A Brief History of The Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at Cambridge University.Robert Bruen Boston College May 1995
An important Professorship of Mathematick was deeded in December 1663 at Cambridge University, England, as a result of a gift from Henry Lucas, M.P. for the university. The Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics is the most famous academic chair in the world. This is due in no small part to the current holder of the chair, Professor Stephen Hawking, who is a well known theoretical physicist, and Sir Isaac Newton who was the second holder of the chair. What is not so commonly known is that the chair has been held by others who represent the best and most influential minds in science and technology the world has known. As a group, the seventeen men who have held the chair have made a unique contribution to the world. The three hundred thirty years that have passed since its founding have seen a dramatic evolution of science. The Chair represents a microcosm of the world's progress over the last three centuries, from the Scientific Revolution to the world of technology that we know today.
An important professorship of mathematick , the Lucasian Chair, was deeded in December 1663 at Cambridge University, England. Henry Lucas, a Member of Parliament for the university from 1639 to 1640, left instructions in his will for the purchase of land with a value that would provide an annual income of 100 pounds to support the professorship. King Charles II signed the letter of acceptance of the deed on January 18, 1664 and Isaac Barrow, the first professor to occupy the Chair, took office in February, 1664. He gave the first lecture on March 14, 1664.[Christianson 1984] All undergraduates were required to attend the Lucasian lectures starting in their third year. The Lucasian Chair celebrated the 330th anniversary of its founding December 1993.
The Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics is probably the most famous academic chair in the world.[Lucasian Chair 1932] The current holder, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, is as well known as any living scientist. His book, A Brief History of Time , stayed on the New York Times best seller list for years, rare for scientific works of this nature.[Hawking 1988] He also appeared on a popular television series, appeared on the cover of several non-scientific, popular magazines and has been the subject of a film. The Chair was also held by Sir Isaac Newton, who is as well known as anyone in the history of science.
The Chair was recently thrust into the public eye in the last episode of the popular television series Star Trek The Next Generation in May 1994. The series takes place in the twenty-fourth century. This episode finds the android character, Data, appearing as the Lucasian Professor in Sir Isaac Newton's home at Cambridge. In a previous episode dealing with time, Stephen Hawking appeared as himself, playing poker with Data, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. One can only wonder what Newton and Einstein would have thought about that.
What is not so well known known is that the Chair has been held by others who represent some of the best and most influential minds in science and technology the world has known. The three hundred thirty years that have passed since its founding have seen a dramatic evolution of science. The chair represents a microcosm of the world's progress over the past three centuries, from the Scientific Revolution to the world of technology that we know today. The Chair's story began a mere twenty-one years after the death of Galileo.
The story of academic chairs is an old one originating in the days of patronage. The earliest chair of mathematics in England was established for geometry at Gresham College by Robert Gresham in 1596.[Eves 1969] Cambridge University has a rich history of chairs, starting with the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity, founded by the mother of Henry VII in 1502. For an annual salary of just under 14 pounds, the professor was required to give public readings of approved theological works four days a week.
The five Regius Professorships of Divinity, Greek, Hebrew, Law and Physic (medicine, not physics) were founded in 1540 by Henry VIII. Each professorship commanded a salary of 40 pounds.[Winstanley 1935] The Lucasian Professorship was the next chair to be endowed at Cambridge University, almost 125 years later. It was followed in 1704 by the founding of the Plumian Professorship of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy. The Archdeacon of Rochester, Thomas Plume, had left 1900 pounds for this purpose. The bequest required that an observatory be built along with housing for the professor.
The Lucasian Chair is one of mathematics, the foundation of science and engineering, and therefore the chair has been a focus of many fields. At the time of its foundation, mathematics was undergoing major changes, with a concentration on the development of calculus. Physics was at the threshold of a revolution under the guiding hand of Isaac Newton.
