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Mathematics at Princeton


Working with my boss
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Let's see, I came back in ‘57, beginning of ‘57 I think, and… so obviously I came back and continued to talk with Hodge. But shortly after that, I think it was… must have been ‘58, Hodge suddenly got all these jobs which many years later I got myself. He became Master of Pembroke and he became Secretary of the Royal Society, so he became very much involved in administrative matters. He had… I mean Hodge to be fair… I mean, he had, you know, a very remarkable career in the ‘30s when he did all his work, and he was just taking off. But then of course the war came, and he was of a generation that was, that really had a big impact on their subsequent career, because nothing much happened during the war, in fact during the war he stayed in Cambridge but he had to become bursar of the college and do all sorts of things. So by the time the war was over, there'd been a long gap in which he hadn't been doing very much, and so although he'd tried to be active, he really had. So when he moved on to these other jobs… by that time he really was quite a long way away from active research.

He kept interests, and he would talk, but for example, I inherited his research students that he had. He had at that time two students, Rolf Schwarzenberger and Ian Porteous, who started with him, but when I came back from America and he was obviously on the verge of doing these other jobs I took them over, you see. And I talked with him, and he had a few ideas still but he was really on his way out as a kind of… and then he eventually became head of the department and I more or less took over his job, as being responsible for the running of seminars and doing things in that area.

He was supportive and he helped invite people. For example, we had… I've forgotten when it was… well eventually he got me a fellowship at Pembroke. When he became a master, I got a teaching fellowship at Pembroke, and so I saw more of him in that context as well, and somewhere around that date, I forget when it was, we invited Karl Stein to come and spend a visiting term in Cambridge. He was doing all this functions of several complex variables, Stein manifolds and so on, and so he was a… and so he came over and he was actually put up in Pembroke College. And Hodge arranged the finances and did all the stuff, and then he gave a set of lectures here, which in fact I was sort of in charge of organising that, I got… in fact I got John Kingman to take notes of those lectures.

So he was supportive and I worked under him, and especially when I was a fellow at Pembroke, he was my boss so to speak, and helped out in different ways getting visitors. Hirzebruch visited here, again, I think that was the year before, Hodge arranged for him to visit, I think it was round about ‘55, ‘54, before I went to Princeton. And he came and gave a few talks, and I met him then for the first time and he was just doing all his stuff on Riemann-Roch and that was the big period. So he was very helpful, but he was no longer doing active research himself I think. And so my work was… I was already on my own as far as carrying on with my research.

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: Royal Society, Pembroke College, Cambridge, William Hodge

Duration: 3 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008