After-Dinner Speeches

From time to time, I have been called upon to make an after-dinner speech, always a rather difficult assignment, because one must tread a careful line between humour and substance.  I give below some examples of my attempts to tread this tightrope.

Speech to a College Meeting  25 February 1969

This was an evening meeting of all members of Trinity College, junior and senior, held in the College Dining Hall under the Chairmanship of the Master of the College, Rab Butler, often described as  the "best Prime Minister we never had".  The Fellows were ranged at the High Table end, and the main body of the Hall was packed with undergraduates.  There has never been another such meeting to my knowledge, either before or since.  This was the period of continuing unrest following the 1968 student uprisings, of which Cambridge had its share.  The Trinity students had demanded a meeting at which all grievances could be aired.  It is historically significant that the Admission of Women to the College was for the first time debated at this meeting, although  a further 10 years would elapse before women undergraduates were actually admitted for the first time.  I should note that there were at that time five Tutors in the College, each having a 'tutorial side' of about 160 "men in statu pupillari".


The Master had asked me to address the question of  'Gate Hours', i.e. the nocturnal hours when the undergraduates had to be inside the College gates, a constraint that they naturally resented.  Many other issues had been debated by the time I was called upon to speak, and we were all rather jaded.  I had prepared both a serious speech and a humorous speech laced with irony, and at the last moment I chose to use the latter in order to lighten the atmosphere, which it undoubtedly did.  Here it is,  in response to the proposal from the undergraduates

"That provided a practical solution is possible, Gate Hours should be uncontrolled"


Master, I shall talk only on the proposal relating to gate hours and Mike Sallnow will talk on the much more delicate issue of guest hours.  Regarding gate hours, I am placed in the fortunate position of being called upon to propose a motion to which no sane person could possibly object.   


Our rules regarding gate restrictions are totally archaic.  Undergraduates at the moment are required to return to College every night at the intolerably early hour of 2 a.m.  If they wish to stay out later that that, they must go through the humiliating and time-consuming process of signing their names as they come in and they are allowed to do this only 5 times each term without special permission.  


One of the Tutors was kind enough to show me his statistics on this.  He has a side of about 130 men excluding BA’s, and it seems that no less than 2 of them actually used the maximum number of late leaves during the Michaelmas term and the nocturnal activities of these two were no doubt gravely inhibited as a result.  I have no doubt that this side was not untypical and that it gives a fair indication of the severe distress that is undoubtedly caused by the present situation.


Then Master, there is the special problem of the men who live in Whewell's Court.  As if these men are not adequately discriminated against already, they must suffer the additional inconvenience of being unable to escape from the court for a breath of fresh air after 12 midnight.  They can get in until 2 a.m. but once in, there is no escape.  There a man is imprisoned for the whole night long – he can’t slip out to visit a friend, he can’t even get out for a quick supervision.  And yet we talk of freedom.


Master, there can be no question that these rules are unfair, arbitrary, illogical, unnecessary, invidious, vexatious, odious, offensive, obnoxious – and very unpopular.  I hope that they can be abolished.


The practical difficulties that are referred to in our report are, I am sure, surmountable.  The electronic gate is the idea that we favour.  The gate would be fitted with an electronic eye which would recognize members of the College but no one else.  Ideally, the gate would open automatically as the College member approached, like these automatic doors in American airports, and would close silently behind him.  Master, this is an idea for the future and I hope that this is the direction in which we are all looking.

After-dinner speech at the British Theoretical Mechanics Conference (BTMC), Hull, April 1977

This Annual UK meeting has now changed its name to the British Applied Mathematics Colloquium (BAMC), but in 1977, it was still the BTMC, which had been initiated by Sir James Lighthill in 1959.  The meeting is held at a different University in April each year; and in 1977 it was the turn of the University of Hull, with, it must be said, its rather spartan facilities.  There was a Colloquium Banquet, and this was my after-dinner speech on that occasion:

Ladies and Gentlemen: It is a pleasure for me to propose a vote of thanks first to the University of Hull for providing such an agreeable setting for the Colloquium, and secondly to Graham Poots and his colleagues for organising the meeting so effectively and for being such excellent hosts.  I'm sure you will all agree that the conditions for such a meeting both here and over at the Lawns Residences could hardly be better -- The superb lecture rooms with carpeted floors and well-padded seats and faultless projection facilities; the excellent catering -- not only the meals, and this one in particular -- but also the coffees and teas well-timed in morning and afternoon to provide fresh strength for flagging spirits; the buses which appear unfailingly on time and generously wait for stragglers; the rooms at the Lawns with that skilfully concealed brass button on the heater, and the thermostat calibrated I'm told in degrees Absolute; the bar at the Lawns centre, which has, I have observed, provided as much solace for the Organising Committee as joy and cheer for the general participants; and finally the -- um -- bracing -- weather of the past few days --- all point to a certain genius of organisation and contribute to make this one of the outstanding and memorable BTMC's of all time.  There will never be another -- 19th BTMC -- of that we may be sure!


