Cambridge Conversations on the Internet


Please note that the account below carries the story up to the end of August 2009. Further interviews are being added from time to time.


The interviews can be viewed and/or downloaded at


Further information about the life, careers and achievements of those listed below can be seen on this website.


A number of them have also been put up on the ‘ayabaya’ channel on ‘Youtube’




   It is difficult to penetrate how people think within an institution. We can see the externals, the books, articles, experimental results. But what the people are like and how and why they make their discoveries is usually a private and impenetrable matter.  Even if we read parts of their written (semi-autobiographical) accounts of what they did, it is difficult to get a sense of the excitement of creativity.


      One way to glimpse parts of what goes on is to listen (and watch) people explaining their search for meaning. I try to look at this in a number of fields and sub-fields where I have had the opportunity to hold video conversations with interesting Cambridge trained and/or Cambridge based thinkers.


      Over my nearly forty years in Cambridge I have got to know many people in a number of fields outside my own anthropological speciality. The College system and my earlier experience in a similar inter-disciplinary world as an undergraduate at Oxford, helped me to talk across my boundary and even to collaborate with a few people in quite different fields to my own in pursuit of an answer to a problem.


    These conversations, though important to my life are largely unrecorded except when the collaboration, as with computer scientists, is very close. For a long time I had thought it worth recording conversations with people in my own discipline, and a few in my other field of expertise, history. But it was only through the accidental suggestions of two scientists, Professor Sir Patrick Bateson and Professor Herbert Huppert, that I began to realize that I should and could extend this to others. So over the time since my first face to face interview of Dan McKenzie on 11th May 2007, I have started to record on camera conversations with many friends and new acquaintances in Cambridge outside my own field of anthropology. Here, indicated in bold, are some of those I have talked to so far.




Astronomy, cosmology and pure mathematics


     I had been dimly aware that Cambridge had been important in the history of astronomy for some while. I knew that astronomy had been one of the main parts of the medieval teaching syllabus. The achievements of Newton in this field are universally acknowledged. In the nineteenth century John Herschel and in the early twentieth century Arthur Eddington, and later Fred Hoyle, were world class astronomers.


    When I was on the Electors to Fellowships in King’s we elected Lord Martin Reese who would later become Astronomer Royal, President  of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College.  When I moved into the top of part of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1975 I found that my predecessors had been Radio Astronomers and that in my and adjacent rooms a number of important break-throughs had occurred, including the discovery of a new type of star, pulsars, by Sir Antony Hewish, who won a Nobel Prize for this work.


    In subsequent years the work on black holes, string theory, ‘M’ theory and later developments associated with Stephen Hawking and others was on the fringe of my knowledge. I have learnt something more about what is going on by talking to one of the younger generations of cosmologists, Professor Neil Turok, the co-author of The Endless Universe which proposes a new theory of the origins of space and time.




    Cambridge has a famous tradition in mathematics, a subject which was at the core of teaching and examining through the centuries.  So far I have interviewed two leading figures in this field, Professor John Coates and Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, the latter not only an eminent mathematician but also an important administrator.


Biochemistry, chemistry and genetics


      I had for long been aware that Cambridge had a pre-eminent position in the development of modern biology and genetics. From the early legendary figures of Charles Darwin and Mendel’s’ re-discoverer and coiner of the term ‘genetics’, William Bateson, work on the border-lands of the components of life has flourished in Cambridge. The next great landmark event was the announcement in April 1953 of the double helix structure of DNA. From that time onwards, particularly associated with the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, there were numerous major discoveries, especially under the inspired direction of Max Perutz.


      I had met a number of central figures in King’s College. There was Dr Fred Sanger whose two Nobel Prizes had been won for the first sequencing of a non-living (insulin) and living (phage) entity. I had also met Professor Sydney Brenner, who worked for many years with Francis Crick and who won his Nobel Prize for work on the DNA of nematode worms in 2004. I also got to know Dr Dan Brown, a largely overlooked but pivotal figure in the development of the understanding of RNA.


      Other major figures I have interviewed include Lord Aaron Klug, who worked with Rosalind Franklin (a key figure in the discovery of DNA) and won his Nobel Prize in the 1980s in molecular biology and was one of the discoverers of CAT scans. Also there is Sir John Sulston, who led the team which first sequenced the human genome, who won his Nobel Prize in 2004. I have also talked to Sir John Gurdon, whose discovery that cells retain all their information as the body grows was one foundation for modern stem cell research, and Sir John Walker whose Nobel Prize was also won in this field.


