John Polkinghorne interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 4th and 10th November 2008

0:09:07 Born in 1930 in Western-super-Mare but actually come from a Cornish family; father had nine brothers and a sister; Cornish grandfather was a stone mason; the village schoolmaster thought my father was the cleverest boy he had ever taught; father could not go to the Grammar School in Bodmin as it was too far away so he left school at fourteen; he had a good career in the Post Office and had moved from Cornwall to Western-super-Mare by the time of my birth; when I was five we moved to Street, a large manufacturing village in Somerset, and lived there until I was fourteen; Polkinghorne is a Cornish name and I think of myself as being Cornish; sadly I never knew my Cornish grandparents; my grandmother was a very dominant woman and quarrelled with all her daughters in law; my older brother, Peter, was eighteen months old when they were visiting them; father could see that his mother and wife would never get on, so they left; father visited his parents alone but we never went as a family; sadness to me that I never knew them; knew my mother's parents very well; their family name was Charlton which is my middle name; my maternal grandfather was a head groom and very skilful with horses; he trained and rode hunters in shows for his employers and won prizes at the White City; he was one of the most fulfilled men I have known; a contrast between the two families; my Cornish forebears were independent minded, small tradesmen while my mother's parents were both in service; we saw a lot of my maternal grandparents and eventually my grandfather came to live with us for a few years before his death

4:10:08 My mother was a remarkable woman in a way; looking back I can see that she wasn't the easiest of mothers as she was rather directive; she was the sort of person that people confided in and always gave good advice; she was very fond of literature and kindled my love of Dickens etc.; my father was a quieter, gentler sort of person; he had fought in the First World War but never spoke about it; he was a less obvious influence; both of my parents were religious people, Anglicans, and we went to church regularly; at Street we went to the local parish church where for most of the time there was a Vicar called Richard Daunton Fear who was a very good preacher; I remember having no difficulty in listening to him, even as a young child, so it was a pleasure to go to church; my parents never spoke much to me about religion directly, but it was clear that religion was important to them; looking back there was never a time that I was not a worshipping, believing, member of the church; see myself as a cradle Christian; I never really rebelled against it; I did National Service 1948-9 before coming up to Cambridge; I was a sergeant instructor at the Royal Education Corps and did get a little drunk on mess nights and began to use barrack room language; I didn't give up my religious practice and was a communicant during that time; when I came up to Cambridge I was taken to the Christian Union freshers' service in Holy Trinity at the beginning of Michaelmas term in 1949; the preacher was L.F.E. Wilkinson who encouraged us to commit ourselves to Christ; at the time I would have said that was my conversion; looking back I don't see it as such, but it was an important staging point in my spiritual life; I was very caught up with the Christian Union throughout my undergraduate days; I am to some extent grateful, but partly regretful as it was a rather narrow world with a fear of enjoyment or of other forms of Christian belief; I did find a deeper personal commitment to Christ through it, and came to value scripture; when I became a graduate student I moved away from it

10:18:16 I had a brother, Peter, who was nine years older; quite different from me and much more outgoing; he was a good pianist, was alright at school but not academically brilliant; I was clever as a boy; as he grew older he always had a fascinating girlfriend in tow; he went into the R.A.F. and trained as a pilot and was killed during the war; he was in Coastal Command; it was a curious event which we have never been able to sort out; they went out one night flying Liberators over the Atlantic; almost certainly they were killed by the weather rather than by the enemy; they went out for some special purpose and we have never been able to find out what it was; I was twelve when he was killed and was very upset; between us my parents had had a daughter, Ann, who had some sort of intestinal problem and died when she was six months old; so my parents had a sad life, losing two of their children; I was the only one left but they didn't emphasise the fact that all their hopes were in me although I knew that must be so; however, through my academic career, they were glad that I was fulfilling something that my father might have done had he had the educational opportunity; I think that I got my mathematical gift from my father; I do think there is a degree of genetic inheritance; I have a grandson who is reading mathematics at Trinity now, but of course there is the cultural aspect as well; mathematics is a funny sort of subject because either you can do it or you can't; it is a gift that people tend to show quite early; I went to the primary school in Street and from the start I was clever at sums but very slow in learning to read; my mother was worried about that; she had a friend who was a Froebel teacher who was teaching her son, who was about my age, at home; mother got me taught by her, and within a very short time I had mastered reading and became a voracious reader; the Clark family who were the local landowners ran a little school, essentially for their own family, with a few selected local children; it was called the Meeting House School [they were Quakers] and I went there; there must have been fifteen or sixteen children there at any one time with a single teacher, Miss Theobald, who was a very good teacher; she somehow managed to cope with the different ages; at that school I had what I now see as a very important experience; if you did good work you got a gold star and I used to get lots; one day Miss Theobald said she was going to do something different, and played couples of notes on the piano and asked us to write down which was higher or lower; I wrote them down expecting another gold star, and most of them were wrong; it was an important experience that you couldn't be good at everything; I have learnt to sing a note now, as I had to as a clergyman, but I still have to do it by some sort of intuition

