In mid-March of this year Sir Michael Atiyah of the University of Edinburgh and his collaborator Isadore M. Singer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were awarded the Norwegian Niels Abel Prize in mathematics for their work on the Atiyah-Singer index theorem, described by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters as one of the great landmarks of twentieth century mathematics. The two men, the academy went on, were "among the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century," and their work "was instrumental in repairing a rift between the worlds of pure mathematics and theoretical particle physics." For the first time a prize on the level of the Nobel was awarded in mathematics, an academic field strangely neglected by the Swedish philanthropist.
Sir Michael has made many significant mathematical contributions, especially "in areas involving interactions between geometry, topology, and analysis." The index theorem, resulting from collaboration with Singer from the 1960s, "bridges pure mathematics and theoretical physics, offering physicists a tool to develop new theories that can describe all the forces and particles at work in the cosmos." According to Sir Michael "the index theorem provides a Trojan horse that mathematicians have used to get into physics and vice-versa."
Sir Michael is quick to describe his contributions in terms the layman can understand. His work, he says, "has been not in any one single area, but more in the interconnection between different areas-that always [has been] my interest. So I covered a large number of areas in mathematics and also in physics, and my work has been to link these with each other in some unexpected ways." Explaining what mathematics means to him, Sir Michael rejects the idea that mathematics is synonymous with logic. Acknowledging that mathematics is difficult to define, he asserts that though necessary, logical thinking is "by no means the only part" of the discipline. "You've got to have imagination; you're going to use intuition, guesswork, vision, like a creative artist."
The scientist, according to Sir Michael, must not remain isolated in an ivory tower. "Scientists," he wrote, "must acquire a social conscience and concern themselves actively with the political process in so far as this relates to the use and misuse of science." When president of the Royal Society, Sir Michael called upon international researchers to join together in the areas of the social sciences, economics, engineering, energy, population control, and the environment. He has written ardently against atomic weapons. Criticizing British and American nuclear policies, he urged scientists "to speak out openly and freely, to criticize the establishment when necessary, and to demonstrate that independence of thought really is the hallmark of the scientist." Writing against America's proposed national missile defense (NMD) system, Sir Michael recommended bringing so-called "rogue states" back into the community of nations. "Can we not use the carrot instead of the stick?" he asked.
Sir Michael's father was Lebanese; his mother Scottish. Growing up partially in the Sudan, he first attended Victoria College in Cairo and then the Manchester Grammar School. After his compulsory military service he obtained a BA from Trinity College, Cambridge and then continued to do research for his doctorate, which he obtained in 1954. He then became a fellow of Trinity College. He spent the next year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Back at Cambridge for four years, in 1961 he moved to Oxford University as a fellow of St. Catherine's College. He held the Savilian Chair of Geometry at Oxford from 1963 to 1969, when he became professor of mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Returning to Oxford, in 1972 he became a Royal Society research professor, and was elected a fellow of St. Catherine's College. In 1990 he became master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and director of the Isaac Newton Institute. He has been chancellor of Leicester University since 1995 and honorary professor since 1997 at Edinburgh University, where he continues to do research.
Numerous awards and honors mark Sir Michael's contributions to the field of mathematics. In addition to the Abel prize, he received the Fields medal, the London Mathematical Society (LMS) Berwick Prize, the Royal Society Royal Medal, the LMS De Morgan Medal, the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei's Feltrinelli Prize, the RS Copley Medal, the King Faisal International Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal, and the Nehru Medal. He was knighted in 1983 and became a member of the Order of Merit in 1992. In 1993 he was awarded the rank of commander in the Order of the Cedars by the Lebanese government. He has received more than 25 honorary degrees from universities in England, Europe, the Middle East (from the Lebanese University), Hong Kong, and the United States.
In addition to holding a variety of prestigious academic positions throughout his career, Sir Michael has delivered many distinguished lectures to mathematical and scientific societies around the world and headed a number of these societies. He was president of the London Mathematical Society (1974-76), president of the Royal Society (1990-95), director of the Isaac Newton Institute at Cambridge (1990-96), and president of the international Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (1997-2002).
Sir Michael's published works include many papers, K-Theory (1966), Commutative Algebra (1969), Geometry and Dynamics of Magnetic Monopoles (1988), and The Geometry and Physics of Knots (1990). His Collected Works was published in five volumes in 1988. A sixth volume is scheduled for August 2004.