I would like also to add my thanks and appreciation to all the contributors to what has so far been a programme of exceptional interest, range and quality.  The only problem is that one so often has to make an agonising choice between two or three or even four lectures of equal potential interest and appeal. It is a sign of the vitality of Theoretical Mechanics in this country that the programme this year has been bursting at the seams with exciting new contributions -- and the spill-over today into a fourth parallel session is an inevitable, if not altogether welcome, consequence of this vitality.


One aspect of the present style of presentation of lectures which has greatly changed since the early BTMCs is the almost universal use that is now made of transparencies on the overhead projector, and the corresponding decrease in the use of slides.  The great thing about transparencies of course is the use that can be made of colour, and I have been interested to note the differences in approach of different contributors in this respect.  The majority still use monochrome black, occasionally underlining or encircling an important assumption or result or speculation in red or lurid purple.  The contributors clearly realise that an audience cannot in general maintain a uniformly high level of concentration throughout a presentation, but that it is possible, by means of colour, to give a jolt to the level of receptivity at certain critical moments.  At the other extreme, some contributors use four or five colours --"yellow and black and pale and hectic red" -- changing more or less at random in a glorious technicolour composition.  The objective here is to convince the audience that every statement made is of critical importance,  and that the least lapse of concentration will be penalised by an irremediable hiatus of understanding.  A good example of this genre was provided at an early stage of the Colloquium.  I have to award the prize for sustained shock quality to Mr. Gibbons of Oxford University, whose transparencies had a strip cartoon quality that left his audience quite limp and exhausted at the end of his presentation.  The prize is a refill of this excellent wine, should any be within reach of his table.


Now while I am disposing of prizes, I have to award one also to Dr Adam of St Andrews University, who so skilfully and unobtrusively, in the middle of a lecture on magneto-atmospheric stability theory, succeeded in advertising on one of his transparencies a grand piano that he has for sale.   For the benefit of those participants who perforce missed his lecture, I am happy to repeat the advertisement now -- for a small cut of course; it read: "Grand piano for sale -- owner going abroad, with beautiful twisted legs"!


Prize number 3 goes to Dr Philip Chatwin of Sheffield University, for his bold and uncompromising use of the Greek Capital Upsilon.  This rare symbol has not been spotted previously on the East coast of England; but a significant migration is now confidently predicted by symbologist Tim Pedley, who spent the afternoon with his binoculars in the Humber estuary, looking for further examples.


Now I'd like to award more prizes, but I'm told you can buy prizes of your own choosing at the Bar downstairs, so perhaps I should resist this temptation for the moment.


An after-dinner speech on an occasion like this would be incomplete without some reference to one of the great names in mechanics.  Fate played into my hands this morning when I had an opportunity to see a filmed interview of Sydney Goldstein, famous for his contributions to boundary-layer theory in the pre-war years.  Fritz Ursell had already told me a story about Goldstein which I'm sure he would be happy for me to pass on to you.  It appears that on a certain occasion, a paper on boundary-layer theory was sent to him by an author with the request that he communicate it for publication in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.  Well, Goldstein read the paper and didn't think much of it, but felt it was of some marginal interest and the Editors ought to see it -- so he sent it on to Proc. Roy. Soc. with a note to this effect -- whereupon the Secretary of the Roy. Soc. sent it back to Goldstein with the request that he act as a referee.  Well, this he did, and he said exactly what he thought of the paper, with characteristic acerbity, and he sent it back to the Roy. Soc. The Roy. Soc. then sent it back to Goldstein with a copy of the referee's report.  Goldstein sent the paper and report back to the author, commenting that the referee evidently didn't think much of the paper.  The author wrote back to Goldstein commenting on the lack of judgement of the referee -- and there the correspondence ended!


Today in this film, there were some further highly characteristic comments from Goldstein which I would like also to pass on to you. He was asked firstly what he regarded as the landmarks in the development of fluid mechanics since 1900, and predictably he dwelt at some length on boundary-layer theory, how it was developed to some extent intuitively by engineers, and how it has been the source of developments in singular perturbation theory that are now penetrating more and more into the domain of pure mathematics.  He talked a lot about Ludwig Prandtl with whom he worked in Göttingen in 1928-29.  He commented on Prandtl's astonishing 1904 paper, which opened up boundary-layer theory, a paper which is only 8 pages in length but contains the essential boundary-layer approximation and a discussion of what goes on near separation, and which incidentally throws in for good measure the result that vorticity is uniform in regions of closed streamlines of steady two-dimensional flows at high Reynolds number, a result that was rediscovered and really exploited for the first time by George Batchelor in 1956, just 52 years later!   It appears that Prandtl limited himself to 8 pages in this epoch-making paper because it was written for a Congress Proceedings and he felt obliged to limit himself to precisely what he said at the meeting, a degree of restraint that is seldom observed nowadays. 