17:40:12 Music has meant a lot to me but I never learnt to play anything; that in itself surprises me as my mother played the piano and encouraged my brother; I think that was probably because my parents recognised early on that I was going to be academically clever and they did not want anything to distract from that; I regret that but don't think I would have been any good at it; I like listening to music, especially contrapuntal music, which I suppose goes with mathematics; Bach is my favourite composer and I listen to music quite a bit; my wife was a musical person and she helped me too in that respect; I can't work to music; if I am going to listen to it I have to listen, I don't want it as background; when I write I must do it in the morning and I must have absolute freedom from distraction; I write in my study at home but I used to write in my room in Queen's; I do have a telephone in my study but am not often disturbed by that; I don't use email much to the irritation of my friends; the reason is quite simple; if you write books about science or religion you get a certain amount of unsolicited correspondence; I am very conscientious with my correspondence; the first time someone writes to me, however crazy, I always write back; I do have an email address which is unguessable and only my family know it; I love writing, it is one of my favourite occupations; for serious writing I have to write longhand; if the thought is flowing I just can't type fast enough; I write in biro on A4 paper; when I have done that I have to type it up; in the past I had a secretary who would do that for me, now I have to type it on a PC and I don't regret that at all; I don't naturally write good syntax and the close attention to the text that you get when typing allows me to correct some of the mistakes; if I am writing a serious article or a book, and I have time for it - I am very well organised with my deadlines so I almost always have time - I will set aside at least a couple of months to look at it again; this is because when I have just written something I tend to think it is good, later I can see faults and revise it; I love writing because I write to find out what I think; you read, think, ideas buzz around in the mind, but if you put something down on paper you have to ask what exactly you want to say and it crystallizes your thinking; John Robinson of 'Honest to God' fame, who was a good friend of mine, once said to me that he couldn't write without a pen in his hand; I knew exactly what he meant; the other thing I like about writing is that nobody tells you what to do; in most of life there has to be compromise but not when you are writing; the first book I had a hand in writing was a monograph that we wrote here in Cambridge called 'The Analytic S-Matrix'; four of us wrote it together and we had all worked together for many years and it was on a subject we were all pretty expert on, but it nearly destroyed our friendship; we each wrote a chapter but the arguments were so irritating as everybody was convinced that they knew the right way to do it; I have once or twice since written books with other people, but basically, never again; I have edited some multi-authored volumes, and you can't win; if you don't accept what they have written you have an enemy for life

25:54:02 I would have liked to have been good at games, but wasn't; I did a certain amount of walking in the countryside in Somerset; I was a voracious reader and there was an excellent library in Street which the Clark family had endowed; I was not a very enterprising child though it was war time; my father and I used to go for cycle rides, but I had a pretty quiet life; looking back, I rather regret that but am not sure what I would have done; I do remember at the Meeting House school we did handicrafts in the afternoon, mostly knitting, and Miss Theobald would read a story to us; one that I was entranced by I realize now was 'The Hobbit'; the sort of books I tended to read were either 'Just William' books or Percy F. Westerman; my mother encouraged me to read Dickens; I left this school at ten or eleven and went to Elmhurst, a little local grammar school in Street, with a pretty remarkable staff; there was a wonderful English teacher called Miss Pugh; we used to read Shakespeare and Sheridan in class and I began to engage with drama, although it was a long time before I saw such a play on stage; we used to occasionally go to the pantomime at the Bristol Hippodrome, but I hadn't seen a stage play until probably when I was an undergraduate; at the age of fourteen my father became the head Post Master at Ely; he was advised to send me to the Perse in Cambridge; at that time the King's School at Ely was just ticking over and I would have gone to Soham Grammar School; my father went to see the headmaster there who, having read the report from Elmhurst, suggested the Perse was a better choice; by the time I reached the Perse, the same man was now Headmaster at the Perse; I enjoyed the Perse although it was tiresome having to commute by train each day; most of the boys were day boys; the senior maths master, Vic Sederman, was a really inspiring teacher; he could see that I was good at maths and encouraged me; he used to give me work to do in the holidays which I enjoyed; it is an entrancing subject if you are good at it; I particularly liked calculus at that stage, which is such a clever and powerful technique; that launched me; for higher certificate I did double maths and physics; there were certainly other clever boys; the most outstanding boy of my particular generation was Peter Hall, the theatre director; there was perhaps a little more bullying at Elmhurst than at the Perse; being a clever boy at the former made you a little more unusual; but there was nothing really bad at either school; I did play the small role of Vincentio in 'Taming of the Shrew' in a school play where Peter Hall was Petruchio; the main downside of life at the Perse was that, as a train boy, I could not take part in the many extra-curricular activities

