Newton Institute

I served as Director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences for five years (1996-2001) in succession to Sir Michael Atiyah OM FRS.  It may be useful to place on record my  reminiscences  concerning the first 10 years of the Institute, 1991-2001.  An earlier version of these reminiscences was deposited with the University of Cambridge on 15 October 2009

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1. The Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences (INI) was founded by the University of Cambridge in 1991 under the Directorship of Sir Michael Atiyah OM FRS, who was simultaneously Master of Trinity College and President of the Royal Society.  In these circumstances, the time that he could devote to the Institute was very limited, and much of the burden of responsibility was in effect carried by the Deputy Director, Professor Peter Goddard FRS, who had played a crucial role in making the case for the foundation of the Institute both within the University, and to external funding bodies, notably EPSRC and the London Mathematical Society (LMS).

2. The Institute building was designed by the architect Duncan Annand, and built during the year 1991/2 on land on Clarkson Road provided by St John’s College.  The first two programmes of the Institute ran in parallel from July to December 1992.  I was coordinator of one of these programmes (Dynamo theory). The other (Low-dimensional topology and quantum field theory) was coordinated by Professor Raymond Lickorish (DPMMS).  The Institute was formally opened by the Chancellor HRH Prince Philip on 30th October 1992, while these programmes were in full swing.

3. Sir Michael had approached Lord (Victor) Rothschild, who was an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, for support for the Institute when it was still at an early planning stage.  This led to a donation of £250k to support a succession of ‘Visiting Rothschild Professors’ to the Institute, a donation made on behalf of  NM Rothschild & Sons by its Chairman,  Sir Evelyn de Rothschild,  in 1991 following Victor’s death in 1990. 

4. Peter Goddard resigned as Deputy Director in December 1994 on his appointment as Master of St John’s College.  Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer FRS held the fort until my appointment as Director from 1st October 1996. During my tenure, I continued to hold my Professorship in DAMTP, and the University continued to pay my salary.

5. My main concern in October 1996 concerned the finances of the Institute, and I had bargained with the University over the preceding months (as a condition of my accepting appointment) to provide some limited financial guarantees. The Scientific Programmes of the Institute were running well, and some good proposals for future programmes were under consideration by the Scientific Steering Committee. The major problem was to provide adequate funding for these programmes, and to establish a sound financial platform for the longer-term future.

6. My first step was to appeal to the Isaac Newton Trust, which had provided support during the initial years.  In January 1997, the Trust agreed to provide an interest-free loan of £1m, this loan to be convertible to endowment, subject to the raising of a matching sum from external sources. This provided invaluable leverage in subsequent approaches that I made later that year.

7. In particular, I approached NM Rothschild & Sons in the hope that they would at the least be prepared to extend their support of the visiting Professorship scheme, which had been very successful. By lucky chance, 1997 happened to be the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the original Rothschild (Nathan Meyer) in England, and the bank wanted to mark this bicentenary in special ways. In the end, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild agreed to donate £1.75m towards the endowment of a Rothschild Professorship, this Chair to be held in conjunction with the Directorship of the Newton Institute. This was a marvellous breakthrough, which immediately met the condition of the Newton Trust (paragraph 6 above) and provided some security for the future.  The endowment, announced in May 1998, was built up over the subsequent 4-year period, being completed in time for the appointment of my successor Sir John Kingman FRS in 2001, the first N.M.Rothschild & Sons Professor of the University.   

8. One of our participants in the programme “Mathematics of Atmosphere and Ocean Dynamics” (July to December 1996) was Professor Ian Roulstone (University of Reading).  He was conscious of my need to raise funds, and kindly introduced me to his bell-ringing friend Dill Faulkes. I invited Dill to Cambridge early in 1997, and struck up a friendship with him.  He was indeed interested in the work of the Newton Institute, and said that he might be able to help, although not for some time. I kept him informed about all new developments at the Institute, and it was early in 1999 that Dill made his wonderfully generous donation of £1m to the Institute.  He was keen that this should be used for ‘bricks and mortar’, and we therefore used the donation for the construction of the Faulkes Gatehouse (part of the Cullinan complex), providing much needed expansion space.  This building was completed and ready for use in 2001 (by which time Dill had, through his continuing relationship with the Newton Institute, made a further munificent donation of £2.5m to the University towards construction of the Geometry Pavilion on the CMS site).