Goldstein goes on to talk about aerodynamics and airships, and subsonic and supersonic flows, and such things, and then remarkably he talks about the aerodynamics of the common household fly and throws out the question at his interviewer, which we should all no doubt ponder: have you ever wondered how a fly lands on a ceiling? Actually, he claimed that a fly, being  small, generates a low Reynolds number flow, and this I doubt very much; but his next line "There are no boundary layers on a fly, you know" was very nice, whether true or false. 


The last question put to Goldstein, perhaps inevitably, was: "What do you see for the future, as regards the development of fluid mechanics?"  This he handled beautifully:  he said "The past consists of what man knows, the future consists of what man doesn't know -- if I could tell you what will be discovered in the future, then it would no longer be the future".


Well, this meeting has contributed very significantly to this process by which the future becomes the past -- and once again, I would like to thank Graham Poots and his colleagues and all contributors for making this process of osmosis through the present so enjoyable and stimulating for all of us.

DAMTP Jubilee speech 24 September 2009, in the Hall of King's College, Cambridge

Vice Chancellor, Honoured Guests, Distinguished Alumni, Dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have given a number of after-dinner speeches over the years, but this is the first time that I have found myself actually on the menu!   I speak as one of the earliest members of DAMTP, but from the fluid side of the Department ---  so please feel free to sip your wine as I speak!

Yes, DAMTP was founded 50 years ago, and more than 700 PhD’s have been nurtured within its walls over that period.  It’s good to see so many of you here for this Jubilee celebration.   You are part of a wonderfully talented worldwide network, and DAMTP can take credit for having inspired so many of you to set out on brilliant subsequent careers, some in University teaching and research, but many also in applications of research in the wider outside world.

Of course, we have to admit that mathematics, pure and applied, did exist in Cambridge before 1959!  Indeed 750 years of it, ever since those disaffected scholars from Oxford made the trek towards these Eastern fens; I’m sure there must have been one or two mathematicians, or at least arithmeticians, among them. And we certainly had the three-hundred year tradition of the Lucasian chair to live up to, from Isaac Barrow and his incomparable protégé Isaac Newton through to the great succession of Stokes, Larmor and Dirac that spanned more than a century from 1849 on.  Dirac was a legend in 1959, but was also something of a recluse, and disinclined for any leadership role.  The drive to establish a University Department undoubtedly came from George Batchelor, who had held a Lecturership in the Faculty of Mathematics since 1948. George built up a substantial research group in fluid mechanics during the 1950s; the problem was, there was nowhere to put them except in a scattering of rooms in the old Cavendish Laboratory made available by courtesy of the Physics Department. Batchelor developed a vision of a Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics with its own building where Research Students, Lecturers, and Senior Visitors could meet and interact on a daily basis.  We take this so much for granted now that it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when the need was not recognized.

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 07.12.26.png

So the Department was duly established in 1959 in a set of rooms in Free School Lane – or at any rate, that’s where the fluid mechanics group was housed, and where I was based for the next five years first as a research student then as an Assistant Lecturer. We gave all our lectures in the Arts School in Bene’t Street, so it was a very convenient location. And, what was more important, we had a coffee room doubling as a library: this was where discussions took place on a daily basis involving all the lecturers and research students in a very friendly atmosphere.  I remember our revered Lucasian Professor, Stephen Hawking, having followed in the trail of these disaffected medieval scholars from Oxford, arriving as a new research student in 1962, in a black velvet jacket and floppy bow tie, and making an immediate and indelible impact!  Stephen, you made the right decision in coming to Cambridge when you did!

In 1963, it became known that Cambridge University Press was going to move to new premises in South Cambridge, and that its 19th century Print House and Warehouse on Silver Street, behind the Pitt Press building, were therefore to become vacant.  Batchelor leapt at this opportunity and put in a bid for the print house, which after due process in the Old Schools, was granted. At the same time, the adjacent warehouse was allocated to our sister department DPMMS, about to be established in 1964.  We always considered that we had the better part of the bargain! 

George roped me in to liaise with Estate Management on the conversion of the Print House for departmental use. This took a full year, and we began our move from Free School Lane in 1964.  In his characteristically frugal style, George insisted that we didn’t need the help of professionals for this move, and he dragooned the research students to carry the desks and other furnishings down Botolph Lane and across Trumpington Street to our new premises; their acquiescence was a necessary though not sufficient condition for the award of the PhD degree!  The Old Press building was actually technically condemned, and Estate Management estimated that it was good for only 5 years’ occupation.  As things turned out, we occupied it for 38 years, and gradually extended our occupancy as the Department expanded, finally taking over even the Syndics Building on the South side of the complex. I think most of you here will have very happy memories of your time there on Silver Street, where the ground floor Common Room played a central socializing role, providing the felt-tip pens and coffee tables on which new, and often outlandish, physical and mathematical ideas could be developed. 

