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The Fields Medal
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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By the time I went to… I went to the institute in… in ‘69 permanently, so from then onwards I had the research job there. When I came back to Oxford I had a research… Royal Society Research Chair there. So I didn't have any teaching except for, you know, seminars and research students. And that applied to the rest of my time. So by ‘66 I already had a research professorship. I didn’t, I... I wasn't complaining about my job. I don't really know if it had much impact really. Fortunately the Fields Medal isn't like the Nobel Prize. Nobel Prize gets so much publicity, you know, and immediately you have to go and open bazaars and you know, see prime ministers and things, and I think for... for some people getting the Nobel Prize is the end of their research career because they can't cope with all the extra publicity, and also the expectations. Once you've got the Nobel Prize you're immediately raised up so high. So I think they have… that can have a… can... can be rather difficult.

The Fields Medal is a much lower key and outside the mathematical community it doesn't mean, you know, it's not really so significant. So… although it does affect some people. I know that some people got the Fields Medal have felt, you know, they'd done this, they eventually get the Fields Medal, they now must do an equally important big thing on something else and they move fields. And for example, Paul Cohen who got the Fields Medal with me, he got it for his book on the continuum hypothesis, big... big theorem in logic, although he was really the analyst, he'd moved into logic, done this big theorem, got this reputation, so he... he felt that he had to make another move and go into something else. And I think he... he then moved into theoretical physics in order to do something. But I don't think it ever... it ever quite panned out. I think that subsequently he may… he moved into computing. So if you, if... if people use it, feel that they have to make some… prove some big theorem in something, they've done it one field, you just go into another field and do the same; that can actually probably be quite negative. I mean it's very rare that it succeeds that way.

So I didn't actually... didn’t actually do that. I... I drifted. I never moved by sort of… I didn't say I'm going to… when I got the Fields Medal I didn't say I'm now going to, you know, learn theoretical physics. I got into theoretical physics by the back door, and I didn't plan on any major change. So I don't think it really had a… obviously it gives you a, you know, gives you a psychological boost… but at that stage I wasn't going to resign my chair and give up mathematics anyway.  I was going to do the best I could. Yes, I don't... I don’t think it… obviously you know, it has an indirect effect, people know you better and they invite you round and it... it sort of has some beneficial spin-offs in that way. But I think otherwise, no I don't think it was a...

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: Paul Cohen

Duration: 2 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008