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Differences between Oxford and Cambridge


Readership at Oxford
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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My position in Cambridge was I was lecturer – a university lecturer – and I had a research fellowship… I had a teaching fellowship at Pembroke. I'd done that for three years. What happened was that Henry Whitehead suddenly died, you know, at the comparatively young age – early, mid 50s – and so there was a chair was vacant in Oxford, and, well, I suppose being a brash young man I applied for the chair. Those days there weren't… we didn't have this profusion of positions that we have nowadays and so chairs at universities like that were rather rare events, and I could see that there wasn't going to be an opening in Cambridge or promotion prospects for a while, so I applied for the chair in Oxford. I didn't get it, because Graham Higman who was a good deal senior to me, who was the reader there, he got it. So when I failed to get the chair and his readership then became available, so in that sense I thought well, that's second best; I applied for that and so I got that.

And I think it was a significant shift from my point of view because it meant that I could go and take a job which didn't have to do any more college teaching. I could have done, there was an option, but I chose not to. And so I had a job where I just had to do a few university lectures, and research was my main… so, at a fairly crucial stage, you know, when your opportunities to develop are at a maximum, you know, I was able to devote more of my time to research. If I'd stayed here, I could have done so, but the teaching load's quite significant, if you're a college teaching fellow, that would give six hours college teaching, or eight hours lecturing and so you… quite demanding, and so the advantages of moving were that I was able to get on with my research more.

I think the salary was a bit better, but I mean that wasn't… I think it was just a matter of, at a certain stage, when you're at […] career, you expect to look for a bit of promotion and that was going. I think Hodge was a bit sorry that I went, and I probably wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been that there was this chair going in the first place, which having sort of got close to… well having gone in for the chair and sort of half prepared to move, not having it, then finding this second alternative, you know, it was somehow rather natural to think about it. And so we went. I think it worked out really well. As it happened it worked out very well for me.

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, Oxford, Henry Whitehead

Duration: 2 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008