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Giving up mathematics
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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You know, when you start doing research it's a very sort of, pretty sort of psychologically difficult time. You start, you have great ambitions, but you know, you've got to struggle and things don’t work and unlike the earlier years you've got long periods when you're on your own, you're not dashing to lectures all the time and not being, sort of, held by the hand. So it's a pretty difficult time… so you go through a time of much self-doubt as to whether you're ever going to be successful.

And so partly for that reason and partly, sort of, to fill in the days and make a bit of variety, I used to go to lectures. I went to a whole course of lectures on architecture and another one on archaeology. I'd sit in with the students who were doing, you know, drawing pictures of buildings and I quite enjoyed it. And I went to these courses on archaeology and I found that by comparison with mathematics it was all dead easy. You know, you sat back and you understood it all, instead of having to struggle over every [...] So, you know, it was light relief in some sense, but intellectually interesting and I enjoyed it, and I think that I could see that there were other possibilities you could pursue.

At various times I'd also thought about possibly taking the Civil Service exam; Ian MacDonald did, went into Civil Service, a lot of people did. One of the options you had available to you if you're good academically, you’d stand a good chance of getting a good job in the Civil Service. So these were all… I think many people shared these sort of uncertainties, but I did, I did the other lectures which I enjoyed. But the Smith's Prize Essay was… I think that was the end of the first term of the second year and got that, showed you know, that I was being successful and then onwards I could have expectations that I would go on well, and so that was all right.

But if it hadn't been like that or things had been worse, I could easily have decided… and you know, many of my contemporaries… I had contemporaries who were quite good who would do a year and then would quit. I remember one chap called Brownhills [sic] who was very good, but he quit after a year and went to work for GCHQ. So, you know, it's a toss-up. People who were very able, partly I think you have high expectations, and if you're good enough to have high expectations, you're also good enough to know when you're not succeeding. You know it's the person who's just a bit below that who doesn't realise that what he's doing isn't great stuff, who ploughs on… no doubt we've had some students like that ourselves and they do think they're doing very, very well and are very pleased about it, and you don't like to disillusion them. So if you're a bit better than that, you know what the distinction is… what's a significant result and what is not a significant result. If you're not getting something significant, you decide that it's not worth doing.

So I think a lot of people will quit who are actually extremely able and, you know, it's a bit of a toss-up and luck as to whether they make a breakthrough at the crucial stage or they don't. I remember even talking to Serre, and him telling me that in his first year of research he nearly quit, because he wasn't… didn't think he was getting anywhere, you know, he would have big expectations. So I would think it's quite common amongst people doing research to have self-doubts and the doubts maybe justified sometimes. You know, some people aren't going to produce great things and probably it's a good thing to get out while the going's good, if that's the case, and do something, you know, alternative… many other things you can do.

But I would be surprised if there are many people who haven't really had, sort of, periods of significant doubt and thought of doing something else. I mean I don't suppose I got very close to it. I didn't actually… but Ian MacDonald for example, was a person who went into the Civil Service, took the exam, and then five years in the Treasury, wherever he was working, finding he spent all his spare time doing mathematics at home, decided well this is crazy, he better go back. He came back as a, you know, mature student many years later and I sort of helped him come back in and so on. So what happens in your career is a toss-up, anyway, is a combination of chance and psychology and various factors. Our fates aren't determined that precisely.

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: Ian MacDonald

Duration: 4 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008