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It's time for a chick to hold the Lucasian Chair

By Marko Beljac - posted Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Lucasian Professorship in Mathematics at the University of Cambridge has become not only one of the most prestigious professorships in science but indeed of all academia. The Chair is now vacant, following the announced retirement of its current incumbent Stephen Hawking.

The University of Cambridge has put a call out for applicants, looking especially for theoretical physicists.

The position was created by Henry Lucas, hence the Lucasian Professorship, in 1663. Holders of the chair include a who's who of some of history's greatest thinkers, who have done so much to shape not only our understanding of nature, but of the modern world. The first incumbent was Isaac Barrow who played a very important role in the early development of calculus, the gateway to higher mathematics, an essential tool for understanding natural and social processes.


The most well known fictional holder of the Lucasian chair was Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation as depicted in the final episode “All Good Things ...” That I remember the relevant scene with such fondness, alas, may well tell a little bit too much about me.

The fact that the chair is a Cambridge chair very much helped to cement the University of Cambridge as the science university in comparison to its rival the University of Oxford, more noted for educating the political elite not only of the United Kingdom but of a good part of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Of course, the most well known holder of the Lucasian chair has been Isaac Newton, who gave us classical mechanics, the inverse square law of gravitation and, together with Gottfried Leibniz, the calculus. Much of Newton's work was presented in perhaps the greatest text of all time his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The influence that Newton has had on the development of the modern world-view has been immense.

Newton's bitter and fierce feud with Leibniz on priority for the development of the calculus has gone down in history as one of the greatest intellectual bust ups of all time. The fact that Newton held the Lucasian chair accounts for much of its overall mystique.

Other noted holders of the Lucasian professorship include Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac. Babbage played a very important role in the development of the modern computer, further developing some work of Leibniz. He proposed the development of an automatic computational machine, what he called the analytical engine, which he was not actually able to build given the technological limitations of his era. However, his vision of developing such a machine helped to inspire others such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann who went on to play seminal roles in ushering in the computer revolution that, as any reader of this website would be well aware, has done so much to shape modern life.

Paul Dirac was one of the most fascinating characters in all of physics, where there has existed no appreciable shortage of curious characters. Dirac is most well known for his key contributions to the development of quantum mechanics, especially the Dirac equation. It was the Dirac equation that predicted a new particle, essentially an opposite charged companion of the electron, known as the positron. It was the positron and the Dirac equation that lead to our discovery of anti-matter.


Dirac was an incredibly quiet and logical person. Although he was very taciturn, this merely hid strongly held opinions. His views have been re-told in Crease and Mann's delightful The Second Creation: "Dirac had violently colored political views; with passionately lofty detachment, he told his Continental colleagues that there was no reason for the poor to suffer, that he saw little purpose in rewarding the greedy with wealth, and that organized religion was a ludicrous sham."

It was indeed fortuitous that Dirac did not hold a professorship at the University of Oxford.

The most obvious candidate to succeed Stephen Hawking would be Ed Witten, currently at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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