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Bridging the gap between mathematics and physics


Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Oxford had… I... I was back in a place with... with graduate students, as opposed to Princeton which had only post-doctoral fellows and... and so on. And so life in Oxford from then onwards, was...was, there was substantial involvement with the... with the research students that I had, of… you know, many of whom with... with great success. I had a lot of good students at various… although, ups and downs. I mean there were fallow... fallow periods and fruitful periods, but so the involvement with the research students there played a bigger role in… And I think later on, you know, when I look back on it, I realise that, you know, that was… that would never have happened had I been in Princeton. I would never have had research students… well not quite.

Well, that's not quite true. I mean, George Lusztig was a kind of research student of mine in Princeton. You know, he... he came over, you know, as a young Romanian without a degree and, so he came to Princeton. He was… not really, maybe my assistant formally at some stage, and he... he was doing a degree, technically at Princeton University, under Bill Browder, because the institute didn't give degrees. So you know… but effectively he was working with me and he did his thesis with me at the institute, but the university nominally gave him his PhD.

But that was rather exceptional. So except for that, there weren't really PhD students, and my being in Oxford over a long period of time I acquired, you know, a substantial number of... of students and probably did, through... through that, influencing students and... and what they did, you know, had more success than I would have done if I'd stayed on in the institute for another, you know, 10 or 15 years. So I think that it worked out well, and... and I… although I hadn't probably thought it all through that way when I came... came back.

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: Princeton, Oxford, George Lusztig, Bill Browder

Duration: 1 minute, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008