Table 1 lists the names, years and disciplines of the professors who have held the Lucasian Chair. Although they all began as mathematicians, several specialized in fields other than mathematics.
|Professor||Life Dates||Chair Dates||Specialty|
|Isaac Barrow||1630-1677||1664-1669||Classics & Mathematics|
|Sir Isaac Newton||1642-1727||1669-1702||Mathematics & Physics|
|Isaac Milner||1750-1820||1798-1820||Mathematics & Chemistry|
|Sir George Airy||1801-1892||1826-1828||Astronomy|
|Charles Babbage||1792-1871||1828-1839||Mathematics & Computing|
|Sir George Stokes||1819-1903||1849-1903||Physics & Fluid Mechanics|
|Sir Joseph Larmor||1857-1942||1903-1932||Physics|
|Sir M. James Lighthill||1924-1998||1969-1980||Fluid Mechanics|
|Stephen Hawking||1942-||1980-2009||Theoretical Physics|
The Royal Society of London and the Lucasian Chair have had a strong connection from their earliest days. Founded only a few years before the Lucasian Chair, the Society has contributed a substantial amount to the advancement of science since its founding in 1660. One of the great contributions has been its journal Philosophical Transactions. All holders of the Chair have been members of the Royal Society except three: William Whiston, Thomas Turton and Joshua King. William Whiston was kept out by Newton because of the heresy problem. Turton put his efforts into religion and not mathematics, placing himself outside of the Society's interest. King never did any work that would have qualified him for membership. Isaac Newton, George Airy, and George Stokes were presidents of the Royal Society. Airy, Stokes, Joseph Larmor, and M. James Lighthill were vice-presidents; and Stokes, Larmor, and Lighthill were secretaries. The Royal Society recognizes individuals by awarding medals. Its Copley Medal is its highest honor and has been given to Edward Waring, Airy, Stokes, Larmor, and Paul Dirac. The Royal Medal has been given to Airy, Larmor, and Dirac, the Rumford Medal to Stokes and the Hughes Medal to Stephen Hawking.
Besides the Royal Society, there have been many awards, prizes, honors and other recognitions. Paul Dirac won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933. Newton, Stokes and Larmor represented Cambridge University in parliament. Besides Newton, Airy, Stokes, Larmor and Lighthill were all knighted.
At Cambridge University, the top student in mathematics is selected from the graduating class by a series of examinations and is given the title senior wrangler. From the time of Waring, the sixth Chair holder, through Larmor, the fourteenth holder, everyone of the Lucasian professors was the senior wrangler of his class. The was no title before Waring, and after Larmor, most of the professors did not attend Cambridge as undergraduates. In general, those selected for the Chair were among the best mathematicians at Cambridge.
17th Century. The Foundation
The seventeenth century in Britain was one of religious and political turmoil. The first Lucasian Professor, Isaac Barrow, was accomplished in the classics, theology, geometry, and optics. He provided an excellent bridge from the old world to the new. He also was forced to spend a few years on the Grand Tour of Europe to avoid difficulties with the religious establishment at Cambridge. His edition of Euclid's geometry was used as a textbook for at least fifty years. He had two bachelor's degrees and a master's from Cambridge, and a second master's from Oxford, plus a doctorate. He had held the posts of the Regius Professor of Greek and the Gresham Professor of Geometry before becoming Lucasian Professor. He was later master of Trinity College and vice-chancellor of Cambridge. His chief scientific work was the creation of a mathematical theory of optical imagery. He was the first to have a general solution to the problem of finding focal and image points for all lenses. He was also one of Newton's teachers.[Feingold 1990]
Sir Isaac Newton, holding the Professorship from 1669 to 1702, needs no introduction. His work, still valuable today some 300 years later, covers a number of fields, but he is best remembered for his Principia, where he expressed his three laws of motion and the principle of universal gravity. His work in optics, however, could have been reason enough for a place in the history books, as was his work on the establishment of calculus. He involved himself in alchemy, magnetism, biblical history, and eventually became Warden of the Mint. He was a grand genius that combined with Barrow, set the stage for a great tradition of the Chair.[Christianson 1984]
18th Century. The Mathematicians.