34:26:17 I went to the Army in July 1948; they had a scheme whereby if you were going to university you could go in early; I was not yet eighteen; I did my basic training on Salisbury Plain with the Royal Hampshire Regiment; exhausting, extraordinary, and an interesting barrack room because almost all the people there were going up to university; had a corporal in charge of the barrack room, and after we had been there three or four days he asked us if we had all been friends before coming into the army; I discovered an ability I hadn't known I had that I was a very good shot; the Royal Hampshires were keen on rifle shooting and I became part of their team entered for the Young Soldiers cup in the British Army in 1948, and we won; I have a little bronze medal at home to prove it - my one sporting triumph; I did not continue shooting when I came to the University; I got transferred to the Royal Army Education Corps; that was an interesting move as the educational qualification was that you had to have passed Higher School Certificate; I had taken the exam but had not got the results; when I was interviewed by the officer about this I put it to him that being a Major Scholar at Trinity might be equivalent to having passed Higher School Certificate and he accepted that; another chap in our group, Brian Rees, who eventually became Headmaster of Rugby, was only a Minor Scholar at Trinity and the army authority decided that it wasn't good enough, so he had to go into the Service Corps; I was sent down to Bodmin to do three months training, the only formal teaching training I have ever had; I was then posted to an army basic training centre just outside Malvern; my task was every fortnight to teach an introductory course in mathematics for those who were going to be electrical fitters; a bit boring, but one had to do it; because it was a training unit you also had to do regimental duties which I found difficult as a rather young eighteen year old; I escaped the trauma of the War other than for the loss of my brother; I always think there is a big division between my generation which didn't experience it and those a few years older who had seen, and sometimes done, extraordinary things; they have had experiences that one can only half imagine