Batchelor’s appointment as Head of Department in 1959 was for five years, but the rules envisaged the possibility of reappointment. In the event, he was reappointed four times, serving as Head of Department until, in 1983, he was induced by an offer from the General Board, an “offer that he couldn’t refuse”, to take early retirement at the age of 63. This was during the Thatcher era of great financial stringency.  It was a serious situation for me personally, because I found myself in line to succeed him in this arduous role. 

When Batchelor was first put up for reappointment in 1964, this was vigorously contested by Fred Hoyle, Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, who had succeeded Harold Jeffreys in this Chair in 1958.  Batchelor was a Reader in 1964, although soon after, he was elected to the new Chair of Applied Mathematics.  An informal vote within the Department came out clearly in favour of Batchelor, and that was that!  Fred Hoyle gave his own version of events in his autobiography; it is therefore no secret that he moved out of the Department in a fit of pique, and thereafter devoted his energy and his wayward genius to establishing the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, now the Institute of Astronomy, on Madingley Road.  Cambridge Astrophysics and Cosmology were thus split down the middle; nevertheless they continued to flourish within DAMTP, as they do to this day.   

Meanwhile, Harold Jeffreys had no such problems adapting to the ethos of DAMTP; he came regularly to the Common Room for his coffee until well into his 90s, usually wearing shorts and having cycled from his home on Huntingdon Road. 

The Common Room was important, but equally important for the fluid dynamics group was the fluid mechanics laboratory in the basement where theories could be tested out against small-scale experiments. I remember a conversation that I had with my new research student, Juri Toomre, shortly after his arrival from USA in 1963. He asked me in his American intonation: “Will there be a laboratory in the new building?”  I misheard this as “will there be a lavatory in the new building?” , which I thought was a strange question. Oh yes, I said, one on each floor, and I added “The Ladies will be on the second floor”.  Now it was his turn to look astonished!  Juri later designed a superb darkroom in the basement, where we did all our own processing of photographs for many years.

When Dirac retired in 1969, James Lighthill was elected to the Lucasian Chair, which he occupied until 1979, when he moved to become Provost of University College London. Stephen Hawking succeeded him and completes a magnificent tenure of thirty years in this Chair in one week’s time.

I look back on the 1970s as the decade of Lighthill in DAMTP. His was a flamboyant presence, and a great inspiration. Who can forget his seminar on the flight of the chalcid wasp Encarsia Formosa, which he mimicked with such enthusiasm that he appeared to float above the podium? … or his account of his swim around the volcanic island of Stromboli while it was erupting?  His great passion was swimming round islands, and he carried this to the ultimate extreme with his nine-hour swim round Sark in the Channel Islands at the age of 74; he died while still in the water through failure of the mitral valve in his heart, which had a weakness of which he had been unaware.  This event had all the flavour of a Greek tragedy: Lighthill was our Icarus who had flown too close to the sun!

I have spoken elsewhere of certain parallels between Batchelor and Lighthill on the one hand, and their 19th century counterparts, Stokes and Kelvin, on the other.  In character, Batchelor and Lighthill could not have been more different; yet they shared a passionate interest in fluid mechanics that transcended their temperamental divergences, and ensured a decade of great achievement for their research groups here  throughout the ’70s.  We were truly privileged to have such intellectual giants of the subject in our midst!

Three years after Batchelor’s retirement in 1983, we were allowed again to fill the Chair of Applied Mathematics.  We were then lucky enough to attract David Crighton from Leeds who was duly elected in 1986.  This turned out to be an inspired appointment.  David took over from me as Head of Department in 1991, and served us brilliantly in this capacity till his tragically early death from cancer at the age of 58 in the millennium year 2000.  This was just 2 weeks after the death of George Batchelor; it was indeed a traumatic time for the Department, and a sombre watershed, just as we were poised to start the move to our new premises.

During the 1990s, the Department had continued to expand under Crighton’s leadership, and the pressure on accommodation for the ever-growing number of research students, post-docs and senior visitors to the department became intolerable.  It was this, combined with the availability of the Clarkson Road site alongside the Newton Institute, that led to the planning of our new Centre for Mathematical Sciences, in which both DAMTP and DPMMS were at last to be united.  There was a huge fund-raising campaign to make this historic move possible. This Jubilee celebration gives me the opportunity to thank our great benefactors, and particularly Dill Faulkes and Peter Gershon, who are here tonight as our guests, for their wonderful generosity to Cambridge mathematics.  It is this generosity that enabled the realization and completion of Ted Cullinan’s spectacular architectural achievement that will provide a home for Cambridge mathematics for centuries to come. 

