President's speech - Sir Michael Atiyah

‚ÄčI begin this morning's ceremony with Sir Michael Atiyah.

We certainly have never had before and may never have again an honoree who can claim to have received the equivalent of two Nobel prizes. In 1966, eleven years after receiving his doctorate at Trinity College, Cambridge, Sir Michael was awarded the Fields Medal, essentially for his seminal work on K Theory. There is no Nobel prize in mathematics. It is said that Alfred Nobel could not tolerate mathematicians because one tried to seduce his wife. Sir Michael, showing that he is an empiricist as well as a pure mathematician, observed, "There are a whole lot of reasons why that wasn't true, perhaps the strongest being that Nobel wasn't married." Just a few months ago Sir Michael and his MIT colleague Isadore Singer were awarded the Abel Prize in mathematics for their joint work on index theorems, described as "one of the most celebrated achievements of mathematics and [one that] has acted as a catalyst for an extraordinarily fertile interaction between mathematicians and theoretical physicists in their attempts to understand the fundamental structure of matter."

After his doctorate, Sir Michael went on to teach at Cambridge and Oxford. In 1962, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. From 1969 to 1972 he was Professor of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and from 1977 to 1990 Research Professor and Fellow of St. Catherine's, Oxford University. At Cambridge he became the first director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematics and Sciences from 1990 to 1996. Beginning in 1995 and up to the present time, he has been Chancellor of Leicester University. In the midst of all this, in 1983, he was knighted.

Sir Michael has produced a very large corpus of academic work in mathematics, but it is the two books early in his career, K Theory and Commutative Algebra for which he is best known. Note the assurance with which I read those two titles: pretty simple and straight forward. However try wrapping your mouth around the titles of two articles published in Sir Michael's honor: "The Moduli Space of Complex Lagrangian Submanifolds" or "Aperiodicity in Quantum Affine GLn."

Michael Atiyah speaks in simple terms about mathematics. "As with language, where thought and word interact with one another, so science and mathematics interact with each other. It is difficult to separate contents and framework: each influences the other in a complex symbiosis. It is for this reason that I have no difficulty in describing mathematics as the language of science." What drives his interest in mathematics is "the interconnection between different parts of mathematics, the fact that one problem may have a dozen different ways of being looked at in different subjects, a bit of algebra, a bit of geometry, a bit of topology. It's this interaction and bridges that interest me."

That interest spread infectiously to his students. As one wrote, "He always left us feeling there was something worthwhile we could do; however wrong were the ideas we came up with, he never crushed us, but made our muddle seem like steps in the right direction. I have often thought about this wonderful ability to be encouraging and how inimitable it is. . . Another thing I often wondered about was when Atiyah papers were written, for he seemed to be talking to people all day long."

It has not only been interconnections among different fields of mathematics that have inspired Atiyah but equally the interconnections between science and the real world. His powerful sense of moral responsibility as a scientist led him to the presidency of the Pugwash Conferences. The year 1995 marked the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Sir Michael Atiyah was making his farewell address to the Royal Society. He dropped a bomb of his own. Noting that the UK's nuclear weapons program had received bipartisan support, he went on to say, "this is fortunate, because it means that I, as a scientist, can state my views without becoming embroiled in partisan politics. So let me venture a prediction. I believe history will show that the insistence on a UK nuclear capability was fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources, and a significant factor in our relative decline over the past 50 years."

The Faustian bargain, so much at the heart of scientific inquiry, has been foremost in Sir Michael's mind, and through his active involvement in promoting world peace he has called upon all scientists to pay explicit attention to the consequences of what they do.

I have one link to Sir Michael that I cherish but of which he is unaware. In 1958 at Princeton University I took my first course on the Middle East, and the first book I read in that course was by Sir Michael's father, Edward Atiyah-An Arab Tells His Story.

Sir Michael Atiyah chairs the International Advisory Committee of AUB's Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences. Three years ago he was our commencement speaker. We are honored to welcome him back to our campus.