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Applying mathematics to the real world


Announcing my career plans over Sunday lunch
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I took engineering at Cambridge. It... I went up in 1938 to Cambridge. Engineering was a bit of an accident. This is a sort of anecdote about how it came about, which is, sort of, entertaining in a way, I suppose. My grandfather was the head of a successful stockbroking company in the City and making quite a lot of money, and he had three daughters, none of whom could become stockbrokers, I mean in those days you had to be a male to be a stockbroker. And then he had this numerate grandson whom he supposed was going to join the firm and become very, very rich. And I can remember at the age - I think I must have been 16 or so - realising that whatever else I became it wasn't going to be a stockbroker. You've got to want to make money, you've got to be interested in money, and as far as I'm concerned, so long as you've got it, it's not interesting. I can remember, there was a big Sunday lunch, my grandfather at the head of the table and the rest of the family sitting around. And I remember foolishly announcing, at Sunday lunch, one Sunday, that I'd decided not to become a stockbroker. I should have been prepared. My grandfather was a nice old boy, I mean, he was a sweet guy. He said, 'Oh, well, boy, oh, well, what are you going to do then? Eh? What are you going to do?' And I hadn't thought about this, you understand, it never occurred to me to wonder. But I... the week before, at school, I'd been to a lecture by a chap, an engineer, who'd been in charge of the erection of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Very exciting, he said they'd built it from both sides, and it has what engineers call a male and female fitting, and they go, plunk, like that, when they meet, and so on. And this was very exciting, so I said, 'I'm going to be an engineer.' Of course, what else could I... I had to say something.  And once you'd said something with my grandfather, you couldn't sort of shilly-shally and back down. And in any case, I had no idea you could earn your living being a biologist, it had simply never occurred to me as an option. I mean, Darwin hadn't earned his living as a biologist. I didn't know it was a profession you could pursue. So I said I was going to be an engineer, and then, I went to Cambridge to start engineering. I think, in normal times, I might have realised, when I got there, that perhaps something else was better, for me. But the war broke out.

[Q] The war broke out while you were in Cambridge.

Yes, the war broke out at the end of my first year.

[Q] Did that cut short the length of the degree course?

No, no, it was still a three year degree course, but it was very clear, if you were taking an engineering degree, you went on and finished it. And so I... I completed an engineering degree and then I went and designed aeroplanes between, what,  '41 and '47 or so.

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: Cambridge University, City of London, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Charles Darwin

Duration: 2 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008