Who knows what great discoveries will be made within the walls of CMS?  I invite you all to come back to our centenary celebrations in 2059 to find out!  On this interim occasion, we can look back on 50 years of great scientific achievement, and forward with optimism to the cracking within a finite time, of at least some of the great problems of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics that remain open, among which I include the problem of turbulence, so dear to George Batchelor,  and the related finite-time singularity problem for the Navier-Stokes equations.  If you have an inspired idea over the dessert course as to how to solve these problems, please be sure to let me know! 

Speech on 24 April 2015 at a dinner in Trinity College marking my 80th birthday following a toast proposed by the Master

[It is customary on these occasions for the 'victim' to say some words about his family background, early education, and involvement with Trinity College over the years]

Master:  Thank you for your kind words of introduction, for proposing this toast, and for welcoming my wife Linty and our family on this occasion, marking my survival to octogenarian status.  


I came up to Trinity as an affiliated student on a minor scholarship in 1957, and I have lived in Cambridge ever since, apart from three years in Bristol in the late 1970s.   I owe Trinity a tremendous debt of gratitude for having nourished and sustained me both intellectually and physically over all these years, and I am glad to have this opportunity to express my gratitude.


I am a Scot on both sides of my family, born and bred in Edinburgh. The Moffatts originally came from the little town of that name in the Scottish borders; they were sheep farmers, constantly at war with a neighbouring tribe, the Johnsons; I used to enjoy reminding Paley Johnson of this fact! 


My mother was descended from a Highland clan who lived in the clachan of Gaulrig, about a mile south of Tomintoul.  Little remains of Gaulrig except for a few tumbledown cottages that the inhabitants used to share with their livestock. In 1820, my great great great grandmother, who had been widowed for five years, died in dramatic circumstances:  family chronicles relate that she was burnt to death in an illicit still. I imagine that she was forewarned of the approach of the dreaded Excisemen, and so set fire to her whisky still in order to destroy the evidence of this illegal activity. This was a hazardous procedure because of the inflammability of the product, and she perished in the resulting conflagration!  I am comforted by the thought that the fumes of whisky filling the air will have provided solace in her dreadful plight!


My father’s family were on the consuming, rather than the production, side of the whisky industry. This meant that my parents’ partnership was based on sound economic principles, if somewhat fraught at times.  However, it worked out well in the end: quite late in life, following a retirement cruise in the Carribean, they bought Strawberry Hill Hotel in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica.  They spent six happy years there, just when the reggae music of Bob Marley was gaining popularity.  They sold the hotel in 1974 to Chris Blackwell, founder of the Island Records label, and it became a centre for music of a certain avant-garde character. 


My father taught me an early love of numbers; he also taught a range of other life-enhancing skills, such as the ability to recite the names of the 33 counties of Scotland, from Shetland in the north to Berwickshire in the south. Don’t get me started!  


I was just four years old when World War II was declared.  I remember that very day, the 3rd of September 1939: we were on holiday at a seaside resort in Berwickshire, when my sister Lindesay and I were mysteriously spirited away to live with a family in the village of West Linton, some 16 miles outside Edinburgh.  In other words we were evacuated from the city, as many children were, such was the fear of enemy bombardment. I  apparently reacted badly to this experience, so was soon returned to my mother in Edinburgh.  My father had by then been called up, and I saw nothing of him for the next 6 years.  Lindesay was evacuated for a second time to live with her paternal grandmother in Lasswade; our encounters during the war were infrequent, and all the more memorable on the rare occasions when visits were possible.  


Throughout most of the War years, my mother was in the WAAFs, and much distracted by the war effort, and my maternal grandmother cared for me. This grandmother was a gifted pianist, a lover of Chopin and Tchaikovsky; musical talent has passed me by,  but Lindesay has this talent in abundance, as do all the younger members of our family, here tonight.


In the event, Edinburgh was spared bombardment, though we frequently heard the bombers flying overhead to deposit their cargo on the Glasgow dockyards.  I remember being put to bed in the bottom drawer of a large kitchen cabinet on one such occasion; it was all very exciting.  We of course had gas masks, ration books, one egg each per week, no bananas, and strictly enforced blackout at night.  I remember an emotional presentation at my first primary school about the siege and courageous defence of Malta in 1942. At this school, I learnt the history of the Scottish kings from Robert the Bruce to James the 6th and 1st, which was where history stopped.  I also became a wizard at mental arithmetic, which served me well in later life.


