Michael Atiyah, Mathematician Who Went Farther Than Most by the Light of Beauty

Michael Atiyah was a distinguished mathematician with a stellar scientific career spanning over 60 years. He passed away on January 11 aged 89. He received the Fields Medal in 1966 and the Abel Prize in 2004, and is best known for his work with Isadore M. Singer on the Atiyah-Singer index theorem. In October 2016, Atiyah spoke to C.S. Aravinda, the chief editor of Bhāvanā, a journal of mathematics, at the former’s home in Edinburgh. The interview is presented in full, and has been lightly edited for clarity. Aravinda’s words are in bold and Atiyah’s are plain.


I am delighted to meet you. Which part of India are you from?

I am from Bangalore, which is in the southern part of India.

I have visited Bangalore several times. In fact, I have even planted a tree in Bangalore. There was a chap there at the Raman Research Institute who was a friend of mine, called S. [Sivaramakrishna] Chandrasekhar – not the astronomer. He worked on liquid crystals. He said he was also a nephew of C.V. Raman. They are all related.

Many years ago I was reading a paper of C.V. Raman. I think I was most impressed by a statement saying something like, “It is from my collection of diamonds, I have discovered the following facts.” [ Laughs] Do you know other scientists who say “I have diamonds”? He was a rich man and had a big diamond collection.

You also have other Indian connections. I noticed that, in 1966, the year you were awarded the Fields Medal, the Indian mathematician Harish-Chandra gave a plenary talk at that conference.

Yes, he gave a plenary talk there. When I was a graduate student in Cambridge, I went to Amsterdam in 1954 and he gave a plenary address there too. I remember a very clear impression that I had, which was that he spoke English much faster than any Englishman. In English, you have ups and downs. But he was like a machine gun, he spoke much faster. He spoke beautiful English. Of course I couldn’t understand anything. It was not the English I could not understand. I was a graduate student and he was professor or something and he was talking about advanced work. I was just finishing my PhD.

You were finishing your PhD at that time?

I finished my Ph.D. in 1955. But I was just beginning my career, and he was several years older than me. He was smartly dressed. Yes, I remember very clearly that first meeting. Of course, later on we met as colleagues. I visited Princeton, but then he was in Columbia at the time.

I think you visited Princeton in 1955-1956. But he visited Princeton again in 1956-1957, a year after you left.

Actually, I was still there for the fall term in 1956. Of course he became professor later on. I went to Princeton for seminars. I was certainly there in… oh dear… [ laughs]

I think you went there sometime in 1969. Because Nigel Hitchin mentions in …read more

Source:: Daily times


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