40:27:07 I came up to Trinity and was part of an exceptionally talented cohort of people; the vagaries of National Service meant that two years of scholars were fused into one; there were a lot of good mathematicians around and you certainly learn as much from your contemporaries as you do from the Dons; my three closest friends were Michael Atiyah, who was my best man when I got married, and James MacKay and John Aitchison, who joined us from Scottish universities after our first year; James eventually became Lord Chancellor, so moved from mathematics into law, and John Aitchison became a statistician and Professor of Statistics at Hong Kong University for many years; they were all mathematicians although I did have friends in other disciplines; another mathematician in my year was Frank Adams who was sadly killed in a road accident when quite young, but was clearly outstanding; I was taught applied mathematics principally by Nicholas Kemmer who actually became my supervisor when I was a research student in my first year but then moved to Edinburgh; he was an exceptionally nice man and before the war he had made very important discoveries in theoretical particle physics, the subject I came to work in; something happened to him during the War; he was a Russian who had spent his early life in Germany and had come to this country in the late thirties; somehow he lost his nerve about physics during the War, and although he was still very clever he really didn't try and do anything or keep in touch with it; I was taught pure mathematics by Abram Samoilovitch Besicovitch, a very distinguished Russian who had been at Trinity for a long time; he was an extraordinary teacher who would produce a tatty piece of paper with what looked like a simple problem and ask one to solve it; they were fiendishly difficult, and you would sit cudgelling your brain while he expressed surprise that you could solve it; I never solved one of those problems on the spot, but you took it away and worked on it, and with any luck came back with the solution the following week; it was a painful experience, but extraordinary; the lectures on mathematical analysis were given by Robert Rankin who lectured in a formal style, writing the arguments on the blackboard, speaking them while writing, you would copy them and that was it; it was difficult to see your way through them until Besicovitch looked at them and suggested the way to look at them – “this is small, this is large” and so on; as I went through my undergraduate years I got more and more interested in the fact that you could do mathematics to understand the physical world; I gravitated toward applied mathematics; in my third year I did Part III of the maths tripos and did quantum theory; the foundation course in quantum theory was taught by Paul Dirac who had been one of the great figures in the subject; he taught it absolutely without rhetoric and without any reference to what he had personally discovered; he laid out the argument with a sort of majestic inevitability about it, like the development of a Bach fugue really; it was an extraordinary experience and is preserved in the book he wrote 'The Principles of Quantum Mechanics'; he was a scientific saint, really, with a very simple, narrow mind in some sense; there are lots of Dirac stories which show this; Dirac's famous equation put together special relativity and quantum theory for the first time successfully; people had been trying but had not figured out how; Dirac found this extremely economic way of doing it; it was such a beautiful equation that I feel sure he felt he'd hit the bull's eye, but he immediately found that an unexpected consequence of his equation was that the electro-magnetic properties of the electron are twice as strong as you would expect them to be, which was a known fact but no one had known why it was so; it had that immediate bonus and within a couple of years he had also discovered that the equation implied the existence of anti-matter which was unknown beforehand, so a wonderful equation; it is engraved on Dirac's memorial tablet in Westminster Abbey; Dirac's concern was very much with the foundational structure of quantum theory, not very much with the nitty-gritty; a famous story of him lecturing in the 1950's when he referred to a recently discovered particle which had actually been discovered in the 1930's; of the great generation of pure mathematicians such as Hardy, Littlewood was still at Trinity though retired, and I only really got to know him when I became a Fellow; I got a first and I would have been deeply upset if I hadn't; I have always been rather reliant on those sorts of recognition to encourage one further; all our crowd were the same; I became a research student which was the most miserable year of my life; I found it very difficult to get going as it is totally different from doing tripos problems; the time scale is different because a tripos problem would take you a week and now the time scale was months; tripos problems are known to have solutions whereas research problems may or may not; I was not at all helped by Nicholas Kemmer who was a very nice man but took no particular lead; I stuck it out getting more and more miserable; then Kemmer left and Abdus Salaam, a Pakistani physicist, came; he knew where the action was; curiously enough he didn't give me a problem to work on but through him I found a problem in my second year; it was not too difficult but certainly one that was worth doing; it was concerned with quantum field theory - you take a field and add quantum mechanics to it; when you do that you get a richer theory than you would looking at them separately, but there is a danger of not making sense as it is full of infinities and you have to do various tricks to remove them; that had been worked out by a brilliant post-war generation of physicists - Feynman, Freeman Dyson and others; they had shown that you could remove these infinities but they applied it to something called the S-Matrix which was essentially saying that the time scale in which the interactions were taking place was infinite; that was not a bad approximation, but these manipulations were very delicate and it seemed to me worthwhile if you had a long but finite time scale to see if the thing would still work; that I was able to do; that formed the basis of my Fellowship thesis which I put in after two years; I didn't tell my parents I was putting this in as I didn't want them to be disappointed if I was unsuccessful; I travelled back to Cambridge at the beginning of my third year of research on the day that the Fellowship election results were announced; I arrived at Trinity in the afternoon to find my name on the list; also there were Michael Atiyah and John Eliot, the Cambridge historian; that was a great experience to become a Fellow; my parents were obviously very pleased though it was very important in our family not to be uppity about success

56:34:23 In my day when you came up as an undergraduate at Trinity, in your first year you lived out unless you were a Scholar; as such you got to know each other well and had to dine in each night, so I knew John Eliot moderately well; we got to know each other better when we became Fellows; I was a Fellow for more than thirty years and had expected to die a Fellow; I was first of all a research fellow for four years; I became a lecturer in applied maths here and became a teaching fellow, and then a professorial fellow; I was here long enough to become a life fellow; when I went off into parish life I was still a fellow, but when I came back to Cambridge I came to be Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall and became a Fellow there; this meant I automatically lost my Trinity Fellowship but it was a real bereavement not to be a Fellow of Trinity; I am still at Queen's, I like it and am grateful to it, but I am still a Trinity man underneath; there is the weight of past glory, you feel that you are some tiny part of this enormous intellectual tradition; in my own part of the world you can recite the names of Newton, Maxwell, Rutherford and Thompson, it is a great succession; it is a very beautiful college; it is very big and when I went to Trinity Hall it was a very different experience; it compensated for this fact that congenial groups formed within it; I go back very occasionally, perhaps once a term, and it is nice to do so