At age eight, I moved to George Watson’s Boys’ College, a Merchant Company School, where I remained for the next ten years. I found myself in a class of boys that was exceptional, although I didn’t appreciate this at the time: one became an authority on Baudelaire and tutor in French at Exeter College Oxford, another became Professor of Divinity at Newcastle, a third became Headmaster of Eton, and a fourth achieved distinction for his research on the process of memory; he was elected to the Royal Society for this work a few years ago; and so on!  Such company made for a competitive environment, from which I suffered no harm.  I did however suffer harm on the rugby field, where, being small for my age and not particularly agile, I played hooker in the 3rd fifteen, and regularly found myself crushed under a collapsing scrum! The game of golf was more to my liking.


Scottish education was broad, and, although mainly in the science stream, I was able to continue with French, English, Latin and History until taking the Scottish Higher Leaving Certificate at age 17. We then had a further year at school preparing for the Edinburgh Bursary Competition. My final term at Watson’s was enlivened by an exchange with the Lycée Henri IV in Paris.  There were five of us, clad in kilts, who went to Paris for the term, exchanging with five French boys who went the other way, each living en famille.  My host family lived in a sixth floor apartment in the Boulevard Raspail, and I walked each morning across the Jardin de Luxembourg, up the Rue Soufflot, and to the Lycée Henri IV behind the Panthéon. Remarkably, wine was served at the school lunches there, making these a spirited learning experience. I don’t remember much of the afternoon classes because we played truant much of the time in the cafés of the Boul'Mich. 


For a boy who had been raised under strict Presbyterian control, this was a liberating experience.  The redeeming feature of my Protestant upbringing was that the Minister of the Parish Church of Inveresk where we lived had a daughter named Linty, the youngest of a family of seven, who dazzled me from the age of 13. What dazzled me most was that she could dive from the 10m diving board at the huge open-air Portobello swimming pool, a feat that I could never equal.  I resolved there and then that I would marry this talented girl at the earliest opportunity.


At Edinburgh University, I was lucky to be taught by the legendary Professor A.C.Aitken, famed for his feats of numerical dexterity in the multiplication of large numbers — he could still compete and win against the primitive electronic computers of that period; also by Nicholas Kemmer, who taught mathematical physics, and W.L.Edge, who taught geometry over finite Galois fields, both former Fellows of Trinity.  Edge was intensely loyal to Trinity College, and induced a number of his students to take the Trinity Entrance Scholarship examination.  He didn’t hold out much hope for me, because geometry was not my strong subject, but he encouraged me to try for the Trinity group of Colleges, with the grudging words “You may get into Magdalene, and Babbage will be happy to teach you”. I remember staying in F1 New Court when I came to take the Scholarship exam; it was sheer bliss! In the event, I got a minor scholarship to Trinity, worth £60 a year, a fortune in those days.  My Edinburgh classmate Jim Mirrlees won a major scholarship on the same occasion, and we both matriculated in October ’57 as affiliated students to read Part II of the Mathematical Tripos. 


Jim had managed to skip the first year at Edinburgh, and came straight into the second-year class.  In the 3-hour exam at the end of his first term, he walked out after 2 hours, and we all thought Poor Jim, he can’t solve any of these difficult problems;  it turned out that he had solved them all, and saw no point in staying any longer! From that point on, his Nobel Prize was never in doubt.


While still at Edinburgh, it was necessary for me to seek gainful employment during University vacations, in order to make ends meet.  One of my vacation jobs was on night shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.,  at the Walls’ Ice Cream factory outside Edinburgh.  My task was to stand at a machine that chugged out those awful rectangular-wrapped ice-creams on a conveyor belt, pick up six of these in my left hand, transfer them to my right hand, and place them on a second conveyor belt at right angles to the first, where they were machine-wrapped in packets of six, and carried away, I knew not where.  I became literally a dab hand at this process, but after several hours, the novelty wore off.  The only way to get an unscheduled break was to drop an ice-cream into the chugging machinery, Luddite manner, thus bringing it to a grinding halt!


In the summer of 1957, I found myself in Manitoba, working on the Trans-Canada pipeline, which was then being laid some 50 miles south of Winnipeg.  This pipeline was over a metre in diameter. A huge machine first scraped the rust off with a hideous screeching noise; this was followed by another huge machine that coated the pipeline with black bituminous paint; my job was to follow close behind this machine with a bucket of boiling tar and a brush, and fill in the seams between different sections of the pipe, the parts that the machine couldn’t reach. It was exceedingly hot, the air was full of rust and the fumes of tar, and the day was very long; but the pay was good, and I earned enough in several weeks to allow me to hitch-hike the length and breadth of Canada; one of my rides was with a rich American who offered me a seat in his light aircraft for the next stage of my journey; to hitch a ride in an aircraft was an opportunity not to be missed and I readily accepted, although it took me quite a bit off my planned route!  


