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Early experiences with physics


Mathematics and writing: conflicting disciplines
Michael Atiyah Mathematician
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Mathematicians, I think, are trained to be very precise and very brief – no padding – you don't pad things out in mathematics, that's criticised. And as you go on in a professional life in mathematics you aim to become more and more adept at distilling out the essential point as simply as possible and you cut out all the paraphernalia. So brevity, succinctness, sharpness are all key factors for a mathematician. Whereas if you want to… in the literary side, it's things… people have to be decorated, embellished, elaborated, expanded, so then there's a conflict, and so I find finding long things with padding them out inherently difficult. I'd finish my essay and find it was half the length, or less, and I couldn't see how you could improve on it. I think there's a kind of… I've always found that difficult and subsequently I even have the same problem when I have to give a speech or a talk and I have to do a lot of these things these days. I'm getting better but I find it's very hard to, you know, fill the time. I say it briefly and that's it.

[Q] I’m sure it’s much appreciated.

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: mathematics, accuracy, succinctness, essays, elaborated writing

Duration: 1 minute, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: March 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008