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Lack of Collaborators at Oxford

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Differences between Oxford and Cambridge
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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[Q] Did you find Oxford very different from Cambridge?

Yes, yes I did actually. Oxford was different in lots of ways. Well, on the one hand, the general level, the college system was much... much stronger in Oxford than it was in Cambridge, in that the college appointments were the primary appointments most of the time and so on, and that you had to get adjusted to. Mathematics wasn't nearly as large or as strong in Oxford as it was in Cambridge or as it is now. I mean, a few colleges had a few mathematical fellows and that was about it, then there were a couple of professors… so it was really quite small. It did have the advantage of having a mathematical institute, first the old building and then subsequently the new building which gave a focal point and had a few people who were quite active, like Henry Whitehead and Charles Coulson.

And of course generally in the whole university there was a… the scientific composition was less, there were less scientists around, less mathematicians… a lot more philosophers, the place was crawling with philosophers. So the atmosphere was different, you had to get adjusted to it. But I ended up by going to St Catherine's which was a new college, which was intended to be heavily scientific. Well actually rather different from the rest of the Oxford system, and it was quite a nice atmosphere for me to be in, because there was a younger generation of people there, it wasn't a long established college, there were… there were more scientists there, so it was easier… that made the transition easier. If I'd gone straight to a traditional Oxford college it would have been probably harder, but going to St Catherine's was… made the transition a little bit simpler.

Eminent British mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah 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: Oxford, Cambridge, Saint Catherine's College

Duration: 1 minute, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008