My Tutor when I finally arrived in Cambridge was Mark Pryor, who found an ingenious loophole in the University Ordinances that enabled me to count my second year in Cambridge both for the BA degree and as the first year of a PhD. This loophole, needless to say, was swiftly closed by the Old Schools. My research supervisor was George Batchelor, world authority on the problem of turbulence; at that time the dynamics of electrically conducting fluids was in vogue, so I opted to work at the interface between these two areas of research, on the problem of magnetohydrodynamic turbulence, a topic of great relevance both in astrophysics and in the development of plasma containment devices like the tokamak.  Batchelor was a model supervisor; I would give him screeds of immature hand-written work, which he would return to me the next day with copious marginal comments and criticisms.  Just two years earlier, he had founded the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, one of CUP’s most successful journals, and he brought a scrupulous editorial acuity to bear on any writings that were put before him. In spite of a rather austere temperament, he inspired great loyalty and affection in his students; for me, it was an intensely formative experience.  


In those days, as a research student, I owned a 1937 MG TC sports car, which I habitually parked, believe it or not, in Garret Hostel Lane, under the revolving spikes behind Bishop’s Hostel. These spikes provided a convenient entry point to the College after midnight, when entry via the Great Gate would disturb the night Porters and lead to tutorial sanctions the following day. Climbing into College was the accepted price to pay for an evening on the town!  DNA analysis of these spikes might provide fascinating evidence of past nocturnal activity.


In 1960, I managed to induce Linty to come down from Scotland for the May Ball, which was of course in June. This was a good move, because it led to our marriage before the year was out, and our first child was born nine months and a day after the wedding. Edge congratulated us on attaining the minimum within epsilon!  For the first six months of married life, we lived in a caravan off the Hills Road, next door to Hammonds' Auction Saleroom, where we bought the furniture for our first home in Chedworth Street, in the so-called ‘favoured Newnham area’; we purchased the house from Jack Hamson, Fellow of Trinity, for the princely sum of £2,200. [We have recently installed a new central-heating boiler which cost more than twice that sum!]


In 1961, to my surprise and delight, I was elected to a Teaching Fellowship at Trinity, and simultaneously to an Assistant Lectureship in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).  I should say that it took ten years before I really felt at home in this College.  The all-male public-school atmosphere when I arrived in 1957 was alien to me, after the liberated atmosphere of Edinburgh University and its Student Common Room. Things are very different now.


But revolution was already in the air in the ’60s, and things came to a head in 1968, when student unrest was a global phenomenon.  I found myself unwittingly at the centre of this in Trinity having succeeded the same Jack Hamson as Senior Treasurer of the College Union.  Some of you may remember the meeting that was held in this Hall in January ’69 under the Chairmanship of the Master, Rab Butler.  I have never been to another such meeting either before or since. It was open to all members of the College, senior and junior, and its purpose was to discuss proposals that had been prepared by the College Union Committee concerning College rules and regulations. The meeting was rowdy, and Rab, thinking he was back in the House of Commons, was in his element.  It was at this meeting that the issue of the Admission of Women was first aired; ten years elapsed before this was realised. This was rapid by Trinity standards: there was after all a Hall Lighting Committee which had been deliberating for 60 years without agreeing on a solution!  I chaired a Kitchen Reconstruction Committee during the ’80s, which laboured for several years and produced an extensive report; this Committee included a College Chaplain, Robert Atwell, now the Bishop of Exeter, for spiritual guidance! But even so, it failed to persuade a College Meeting to accept its recommendation to move the Servery from Hall to the other side of the Screens passage; as you may have noticed, this move actually did take place some 30 years later without anyone batting an eyelid, and has been judged a great success.


There was another revolution underway at that time in relation to the College Tutorial system. Until 1970, there had been just 5 undergraduate Tutors [Denis MarrianAlan KerTheo RedpathMichael Vyvyan, and Harry Williams] and they alone were responsible for all College Admissions, other than for those who got in as Entrance Scholars or Exhibitioners.  Directors of Studies rebelled at this system, since they had to teach all those who were admitted; so the whole system was overhauled with effect from 1970 after extended, acrimonious debate; thus for example, when Theo Redpath retired, his Tutorial Side of 160 pupils was split between two new Tutors, Tony Weir and myself.  I was astonished to find a remarkable proportion of Etonians in my half.  [One of them, during my first term as Tutor, distinguished himself by driving his car to Cambridge Railway station to pick up a friend; in an excess of exuberance, he drove right through the plate-glass entrance to the station and onto Platform One, causing great consternation.] The other Tutorial sides were similarly split, and an Admissions Tutor was appointed; the new Admissions procedure, which endures more or less unchanged to the present day, was thus established. 