The 18th century in Britain was period where government and society created the foundation for the modern era. The first daily and Sunday newspapers were published, the laws against witchcraft were repealed, bank notes were printed for the first time and Britain switched to the Gregorian calendar. A new building at 10 Downing Street was erected to house the Prime Minister. Britain began its colonization of the world in earnest, and the Industrial Revolution hit at the end of the century. This century is also known for a period of loyalty to Newton and not for development in mathematics. On the continent, mathematics was moving forward with introduction of pi, e for the natural logarithm, and i for the square root of negative one. Other advances such as Fourier transforms, Poisson distributions, differential equations and Euler's equations in fluid mechanics took place at a fast pace. In England, one can only say that this was a time of consolidation and systematizing of known mathematics.
This century started out with William Whiston, a very vocal mathematician, taking the Chair in 1703. He published his religious works in English, thereby increasing his audience and his visibility beyond the confines of the ivory tower. This visibility coupled with his beliefs resulted in his being labeled as a heretic and eventually he was ejected from the Lucasian Chair. Religion was still a very touchy subject and conformity was important. In the scientific area, Whiston published his own edition of Euclid, works on astronomy, earth science, longitude and was an expert on Newton. He established the tradition of teaching Newton's work at Cambridge. His religious work covered prophecy, Primitive Christianity, biblical history and explanations of biblical events, such as the great flood, using science especially astronomy. He published close to one hundred books and papers.[Farrell 1980]
Whiston was followed by Nicolas Saunderson in 1711, who spent his time teaching algebra. It was said that he was preferred for the Lucasian Chair because he had no religion, following Whiston, who had too much. His only published work was produced at the end of his life and only with strong encouragement from his friends. He had not been able to attend the university because of his blindness, a consequence of smallpox at the age of one, but he had been educated with help from his family and friends. He held the Chair for about twenty-eight years, until his death, helping to stabilize it after the Whiston Affair. King George II was so impressed with him, he conferred a doctorate on him. Saunderson invented a device for calculations using pins placed in the eight positions on a square at the corners and midpoints of each side, and one more point at the center. He used a larger pin to represent one. to represent numbers, he would move the pin to new positions around the perimeter, using several of these squares for large numbers and calculations.[Tattersall 1992]
The next chair holder was John Colson in 1739, another mathematician with some special qualities, but not at the level of Newton. Colson was mainly an educator and interpreter of mathematics for other people. He translated and taught Newton. He also translated numerous works into English from Latin, French, and Italian, notably, the first calculus book written by a woman, Maria Agnesi of Italy. The Witch of Agnesi is named for her, however witch should have been translated by Colson as curve, ie. the Curve of Agnesi. His original work is limited to three papers with solutions to quadratic equations, a map conversion between a flat surface and a spherical surface and the third explaining his negative-affirmative arithmetic. His other translations were of Newton, geometry, navigation, linear perspective and sailing by Mercator's principles. He also translated books on natural philosophy, experimental philosophy and a dictionary of the Bible.[Dictionary of National Biography]
The last professor in the 18th century was Edward Waring assuming the Chair in 1760. He was a prodigy in mathematics who produced some interesting work, which was understood for many years. He never lectured even though it was a requirement for holding the professorship because he and the university believed that his work was too advanced for students. He did deposit his written lectures into the library as required, however. He also received an MD degree, but did very little medical work. Waring produced a number of theorems and problems, some without proofs, just statements noting that he knew what was true. For example he published Goldbach's Theorem (every even number is the sum of two primes and every odd number is either prime or the sum of three primes) before Goldbach. He is best remembered for Waring's Problem (each positive integer is the sum of four squares, nine cubes, 19 fourth powers, and so on), later generalized and proved by David Hilbert in 1909.[Weeks 1991]
19th Century. The Search for Stability.
The 19th century was an unsettled one for England and the Chair. There were many chair holders with short tenures, from several different disciplines. England itself was undergoing change with serious growing pains. Where the previous century placed the foundation for the modern era, this century put up the structure in rapid fashion. The most telling statistic was in the population growth. The city of London alone added more people than were added to all of Britain in the previous century. The overall population of Britain went from about 10 million to almost 30 million. The rate of growth did not level off until the 1920s. War, empire expansion and emigration were hallmarks for Britain during the 1800s. On the positive side, labor unions were legalized, gas lights were installed on public streets and the Atlantic cable to America was completed. In 1850 the first Royal Commission to reform the universities was established and in 1871, the religious tests for university entrance were finally eliminated. This was also the century where x-rays were discovered, anesthesia was used, plastic was created and the word technology was used for the first time by Jacob Bigelow in 1829 in his book The Elements of Technology.
