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Snobbery and the class system


Studying mathematics at Winchester
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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The head of the maths department at Winchester was a man called Clement Durell who had really a very good understanding of the situation. I mean he was a good mathematician himself, he had done some serious work, and he'd written a marvelous little text book called Readable Relativity, which is relativity for schoolboys and is probably the best elementary text on relativity that was ever written, because it's written for schoolboys and he knew schoolboys very well, so it's full of little exercises that you could test whether you'd actually understood what the book was saying. So it's a very good learning book, and he published a lot of text books, he was famous for his text books, but he wasn't a great classroom teacher and his lectures were very dull. I mean the classes were dull, and he never was particularly interested in the bright kids. He was most interested in teaching the kids who were harder to reach, which was certainly his job. So he left us - the bright kids - he left alone, but he did understand that we needed something more, and so he imported a young mathematician from University College in Southampton which was only twelve miles down the road. University College, which is now the University of Southampton, had a fairly good math department, and the young man that he persuaded to come was Daniel Pedoe, who's remained a lifelong friend. He's unfortunately in bad health now in Minnesota, but he was a very important influence. He was a really high class mathematician; in fact, he had been at the Institute for Advanced Study here in Princeton before he came to Winchester. He was here at the Institute in the 1930s. He was a good geometer and he had a passion for geometry. So he came to Winchester once a week to give me private tuition, and so I learned a tremendous lot from him, and the book he gave me to study was Severi's Algebraic Geometry which was originally written in Italian and translated into German. So I had to struggle through Severi in German to learn algebraic geometry, so it was good for my German as well as for my mathematics. That was just the finest introduction to mathematics. Severi was a very imaginative kind of mathematician. He had no use for rigour, and all the theorems he proved weren't really proved and had to be done over again by other people, but nevertheless they were right, and so he had this marvelous imagination for complex varieties in high dimensions. And he was also an out and out fascist. He was a personal friend of Mussolini and a great tyrant in Italy. Afterwards he was kicked out because he had been one of the leaders of the fascist movement in Italy, so he was kicked out of his high positions at the end of his life. But still, he was a great man for all that. It's an example of the fact that you can be a great man and also a bastard.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Winchester College, Readable Relativity, Southampton, Minnesota, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, 1930s, Algebraic Geometry, Clement V Durell, Daniel Pedoe, F Severi, Benito Mussolini

Duration: 3 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008