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Working with my boss


Bringing America to Cambridge
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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I thought my job was to bring back the excitement, so to speak. I came back as a young lecturer and having been in America and people expected me to come back with what was all the hot news, you know. In those days you didn't get much travelling around. You didn't get streams of people coming through, so if somebody… young chappie here's gone and spent a year and a half, come back, it was his job, you were supposed to… so I tried to, sort of, tell people, run seminars and things of that kind.

And I also tried to introduce into Cambridge what was common practice in America. They had these general colloquia, every maths department would have ordinary seminars and then they would have once a week a colloquium where different topics would be addressed – invited speakers would come – on issues across the board. That was the normal practice in American universities. That was unknown in Cambridge. Cambridge… every group would have their little working seminar and there would be nothing. So actually I instituted such a general colloquium series and I think with retrospect I'm quite surprised that my senior colleagues took it so easily. I mean I would go round to all these professors, Professor Hall and others, and there was I a, sort of, young brash lecturer saying, you know, ‘Will you come and organise… run these?’ And they all came along and played well and it was totally against the tradition of the time and I'm not sure it survived, you know, because it doesn't fit very easily into the Cambridge system, but for several years this general colloquium went and brought together all these distinguished people who came and gave talks, which they could have given any time before.

We didn't have so many outside speakers, it was mainly people inside Cambridge talking to their colleagues, because they'd never done that before, and never thought it was appropriate to do, and so I did stimulate that. And well there were, of course, some other younger people also; Christopher Zeeman, well he had been… he was a year ahead of me and he was, he came back… he'd been in America on a Commonwealth Fellowship… came back the year before, so he was here and he was stirring up the topology group a bit. And so there was some other younger people helping to get things going. And I got a lot of backing from Hodge and people. They were all very glad to have somebody coming back from America and telling them what was going on.

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: Cambridge, America, Christopher Zeeman, William Hodge

Duration: 2 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008