At Cambridge Isaac Milner was in the Lucasian Chair (1798) starting off this century. His performance on the Tripos examinations to determine the senior wrangler was so spectacular, the examiners left a blank line in the record books after his name to distinguish him from the rest of the candidates. His publications were in teaching, algebra, physics, chemistry and religion. He was the first person to oxidize ammonia producing nitric acid. He invented a number of practical items, such as a water clock that could seen in the dark and a lamp that would focus light for reading. He had been the first Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy, primarily for chemistry. This bequest allowed for the construction of the first building at Cambridge designed specifically for science teaching. Lectures were first given in chemistry and botany. He was also vice-chancellor of the university on two occasions and president of Queens College. He was very involved in developing the university press wishing to insure that everything printed by them would be sold to the public at reasonable prices.[Milner 1842]
In 1820, Milner was succeeded by Robert Woodhouse, another mathematician, whose greatest contribution was to begin the movement to drop Newton's calculus notation in favor of the notation of Leibniz. The damage done to Britain in the previous century was more than he could tolerate. Charles Babbage and George Peacock, were two of his students. They later founded the Analytical Society which helped the same cause. He only held the Chair for two years, giving it up for the Plumian Chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy. He published the first book in England on differential notation that was now common on the continent. He made a chart comparing the various forms to demonstrate the superiority of the "foreign" notation in another publication. He was also one the of the earliest proponents of the history of science as a method for teaching. He wrote an early history of calculus in addition to work in trigonometry and astronomy.[Becher 80]
Following Woodhouse, Thomas Turton was installed as Lucasian Professor in 1822. Although he was the senior wrangler when he graduated Cambridge, he did not publish any mathematical work while in the Chair, preferring to publish scholarly religious works for four years until he gave up the Lucasian Chair to become the Regius Professor of Divinity.[Dictionary of National Biography]
Sir George Airy took the Professorship next, unfortunately only for two years, 1826 to 1828. He was an astronomer of considerable note who moved from the Lucasian Chair to the Plumian Chair of Astronomy after Woodhouse passed away. He moved from there seven years later to become the Astronomer Royal, which he held until his death. He published over 500 books, papers and reports during his lifetime, averaging one every six weeks for 63 years. He was the man who designed lenses to correct astigmatism, because he suffered from it and needed to see well. He also published work on Roman history and Biblical history.[Airy 1896]
After Airy, Charles Babbage was elected to the Professorship. He is certainly an important figure in the history of computing with his Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine, but he was also a polymath who worked in many areas of mathematics and outside of mathematics. His work covered cryptanalysis, probability, actuarial science, astronomy, economics and religion to name a few. He never resided at Cambridge, only appearing to oversee examinations. He quit the Chair after ten years to devote himself to the development of his engines. He was an extraordinary individual who was not appreciated in his own time.[Babbage 1864]
The next professor was Joshua King who provided the low point of scholarship for the Chair. He published nothing during his tenure, spending his time mainly on administrative tasks. The Chair was used as a sinecure for about ten years by King.[Boas 1965]
After almost a half century of chaos, Sir George Stokes took the Chair in 1849. He is well known for his part in the Navier-Stokes equations in fluid dynamics. He restored the Lucasian Chair to the level that Newton had established. He held the Chair longer than anyone, fifty-four years, concluding the search for stability. He is credited with the establishment of the Cambridge school of mathematical physics, a high point of British mathematics for this century. He published over 100 papers on viscosity, waves, light, hydrodynamics and periodic series to mention just a few areas.[Rayleigh 1905]
20th Century. The Physicists.
Stokes was the beginning of the line of physicists the have occupied the Chair for the last one hundred and fifty years. He marks the transition from the time when science and philosophy were closely coupled, so when the question of the universe came up, the same person could ask what it is, as well as why it is. In the twentieth century, those who describe what the universe is, are only a small number of people, although many more can ask why. The physical description is very technical and very mathematical, taking the process far away from the most of us. Our century has been witness to amazing things, such as the airplane, the atomic bomb, computing, television, the verification of the Standard Model in physics, and DNA. We have walked on the moon. The Lucasian Chair has had its hand in some of these important developments.
