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Reading Haldane's Possible Worlds at Eton


Studying mathematics and English
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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Each week, the few of us who were good at mathematics were given a set of problems, 10 problems to solve. And they were not on the maths we'd learnt that week, they were any old mathematics, any old problems. And I would spend anything up to 10 hours in a week trying to solve these problems, partly with a sort of needle between me and two other guys as to who could solve which ones, and so on; partly I just really enjoyed doing it. And I became a very good puzzle solver, and basically my scientific career has been built on solving puzzles, I guess.

[Q] Yes, but you also learned to write English and speak English with the sort of confidence that somewhere like Eton gives you.

I suppose that's true. I certainly was expected to write a lot of essays, and I suppose it's not something I'm conscious of having learned but I guess I did, give them their due.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Eton College

Duration: 56 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008