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Opposition to the Isaac Newton Institute


The Isaac Newton Institute
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Well my only invention, my only contribution was the... was the name. No, the... the move to have this institute came from the people in Cambridge, you know, it was a combination of factors, they thought they could get some money from the... the richer colleges. And they’d... they’d… for a long time there'd been talk about whether there should be a national institute. At various times people have thought about it, but people in Cambridge thought the time was ripe to try again and get some support and launch it. And so they got people from outside, like myself, to come in and give it... give it backing. So I wasn't a prime mover. As I say, my main contribution was… they were going to call it just the Cambridge Institute for Mathematics, or something. I thought, well, ‘Crazy; you've got a name like Newton around the place, not to use that’. And so I suggested that, and I think that was right. It had two purposes. It wasn't just the trivial purpose that everybody would immediately identify, know that it's the, you know, the Cambridge Institute; it's that Newton's name, and the kind of work Newton did being a mathematician and a physicist and having this great... great width, would... would suggest that the institute should have a very broad interpretation of what mathematics was, in particular all the kinds of applications from physics and elsewhere should be central to its role.

So I think giving the name Newton Institute helped to determine its scope, and that… when I came as director my main job really was to try to establish it as having a very broad scope; perhaps even broader than many other people would have thought of. And so that… I pushed rather hard because once you establish a thing on a certain line then that... that determines its future in a way. So it was important to do that, and the… part of the role… the reason for that was, of course, the… Cambridge has a divided mathematics department; a pure department and an applied department. When I was here as a student they were one department, then it split for various reasons and I regarded that as slightly unfortunate particularly given the subsequent history in which the interaction between pure mathematics and theoretical physics became so close.

When I came over from Oxford to visit Cambridge, I usually talked in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, rather than the pure department; so I felt it was rather unfortunate they'd been separated. And the Newton Institute, being a sort of new venture on a new site and supported by both the departments, was an opportunity to bring the departments back together again and help to, sort of, help to cement their relationship. So I was rather keen on that aspect of it and making the institute have a broad coverage served that local role as well as a kind of national role.

[Q] Were you actively involved in fund-raising for the venture?

Not actively I would say. I mean I, when we... we had the… fund-raising partly was persuading Trinity College to give a substantial money… amount of money to get it started. I wasn't at Trinity at that stage, I was an outsider. I came in and I remember being interviewed by the... the committee that would... would give the money, and so I gave it my support. By the time I came the money had been already allocated, and I appeared before the committee of the Science Research Council, which was the other main benefactor, to help to argue the case. So I was one of the people who was, you know, arguing the case but I… at the two main sources of funds, but I wasn't really involved in, sort of, fund-raising in the... in the normal sense; I wasn't going round cap in hand knocking on doors, you know, putting my hand out.

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, Trinity College

Duration: 3 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008