Sir Joseph Lamor was a distinguished physicist who made significant contributions to electron theory, among many other contributions to physics. He took the Chair the same year as the Wright brothers took to the air. Two years later Albert Einstein began publishing his revolutionary work in relativity. He was the last Lucasian Professor to be senior wrangler, but a further distinction was that he topped J. J. Thomson in the examinations. At the time, there was still significant discussion of the aether because Maxwellian electromagnetic theory needed the aether, but the Michelson--Morley aether drift experiment had caused more than a few questions to be asked. Larmor started modifications to aether theory which eventually led to its complete demise. He is generally seen as the last of the great nineteenth century physicists.[Eddington 1942]
Paul Dirac, one of the great minds in physics during the 20th century and probably for all time assumed the Chair in 1932. He was a theorist who expressed his belief in beauty of mathematics and physical existence. His theoretical proposal of anti-matter was a major contribution, as was his theoretical explanation of particle spin, but he contributed much more than that over his lifetime. He was a prolific writer with hundreds of publications. The first course in quantum mechanics in Britain was offered by Dirac. He is immortalized by the Dirac equation which describe the motion of the electron. At one time, his work led many to believe that there was nothing left to figure out in physics, only to fill in the details.[Kragh 1990]
Sir M. James Lighthill, whose area is fluid mechanics, held the Chair from 1969 to 1980 and sees himself following in the tradition of Sir George Stokes. Lighthill has had a long career with many interests, but probably the most important was his contributions to the understanding of noise production in jet engines, so that it could be lowered, helping the civilian aircraft industry in Britain to get off the ground. He is still working today with NASA on the High Speed Civil Transport project. Lighthill believes "for elderly professors like me, it's almost one of our jobs to keep reminding people of the wonderful things that were really discovered long ago by some of these people. You have to somehow keep the collective memory of science alive."[Flanagan 1995]
Stephen Hawking is the current Lucasian Professor. He is well known for his work in trying to find the bridge between the very small (quantum theory) and the very large (gravitation). His work was begun by Sir Isaac Newton who presented the first real understanding of gravity. The theories are each acceptable by themselves, but are not consistent with each other. Hawking has also worked to help the average person get a glimpse into the highly technical world of the theoretical physicist with his Brief History of Time in book form, film and CD-ROM. He is well known for his work on black holes, time, and other universes.[White 1992]
When the Chair was founded in 1663, people had only just begun to understand what the world was made of. Chemical elements were not yet discovered. Mathematics had yet to have calculus as a true tool. There were no thoughts of atom smashing, quarks, relativity or anti-matter. The three hundred and thirty years which have passed have witnessed changes in mathematics, science, technology, philosophy, religion and government. It is notable that the universities have not changed quite so much. One can still go to Cambridge to see where Newton spent his time. One can even see his original works in the Cambridge library and at the Royal Society. The lineage of the professors who held the Lucasian Chair is unbroken from a time since before the United States was a sovereign nation.
The contributions of this Chair can be seen in several ways. Naturally the first is the contribution of each of the Chair's individual professors. Secondly, the tradition of the Chair itself is a contribution. People need a place to work, a focal point of some kind. The university environment has historically been a place, not just for learning (a student's perspective), but also a place for "professing" (a professor's perspective). There is an expectation that both are completely compatible. With people knowing, learning and teaching, this place acquires a third role, that of the keeper of knowledge over the centuries, so that new knowledge will come to this place to be shared with those who wish to learn.
The traditions of knowledge are important for their own sake, not just for immediate application. The real value is over long periods of time. This is important for many reasons, but paramount is the amount of time it takes to create new knowledge, incorporate it and disseminate it. Without chairs, such as the Lucasian Chair, it will be difficult for universities to resist the temptation to offer programs without content to simply keep a positive cash flow. With all the uncertainty of the future, there is hope that the success of the past will continue. It will be a very interesting occasion when a successor to Professor Hawking is chosen and to see how he will fit into history.
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