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Mathematicians of the past


Mathematics in society
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Well, mathematics is very ill understood in the society for lots of obvious reasons. Most people are afraid of mathematics. The standard result… response to when you say you're a mathematician, they say, ‘Well I... I gave it up at school at the age of 13 or whatever it was, and I can't add two and two’. So there's natural reaction of the people that... that they're put off, they're afraid of mathematics, they don't know what it's about. I don't think there's hostility towards mathematics because they don't know enough to be hostile. Lack of understanding… so I think there's quite a big effort required to... to persuade the public at large of the value of mathematics, what it does and... and why it's useful and... and what it... what its repercussions are.

And that's the kind of thing which I think in the Newton Institute I was interested in propagating; the sort of… the role of mathematics in a wide range of... of disciplines. And we tried to attract public attention to that, that's a way of showing that mathematics is... is not entirely self-contained but has links to the outside world. So I think that's the line that I felt rather… very important for mathematicians to follow. Many… some pure mathematicians are so enamoured of their subject and distrustful of the outside world, they like to sort of put themselves in a closed box and say, ‘Leave us alone, we'll get on with our work’. And then on the other hand they also put out their hands and say, ‘Please pay us salaries’. So it's slightly inconsistent, and so I felt that... that mathematicians have to seek… justify themselves to the outside world, you know, in an... in an intelligent way by showing that mathematics links up with all sorts of other things. It has an impact on things through education of people and through the relationship with science, and... and that way you can justify what you're doing; even if you then go back into your box and carry on with your private work. And so I felt it's important that… and also mathematics, there's no question about it, as we see with this physics and also many other things that take place in the Newton Institute.

Many of the interesting ideas and problems that mathematicians have faced over centuries are… emerge from the outside world, and that's a source of stimulus which mathematicians need. So mathematicians need contact with the outside world, both as a source of problems and ideas to work on, and because without the support of the outside world they would be left high and dry. And in these days of competition and so on, you need friends in all circles. So for both for self-interest and because the subject really requires some intellectual input from outside, it's very important mathematicians are seen as part of the, sort of, whole scientific scene. And so when I was a director of the Newton Institute and also through the Royal Society I just felt it was my job to try to press that home. That view I think is now more widely accepted by the mathematics community than it was 10 years ago, because of the pressure of times, but... but there's still a big problem educating the public.

But I think my view is that the link between mathematicians and the public is through the science.  You know we… other scientists can appreciate the role of mathematics, the physicists know and economists can learn and so on; and so you... you get your message out via these people who really understand the significance of mathematics. Through them you can reach out to the media, to the popular, outside. To go directly from the hard mathematics to the popular press, sort of, is a pretty hopeless task, except very occasionally you like to sort of make a splash with Fermat's last theorem, but it's a very, very tough role. But if you work through the people that surround mathematics, and they really understand the value of mathematics because they use it, and through them I think you can... you can influence the public outside. They will understand, you know, that the kind of problems that these people work on, whether it's in biology or economic or physics. And if they're told by the practitioners of these subjects that the mathematics is an important part; well then they will respect mathematics. I think that's... that’s the way it has to be done.

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: Isaac Newton Institute, mathematics, science, Royal Society, media, Fermat's last theorem

Duration: 3 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008