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Giving up mathematics


How not to encourage somebody
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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And then we had André Weil came and gave a course of lectures here, I think end of my first year.  And he'd written this paper about vector bundles and algebraic geometry, with [...], but my relations with him were a bit strained. Actually, what happened was that he gave this course which is in the third term on developing what lectures he'd given before on algebraic geometry, and fibre bundles, and it really overlapped a lot with what I was writing up for my Smith's Prize Essay, and so I was very chuffed – here was this great man giving lectures on one of the things that I was working on independently.

So I showed him my, sort of, typescript, first version of my typescript, and was hoping to get some encouragement, you see. He took it away and then he kept it a week or two and then he gave it back to me and there was no comment, you see, and I was a bit disappointed. And I looked very carefully and on the sheet, cover sheet he had written on this bit of paper, if you held it up to the light like they do with all this new electrostatic device or something, you could see some writing. Somebody'd written on another sheet above so it came through, and what it said was, ‘Rien de neuf ici’, and I thought to myself, ‘He probably didn't mean that, that must have been accidental’. But I got to know him subsequently much better when I was a colleague at Princeton and it's just the kind of thing he would have done. He wasn't going to tell me to my face that there's nothing new here, but he wasn't above writing it so I could work it out for myself.

And you know, in some sense it was true. I mean obviously what I was doing was somehow more or less continuing what he'd been talking about. Although I was doing a bit more detailed… but still I was a first year graduate student and he was a famous professor, and that's not the way you encourage research students. So, you know, if I'd been a bit sort of less resilient it might have put me off and made me quit. But I persisted, but I've never forgotten it.

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: Andre Weil

Duration: 2 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008