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Travelling as a child

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An aptitude for mathematics
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Well, fairly good at most things. I wasn't particularly good at writing essays, I think. The literary side was probably one of my weaknesses. My father always said that I obviously showed mathematical talent at an early stage because when we travelled around the world, the Middle East, we would exchange currencies and my pocket money would always seem to make a profit out of it. And he was convinced that I was going to be a mathematician, and there had been some members of the family, earlier generation, who had mathematical talent. So they were convinced I was going to be mathematical, but I was fairly generally good at most… most things at school to a certain stage.

And then towards the end of my school when I got on to A levels, at that stage I was very, very keen on chemistry – I had a good chemistry teacher – and I think at that stage… and I did some… chemistry has nice experiments you do, and I had a friend of mine and he had a lab at home and we used to do a lot there. But after one year of advanced chemistry I decided that I just couldn't… I didn't have a good enough memory. You know, you have to learn these voluminous books, Inorganic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry; and so mathematics was much simpler, you didn't need to memorise things. So that was more or less the determining stage. From then onwards it was quite clear I was going to pursue mathematics. But until then, there were other alternatives, yes.

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: school subjects, mathematical aptitude, chemistry

Duration: 1 minute, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008