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British mathematics


Opposition to the Isaac Newton Institute
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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There always is opposition, these kinds… from... from people who are worried about that it'll affect their present position, or rivalry of some kind. That's at both levels, both nationally with other... other institutes like the institute at Warwick and... and Edinburgh and others, were worried that might sort of decrease their opportunity to play a national role. And within Cambridge itself there were... were people who were opposed to a new… an institute which might, sort of, take people away from the university and... and give them preferential treatment. I mean, as you probably know, in a place like the institute at Princeton, when that was established, the Princeton Institute took… started off by the first professors being… going from the university to the institute and... and the institute at Princeton had some permanent staff. And I think there was some feeling that there was preferential treatment given to these staff who had no teaching to do and they had nice research jobs and it would undermine the university. So to avoid that, when the institute here was started, one made clear there were going to be no permanent staff of that kind like in Princeton. We weren't going to take people away from the department, give them nice research jobs so they didn't teach, and to differentiate between first-class and second-class citizens. The only permanent staff was the administrative staff really, and all the other people were visitors.

So that… we... we solved the problem… some... some extent, met the opposition internally by... by – but so you had to. When you establish a new institute like that, you have to worry about the justifiable, you know, concerns of other people who will be affected both locally and nationally and.. and try to… and similarly with the national scene. We tried to, sort of, arrange things that we didn't do exactly the same as other institutes do; partly because we have this broader compass of things, we were going off in different directions. Yes, but... but in the... in the past these obstacles… opposition had always stopped things getting going, people would complain and if enough people were opposing it and there's difficulty raising money, the two things are enough to stop it. So this time it... it just managed to get off.

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: Warwick, Edinburgh, Princeton, Cambridge

Duration: 2 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008