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Thoughts on social and political issues


Interaction between science and society
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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At various stages I've been asked to do this and do that, and you know, you feel it's your duty to contribute to the, sort of, broader cause of education and science. And so you can't very well say no, and once you take it on you feel you've got to do the job… best job you can, you get interested in the problems and they are important. So you develop an interest in... in them. I don't think I ever sort of sought these jobs, but having got them you feel that you... you have to do your best.

So you build up… but it's a bit like how you become an expert. And when I came on the Cockcroft Committee… I was invited on this Cockcroft Committee which reviewed mathematical education; because I think I knew Bill Cockcroft from way back and he wanted an academic on it, so I agreed to go on. I didn't realise when I went on how big a job it was… it lasted for two and a half years at least. But subsequent to that, of course, then I started to get invited to become President of the Mathematical Association, educational… so… and it builds up. And after a while you... you become an expert because you've been thought an expert by somebody else… even if you aren't. So after a while I felt I had to put stop to that side of it, you know, to becoming… but I haven’t... I’ve, you know, enjoyed in some sense getting involved in these things. They are important, I feel I... I have a duty to assess the problems and to talk about them, persuade people about them at different levels.

So I think it has been quite satisfying, being involved, but then of course they've changed. because I've moved from education in mathematics to... to sort of science and education broadly in the college and universities and policies. And although I'm quite glad at some stages to... to leave them behind – you know, I've finished with the presidency of the Royal Society – I was very glad to hand over to my successor… I still am involved. I keep… but I don't want to, you know, spend all my time doing that all the time, ever onwards. But… and I’m… interests have shifted… I've got interested in certain other aspects of the general scene. I've got a bit involved recently with the sort of questions of ethics and science and, you know, the questions of nuclear weapons and things of that kind. And... and so you... you move in certain directions. Your interests within this broader area of the social interaction between science and society, you know you can get off in many different directions and… and it changes as you shift your responsibilities.

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: Bill Cockroft

Duration: 2 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008