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Mathematics and writing: conflicting disciplines


Peers from Manchester Grammar School
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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[Q] Were there others as good at mathematics as you in Manchester Grammar?

Well, there were. There were some very… Manchester Grammar School recruits very able pupils from a whole wide range and there's a lot of… so there were some very good people. When I came up there were, sort of, three of us got scholarships to Trinity and two got scholarships to St John's and so on. And over the years they've had strings of people and many of them gone on to have quite distinguished [careers]. So in my class there were several others who were… with whom I would compete to be first or second or third. There was by no means you know, a sort of big gap between me and the others. No, they were very… I was under a lot of pressure.

[Q] Did they carry on as mathematicians in later life?

Well of the three that came here, one of them unfortunately was killed in a mountaineering accident. One of them, say, became a mathematician and eventually worked outside in the, sort of, various… he worked, I think, for the nuclear power industry and other forms of applied mathematics, so he probably didn't have as successful a career as one might have predicted from his ability at that stage […] a bit of a luck in the draw, you never know what's going to happen to people. And other mathematicians we've had from the school, subsequently, there are several who have gone on to have quite distinguished academic careers. So it was a good school but there was always a sense that they trained them so well that when they got here, somehow they'd been better trained than everybody else and after a while other people caught up with them, so there was a bit of a sense that sometimes their performance was a little bit disappointing. They were so well prepared, they walked away with all the scholarships but they couldn't be that much better than everybody else, so when they came to university there was a bit of a, sort of, a drop-off and some, you know, would be a bit disappointing.

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: Manchester Grammar School

Duration: 1 minute, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008