9. A considerable boost to our fund-raising activity at the Newton Institute was provided by the award of a Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 1998.  This was the third round of these prizes, and the first occasion on which a submission had been made with the approval and on behalf of the University of Cambridge. The prize was awarded at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in February 1999; this photograph shows Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on that occasion with myself and Sir Alec (now Lord) Broers, then Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University.


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10. Following review by EPSRC in 1997 (chaired, as chance would have it, by Sir John Kingman, at that time Vice Chancellor of Bristol University) the rolling grant of the Institute was extended to February 2002.  During 1998, we engaged in intensive follow-up discussion with EPSRC concerning future modes of funding beyond 2002, including the possibility, favoured for a time by EPSRC, of funding on a programme-by-programme basis. This would have posed very grave problems for the Institute, but fortunately our arguments for an adequate funding horizon prevailed, and in April 1999 EPSRC agreed to extend the rolling grant to February 2008, subject to triennial review in 2002 and 2005.  This most welcome news paved the way for the appointment of Sir John Kingman as my successor in office, more than covering the period of his tenure 2001-2006. 

11. In 1999, we undertook the design of twelve Posters in the Underground as our contribution to World Mathematical Year 2000.  This project was funded by EPSRC’s Public Awareness Initiative.  The posters appeared month-by-month during 2000 in trains of the London Underground.  They proved very popular, and have been widely distributed to schools and Universities, not only in the UK, but also in South-East Asia, Australia and USA (in slightly modified form).  

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Poster design © Andrew Burbanks.

12. In 2000, I approached Robin Fleming, Director of the Robert Fleming Investment Trust, and a distant relative of my wife. This led to a most welcome donation of £240k from the PF Charitable Trust, spread over 4 years, to be used preferentially for the support of  participants from Scotland in Institute programmes.

13. We also received a generous bequest (amounting ultimately to just over £1m) from a donor in USA who wished to remain anonymous.  He had corresponded with me about 18 months before his death, concerning the possibility of making such a bequest.  His will specified that the residue of his estate should be divided equally between the Royal Society and the Newton Institute, which I took to be a fitting tribute to the Newton Institute during my final year of office!

14. Twenty-eight scientific programmes were held during the period of my Directorship, spanning the physical, biological and engineering sciences (see Appendix). These attracted a total of more than 1000 long-stay participants and more than 5000 additional short-stay participants in Workshops held within these programmes.

15. I was fortunate to have two outstanding Deputy Directors during my five years at the Institute: Noah Linden for the first three, Robert Hunt for the last two. They were an unfailing source of help and moral support. I was also fortunate to have a wonderfully committed and loyal staff who ensured the smooth operation of the Institute in all its wide-ranging activities.

hkm  3 September 2013

Appendix:  Newton Institute Programmes, October 1996 — September 2001  

Six-month programmes:

Atmosphere and Ocean Dynamics 1996

Representation Theory of Algebraic Groups  and Related Finite Groups 1997

Non-Perturbative Aspects of Quantum Field Theory 1997

Disordered Systems and Quantum Chaos 1997

Neural Networks and Machine Learning 1997

Dynamics of Astrophysical Discs 1998

Biomolecular Function and Evolution in the Context of the Genome Project 1998  

Arithmetic Geometry 1998

Nonlinear and Nonstationary Signal Processing 1998

Turbulence 1999

Structure Function in the Universe 1999

Ergodic Theory, Geometric Rigidity and Number Theory 2000   

Strongly Correlated Electron Systems 2000

Singularity Theory 2000 

Integrable Systems 2001

Symmetric Functions and Macdonald Polynomials 2001

Nonlinear Partial Differential Equations 2001

Four-month programmes:

Mathematics and Applications of Fractals 1999

Complexity, Computation and the Physics of Information 1999

Solid Mechanics and Material Science 1999

Geometry and Topology of Fluid Flows 2000

From Individual to Collective Behaviour in Biological    Systems 2001

Short programmes:

Planckton Population Dynamics 1996

Four-dimensional Geometry and Quantum Field Theory 1996

Free Boundary Problems in Industry 2000

Quantized Vortex Dynamics and Superfluid Turbulence 2000

Managing Uncertainty – New Analysis Tools for Insurance, Economics and Finance 2001

Surface Water Waves 2001