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Sent to Trinity College Cambridge

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Early experiences with physics
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Physics somehow in my memory figures lower than chemistry for some reason. For example, when I went to MGS I'd done A level mathematics and A level chemistry. I hadn't done physics except at O level. So when I went to Manchester Grammar School for example, they'd already done a whole year. I'd never done things like heat and light or whatever it was, I had to catch up. So I did a bit, but I was not particularly good at experiments either, and I remember clearly, you know, the kind of situation would happen in the final examinations at A level you had to do something, bit of experiment. They'd give you some bit of wire for example, and they'd say, ‘Measure the resistivity of the wire and plot the graphs’, and I did all the experiments and only at the end did I read it said cut the bit of wire into 10 centimetres length. So being a mathematician, I just said well re-scale the answer to this. But it shows that I wasn't really cut out to be an experimentalist.

And so, when I came to Cambridge, I discovered that you had to do physics – applied, theoretical physics – and I was very pleased to discover that theoretical physics here meant Maxwell's equations and potential theory. It was really very mathematical, so I quite enjoyed that; but at school you don't get so much of that, you get much more of the wire and the concrete down the hands stuff which I wasn't very good at, and so that put me off. The sort of higher intellectual challenge of physics, which you reach at the higher stage, which is mathematical, you get at university. And then I got moderately interested in it, but at university I chose the pure mathematics options; I did the physics, I quite enjoyed the theoretical physics up to a point, but I didn't… I wasn't at that stage won over by it. But so gradually I acquired more interest in it over many years, but not at an earlier stage; the early stage I was really a pure mathematician and I did the other things because I had to.

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: Manchester Grammar School, Cambridge

Duration: 1 minute, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008