In 1975, I found myself briefly holding the position of Senior Tutor in the College.  Indeed I think I hold the record for the briefest tenure of this Office, from January to August that year, having previously and mercifully arranged a sabbatical year in Paris from September 1975. And yet, during that eight-month’s tenure, momentous things were afoot; most notably, a College Meeting was held at which the decision to admit women as undergraduate members of the College was finally taken. It fell to me to present the proposal, which had powerful supporters. There was also powerful opposition: Patrick Duff, a former Vice-Master of the College, observed at the meeting that the College had flourished for more than 400 years as a male-only establishment, and that Henry VIII would be turning in his grave at the prospect of this monumental change.  Whereupon Piero Sraffa, our eminent Italian economist, who had been sleeping at the back of the room, suddenly roused himself and said, in his precise Italian accent: “Master: when this College was founded it was required that all Fellows be in clerical orders;  Henry VIII must surely have been leaping from his grave since that Statute was changed”.  This stirring contribution to the debate carried the day, and the motion was passed with the required two-thirds majority.  Women Fellows were admitted from 1975, Women Undergraduates from 1978, and, above all, in the current Millennium, our Woman Manciple (or should we say our Womanciple?) Maria, an appointment for which we all have reason to be grateful!


Our Council Minutes for 1975 reveal a further drama in which I, as Senior Tutor, was necessarily involved.  This concerned two young mathematicians of the College, both in statu pupillari.  Forty years have elapsed since then, and the Freedom of Information Act allows me to tell this tale; but to protect the identity of these two, I shall simply denote them by the Greek letters, Alpha and Delta. It so happened that in those days, the undergraduate mathematicians of the College were wont to engage in a harmless pursuit, whereby each would attempt to break into the locked room of another while the occupant was out, overturn the bed and the bookcase and cause a degree of havoc, then leave and relock the door as if nothing untoward had happened. Well Delta, anticipating such an invasion, set up a booby-trap before going to dinner in Hall one evening. While he was out, Alpha successfully picked the lock of Delta’s room.  As he pushed the door open, there was a minor explosion, which alerted the Porters, who, fearing a terrorist attack, called the Police. A Policeman duly arrived, entered the room, and switched on the light, triggering a second explosion, thus alerting the Cambridge Fire Brigade, who arrived forthwith and got the situation under control. The result was that Delta was charged with disturbing the peace by incendiary activity, while Alpha was not charged with anything, although it is arguable that he should have been.  Delta was, I believe, let off with a fine and a warning.


One might have thought that these two would be sufficiently chastened by this experience; however, a few weeks later they were caught in a second misdemeanour: it was considered a challenge at that time for undergraduate mathematicians to purloin, by any means, the order-of-merit from the final tripos examination, in order to determine who came first on the list, who second, and so on.  Ever since 1909, only the class-list had been published, as now, not the detailed order-of-merit, which was a closely guarded secret. Well it so happened that on the night of 13th June 1975, the very same Alpha and Delta were apprehended, seeking to break into the DAMTP office of the Chairman of Examiners, with a view, as they later confessed, to merely borrowing for a brief moment the order-of-merit for the recent Part II examination; just long enough, that is, to make use of the nearby Xerox machine.  The matter naturally came before the College Council who understandably rusticated both Alpha and Delta for a year, with the unforeseen consequence that they just had an extra year to prepare for their subsequent research careers. Delta is now a distinguished Professor of Information Technology in the West of England; while Alpha is an authority in the field of Security Engineering in this University.


Master, time does not permit me to relate  all that I have been involved in since these heady days. In any case, the miracle of the Internet makes this unnecessary, because I have set out the highlights for all to see on my personal website.  I would like however to conclude by reciting to you, with your consent, or indeed without it, a version of an old Scots ballad, “The Twa Corbies”, which, being translated, means “The Two Crows”; some of you may be familiar with this, or with an inflationary English version “The Three Ravens”. This version that I shall recite was discovered on a scrap of parchment during an exploration of the Whewell’s Court cellars that I conducted with Dr Seal in October 1967, with a view to possible renovation;  the parchment has been carbon-dated with remarkable accuracy to the 1st of April 1865, when Whewell’s Court was under construction. This ballad has sombre undertones;  but it also has historic interest in that it provides clear evidence that the practice of the ‘buzz’ in the Combination Room (whereby he who drains a decanter of port is entitled to the first glass from the next bottle to be opened) was already well established by 1865. Here then is this curious ballad: 

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 07.16.42.png

Master, on that comforting note, I will terminate this discourse, but I would like to thank you again, on behalf of my family, for hosting this dinner. I thank you all for coming, and I particularly thank the College Staff for the huge support that they have always provided, and the Catering Manager, Chef and Kitchen Staff for providing such an excellent dinner.

Keith Moffatt

24 April 2015