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My chosen geometry supervisor


Top in the Tripos
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Having come from Manchester Grammar School – very competitive – John Polkinghorne and I decided that we had to, sort of, practise for the examinations together. So we actually used to go in every Saturday morning into the library and sit, take one of the old papers out and sit opposite each other and actually sit the exam. So we worked through, I don't know how many, papers practising, so we ended up first and second in the Tripos. We'd worked hard for it… to everybody else. And the second, I think in Part II, we'd kept it up and I think we were more or less again the top two, possibly in some other order. So that we were… yes… and then I think Frank Adams was next in line and so on. It was a pretty competitive lot, and we were pretty well trained in examinations in those days.

But even by the time I'd done Part II my interest in examinations was beginning to wane. I remember the Part II examinations were three day examinations… very stiff. It was two hours, three-hour papers, morning, afternoon, three consecutive days; and I remember by the third day I knew I'd done sufficiently well… okay… but I was really mentally worn out. I remember being a bit… and by that time I also, in my second year I started getting interested in going to these Part III courses which weren't part of the examination. I wanted to go on… so I was… already my sights were on doing other things and I'd written this paper, so I'd lost interest in examinations a bit by the end of the second year.

And Part III was quite a different kind of examination where, you know, you had all these different courses and you went to many, many courses and you offered so many for the examination and they had to put together a complicated package. Well, actually our group I think were the last under which the old system functioned. We broke it down, because we got together, a gang of us, and decided we wanted to go to all these courses, so we fudged the answers. We put in lists of the examinations of courses that we weren't planning to do really, but just to make sure they were distributed well. It must have been chaos for the poor examiners. I went to probably 20 courses of which you were only supposed to be going to six or something, and then you'd pick and choose whatever you wanted in the examination. So Part III was a beginning; it was a rather unusual examination, introduction to broader pastures and different… so, but I think I was good at examinations and I'd been well trained and it was your way into the system.

Eminent British mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah (1929-2019) 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: John Polkinghorne

Duration: 2 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008