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Andrew Chamblin Memorial Lecture | Dirac Lecture | Rollo Davidson Lecture | Rouse Ball Lecture
University of Cambridge
Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Wilberforce Road, Cambridge, CB3 0WA, Eastern,
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URL was last checked
18 October 2016
'Mathematics has been studied at Cambridge for a long time. The first figure of note is Robert Recorde (born about 1550) who is credited with the invention of the equality sign "=". He wrote several textbooks in the form of dialogues, but his last book ends with the author being arrested for debt.
'Those with less antiquarian interests start their history a century or so later with Wallis, Barrow and Newton. (All three luminaries had interesting non-mathematical careers. Wallis broke codes for the parliamentary side in the civil war. Barrow was "noted for his strength and courage, and once when travelling in the East saved his ship by his own prowess from capture by pirates". Newton took a very public part in the university's quarrel with King James II.)
'The spectacular success of Newton's work had the fortunate effect of establishing the prestige of mathematics in Britain and Cambridge and the unfortunate effect of blinding British mathematicians to progress in mathematics elsewhere. The parochial century that followed was not a very glorious period for Cambridge or British mathematics. However, it witnessed a slow but important change described in the next paragraph.
'Over the years, the syllabus of the Medieval university had lost its relevance and the disputation by which it was examined became a mere formality. Sometime around 1725, a voluntary examination was instituted to help order the better students. At first, the examination was oral and consisted of questions on mathematics and some philosophy. Later, the candidates wrote their answers but the questions were dictated and finally, in around 1790, the questions were printed. Thus was born the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos, the grandparent of every university examination in the world ...'