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An aptitude for mathematics

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Schooling in Sudan and Cairo
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Well, I… my father worked in the Sudan, in fact his father had worked in the Sudan before him, so it was long established. And so we lived in Khartoum, which is a rather small community as far as the sort of Western community is concerned. So for example, I went to a very, very small school called The Clergy House. It was run by the Church, and I think there were 25 pupils altogether in the school, of all ages and I was there from, you know, five until the age of 12. So it was a very, very small amateur sort of kind of job in a way, and I’m sure it would have fallen foul of all the educational theories about the right kind of teaching you could have and so on, but I seemed to survive and it was a rather unusual experience. And then at the age of… well… the age of 12, where I would have gone at the age of 12… they didn't take them beyond that age and I had to go to a secondary school. We tried out for a short while a secondary school in Khartoum run by the Italians called the Comboni College, but that turned out to be a disaster. I survived only four days there. It was quite different kind of school, big… I think they used a lot of Arabic, it was more an Arabic medium as well. So they pulled me out of that, sent me back to The Clergy House for another couple of years – it was during the war so you were limited – and then finally, in 1941, I suppose, they decided to send me to a school in Cairo – English school, English type school which in fact my father had been at before – called Victoria College.  And so I spent the next four years there at this school, and that was… that’s a sort of, you know, English type boarding school, but a very interesting school because a lot of students of different nationalities were there. We had Egyptians and Greeks and Armenians and a whole of range of Mediterranean people. So that was an interesting experience. And that was, you know, again a respectable school, where there were good… good teachers, nothing, sort of, tremendously outstanding, but I got a good grounding, I think, and at that school I was, for various reasons, I was put a couple of years ahead of my age. I wasn't a great prodigy necessarily, but I was a bit more advanced, so I was always two years ahead and I suppose that meant I started things earlier. So I remember for example, I'd start… they started doing calculus when I was about 13. So I had a fairly good grounding mathematically. They had some quite good teachers, and so that's my memory of that time really.

Eminent British mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah broke new ground in geometry and topology with his proof of the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem in the 1960s. This proof led to new branches of mathematics being developed, including those needed to understand emerging theories like supergravity and string theory.

Listeners: Nigel Hitchin

Professor Nigel Hitchin, FRS, is the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, since 1994, and was appointed to the Savilian Professorship of Geometry in October 1997. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1991 and from 1994 until 1996 was President of the London Mathematical Society.

His research interests are in differential and algebraic geometry and its relationship with the equations of mathematical physics. He is particularly known for his work on instantons, magnetic monopoles, and integrable systems. In addition to numerous articles in academic journals, he has published "Monopoles, Minimal Surfaces and Algebraic Curves" (Presses de l'Universite de Montreal, 1987) and "The Geometry and Dynamics of Magnetic Monopoles" (Princeton University Press, 1988, with Michael Atiyah).

Tags: Khartoum, Cairo

Duration: 2 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008