Professor Sir Michael Atiyah OM FRS
Distinguished mathematician and supporter of Humanism
Born in 1929 in London, Sir Michael Atiyah was educated in Khartoum, Cairo, Alexandria and Manchester Grammar School, before going on to study Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. He said of his childhood, “I started out by changing local currency into foreign currency everywhere I travelled as a child and ended up making money. That’s when my father realised that I would be a mathematician some day.”
He had a very distinguished academic career, undertaking research at Cambridge, becoming a lecturer in 1957 and later a professor at Princeton and Oxford. In 1990 he became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and the first Director of the Isaac Newton Institute. He is now retired and an honorary professor at the University of Edinburgh.
Sir Michael has expressed appreciation of the collaborative nature of mathematics:
“If you attack a mathematical problem directly, very often you come to a dead end, nothing you do seems to work and you feel that if only you could peer round the corner there might be an easy solution. There is nothing like having somebody else beside you, because he can usually peer round the corner.”
He has been one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century and received many prizes and honours for his work, including membership of national academies and honorary degrees. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1962 at the age of 32, and received the Royal Medal of the Society in 1968 and its Copley Medal in 1988. He was President of the London Mathematical Society from 1974-76, receiving its De Morgan Medal in 1980, and was President of the Royal Society from 1990-95. Sir Michael was knighted in 1983 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1992.
He has also been very active on the international scene, for instance as president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from 1997 to 2002.
In March 2002 he was one of the 43 eminent scientists and philosophers who signed a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, deploring the teaching of Creationism in schools.