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Isaac Newton was the most famous Lucasian Professor, but many other colourful figures have also occupied ‘Newton’s Chair’. Bonhams/Wikimedia

From Newton to Hawking and beyond: a short history of the Lucasian Chair

On July 1 physicist Michael Cates will be the 19th person to sit in what is perhaps the most prestigious “chair” in science when he assumes the post of the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.

Although sometimes called “Newton’s chair” after its most famous holder, Sir Isaac was not the only brilliant mind, nor the most colourful individual, to occupy the post.

The Lucasian Chair was founded in 1663 at the bequest of Henry Lucas (1640-1648), who was a member of Parliament for Cambridge University. In his will, he provided “a yearly stipend and salarie for a professor […] of mathematicall sciences in the said Vniversitie” to “honor that greate body” and assist “that parte of learning which hitherto hath not bin provided for”.

The Lucasian Chair has been held by a fascinating procession of scientists, including

It also has the unusual distinction of having been held by a famous – though fictitious and wholly artificial person – Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, in the series’ final episode, “All Good Things…”. But that is another quantum timeline.

Smart seat

The first Lucasian Professor, Isaac Barrow, held both the Regius Professorship of Greek and Gresham Chair in geometry.

Sadly, Barrow’s early ardour for mathematics had waned by the time he took up the Chair in 1663. His “method of tangents”, though, was seen as ground breaking at the time. This proto-calculus set the scene for his brilliant successor: Isaac Newton.

Newton was elected to the Chair after his anni mirabiles of 1666. According to William Stukeley’s 1752 biography, that is the year Newton inferred the law of gravity by observing an apple falling in his orchard as he “sat in contemplative mood”.

While Lucasian Professor, Newton developed his most important contributions to science, in particular the masterpieces Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) and Opticks (1704).

At the time of Newton’s election in 1669, the Lucasian Chair was one of eight Chairs at Cambridge. The Lucasian Professor is elected, then as now. The election is made by the masters of the Colleges at Cambridge, with the vice chancellor able to break a deadlock if required.

An uneven history

Despite its prestige, the history of the Chair is not one of undiluted greatness.

The stories of the post-Newtonian Chairs of William Whiston (from 1702 to 1710), Nicholas Saunderson (1711 to 1739), John Colson (1739 to 1760), Edward Waring (1760 to 1798) and Isaac Milner (1798 to 1820) was largely one of translating, teaching, expanding and developing the great works of former Chair-holder, Newton.

In the latter half of the 19th century, as science became the arena of professional scientists rather than dilettante gentlemen, the Lucasian Chair was sometimes used as a stepping stone to more lucrative or important positions.

Robert Woodhouse (Chair from 1820 to 1822) lasted only two years in the post. He was rewarded for his “conformity” by securing the Plumian Chair of mathematics and the directorship of the Cambridge astronomical observatory.

His successor, Thomas Turton (from 1822 to 1826), described as “mathematically inert and utterly reliable”, departed to the more prestigious Regius Chair of Divinity (founded in 1540 by Henry VIII) and better paid dean-ships, eventually becoming the Bishop of Ely.

Dirac and the quantum age

Nevertheless, while the term might not apply to all holders of the Chair, Paul Dirac (from 1932 to 1969), was indisputably brilliant. In fact, Dirac personified the stereotype of the lone genius.

Paul Dirac was one of the more brilliant Lucasian Professors. He predicted the existence of antimatter before it was first detected. Nobel Foundation

Einstein said of him: “This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful.”

By the age of 26, Dirac had, in the period from 1925 to 1928, developed his own theory of quantum mechanics and relativistic quantum theory of the electron, as well as predicted the existence of antimatter.

Dirac, like Newton, also made significant contributions to science in his tenure as Lucasian Professor. According to John Polkinghorne, Dirac was once asked about his most fundamental belief, upon which, “he strode to a blackboard and wrote that the laws of nature should be expressed in beautiful equations”.

Hawking: the stopgap professor?

Of the more recent holders of the Lucasian Chair, it is the name of Stephen Hawking, who held the Professorship for three decades from 1979 to 2009, that has become most synonymous with the post – and a household name at that.

In an interview with Hélène Mialet, Hawking said he always assumed he was elected as a stopgap professor because he was not expected to live a long time and his “work would not disgrace the standards expected of the Lucasian chair”.

Nonetheless he confounded his doctors and held the chair until the retirement age of 67.

Hawking had, at the time of his election, hoped the Chair might go to a brilliant scientist who was not already affiliated with or educated at Cambridge. This would have been a remarkable change.

Holders of the Lucasian Chair have all been Cambridge graduates, in addition to being male and British. Only Dirac and Hawking have undergraduate degrees from a university other than Cambridge (Bristol and Oxford, respectively). Dirac alone was not of British birth – he was a Swiss national, though born in England in 1902 and acquiring British nationality in 1919.

The quality of Hawking’s scientific output puts this “stopgap professor” in the Lucasian top-three league, along with Newton and Dirac.

Incidentally, Stephen Hawking played a game of poker with Star Trek’s Data – the fictitious future Lucasian Chair – along with fellow Chair Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein (the latter played by actors, of course) in Star Trek: the Next Generation’s episode “Descent”.

Hawking was succeeded by Michael Green, who was Lucasian Professor from 2009 to this year. Green made long-term contributions to mathematics, including pioneering string theory in 1984.

What does the future of the chair hold?

Michael Cates is certainly no stopgap professor. Cates is an expert in the statistical mechanics of “soft materials”, examples of which are: colloids (paint); emulsions (mayonnaise); foams (shaving cream); surfactant solutions (shampoo); and liquid crystals (flat screen TVs).

His models capture the essential physics without including all the, at times confounding, chemical detail.

Prior to his election as Lucasian Professor, Cates held a Royal Society Research Professorship at Edinburgh. At age 54, he will likely hold the Chair for more than a decade. It will be fascinating to see what he contributes to mathematics and the ongoing Lucasian history during his tenure.

As for future chairs? If Star Trek is any indication, it will continue to be populated by some of the most brilliant minds in the known universe – although one wonders when it might be finally held by a brilliant woman.

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