20. ^ Rubincam (2000): Applying the probe idea to microscopy led him to independently rediscover the principle of the near-field optical microscope first described by E. H. Synge in the 1920s.
  21. ^ Super-resolution Aperture Scanning Microscope E. A. Ash & G. Nicholls, University College, London, Nature 237, 510 – 512 (30 June 1972); doi:10.1038/237510a0
  22. ^ O'Keefe, J.A. (1956). "Letters to the Editor". J. Opt. Soc. Am. 46: 359. Bibcode:1956JOSA...46..359.
  23. ^ Donegan (2012): p. 30
  24. ^ Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 1930, Series 7, Volume 10, Issue 63, pp. 353–360
  25. ^ Novotny (2007): Two of his papers, one on the design of a multiple-mirror telescope in 1930, and the other on the design of a microscope that can measure lengths less than the wavelength of light in 1928, both published in Philosophical Magazine, ensured Hutchie's place in the history of science.
  26. ^ Dublin Graduate Physics Programme (2012): His visionary insights into future technology lie in what we now call nanoscience.
  27. ^ Unknown genius by Denis Weaire, John F. Donegan and Petros S. Florides, Physics World, Volume 25, Number 12


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