Distinguished friends

Professor Sir Michael Atiyah

Born in 1929 in London to a Lebanese father and Scottish mother, Sir Michael Atiyah was educated in Khartoum, Cairo, Alexandria and at Manchester Grammar School, before going on to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. 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.

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 has been awarded the Fields Medal (1966), and the Abel Prize (2004), and was President of the Royal Society from 1990 to 1995. 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 and was made a grand officier de la Légion d’Honneur in France – he also received the Grand Cross of Scientific Merit of Brazil.

Michael Atiyah’s father, Edward Atiyah (1903–64), recounted in his autobiography his disillusionment at the chilly reception he received from the British community in Khartoum, then part of the British Empire, when he returned in 1925 with a degree from Oxford to teach at Gordon College (later the University of Khartoum):

Back in this absurd miniature continent, and living with my aunt and uncle who formed a natural part of the Syrian community, I found myself living in the Syrian tribe and belonging solely to it. I found several good friends among my countrymen, but I resented having to belong to the tribe. Cultured, Westernized individuals like myself were superior persons, were my peers, but the tribe was inferior; the tribe was a part of the East, and deep down in me the shame of the East still burned fiercely. I had run away from that shame seven years before. I had striven with all my might to free myself from that disagreeable affiliation resulting from the accidents of blood and geography. I had sought and won a new affiliation of the spirit, but here I was again after those seven years of devout initiation, back in the grip of the tribe, as if I had never gone away, as if the whole struggle had been in vain.

I was powerless and I was deeply mortified … Mortification was not slow in turning into resentment. The domain from which I was excluded began to arouse my hostility. The dwellers in that land began to assume in my eyes the aspect of forbidding and arrogant strangers; their sumptuous houses and spacious gardens, the character of feudal castles housing an alien privilege and British prestige began to gall me, and for the first time I began to experience towards the British Empire the hostile feelings of a subject who resents its rule and its might, because he has no share in them. What I had taken a personal pride in till then was becoming now the enemy of my pride, and I began to rebel against the glory I could not be associated with.

Michael Atiyah considers himself to be ‘a citizen of the world’ emphasizing that ‘mathematicians flourish in all countries and all climates’ but says that ‘undoubtedly my father’s experiences, as recounted in his autobiography, have helped my understanding of the relations between Britain and its former empire. My own life in the same school a generation later reflected the same ambivalence, still highly relevant in today’s world.’