      Physiologists I have interviewed include Sir Andrew Huxley, who received his Nobel Prize with Sir Alan Hodgkin, and Professor Richard Keynes, Professor Charlie Loke and Professor Azim Surani. There is also the geneticist turned administrator, Professor Ken Edwards. The physical chemists are Dr Hal Dixon and Sir John Meurig Thomas, sometime Master of Peterhouse College.


Computers, technology and the Cambridge phenomenon


      I have been on the fringes of the work which has led to the transformation of our world by computers, the Internet and visual technologies.


     I knew that Cambridge had long been important in technology, including computing. From the early work of William Gilbert on the magnet, or the invention of the water closet by Sir John Harrington around the same time, through Newton’s work on optics, up to the polymath Charles Babbage with his proto-computer, Cambridge inventions have been important. In particular, the work of Alan Turing on the Enigma machine and specification of computing, and of Maurice Wilkes in building the first working electronic programmable device, and then later the development of the intra-net and many other aspects of computer development have been widely influential.


     I had started to be involved in all of this in 1973 when I started a long-term collaboration with Dr Ken Moody in relation to databases and information retrieval, later to be joined by his colleague Professor Jean Bacon. Simultaneously I was working with audio-visual media in the development of filming, videodisk and other technologies. I was aware of the names, but only came to talk to some of the pioneers in this field, people who were seminal in the development of the ‘Cambridge phenomenon’ and the largest science park complex in Europe, in particular Hermann Hauser and Professor Andy Hopper, currently Head of the Computer Laboratory. I worked with students of Professor Keith van Rijsbergen, one of the founders of modern probabilistic or Bayesian information retrieval. I have also interviewed Professor Ben Shneiderman, a world authority on computer-human interfaces and the innovator who gave us the light blue clickable hyper-link.




      When I moved into the Old Cavendish laboratory in 1975 I began to hear stories which were elaborated through the years, about the great discoveries along the passage from where I worked. The long-term legacy of Newton and his successors led in the period between 1870 and 1940 to a number of very famous figures who changed our understanding of the physical world, Sir James Clerk Maxwell who outlined electro-magnetism, Sir J.J.Thomson, the discoverer of the electron, Professor Ernest Rutherford who split the atom, Professor James Chadwick who won his Nobel Prize for the discovery of neutrons and others. 


     I only came to talk to some of the leading physicists very recently, successors of these great figures, including the past and present Cavendish Professors of Physics, Sir Brian Pippard and Sir Richard Friend. I also interviewed the sometime Professor of Mathematical Physics, the Reverend Sir John Polkinghorne, later President of Queen’s College, and the geo-physicist Professor Dan McKenzie the co-discoverer of tectonic plates. Their work complemented that of people in the other fields and is part of the seamless web of Cambridge science. I have also interviewed Lord Julian Hunt of Chesterton, a leading expert on climate and sometime head of the meteorological office in Britain and Professor Herbert Huppert, an astro-physicist and expert on carbon capture.


Zoology and biology


      Just behind where I worked in the Department is the Zoology Museum. I was constantly aware of the presence of this important subject, again descended from Charles Darwin and others. And among my friends of a previous generation in King’s College were the zoologist-biologists Sir Gabriel Horn, sometime Master of Sidney Sussex College, and Sir Patrick Bateson, sometime Provost of King’s College. I have also interviewed their long-time colleague, Professor Robert Hinde, sometime Master of St. John’s and the development biologists Professors Michael Bate and Barry Keverne. I have also interviewed the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University and biological anthropologist Dr Alison Richard. These interviews and conversations give a sense of the major part Cambridge has played in the development of our understanding of the animal kingdom.




History and archaeology


    History is one the two subjects in which I have personally specialized, so I have been a participant as well as an observer of Cambridge history over the last half century. I am well aware of the great tradition – of Lord Macaulay, Lord Acton, F.W.Maitland, G.M.Trevelyan and many others. Knowing the subject from the inside, I am more aware that one could create whole sections on each branch of history. Here however, I shall just note a few of the threads of Cambridge history and indicate which historians I have talked to in my interviews.


    There is a strong tradition of ecclesiastical and religious history in Cambridge, as befits an old institution with strong monastic and religious connections, and Sir Owen Chadwick has been at the forefront of this for many years, with a string of books on the Reformation and other topics. . He has also been an important administrator as Vice Chancellor and Master of Selwyn College.


    Demographic and social structural history has flourished, particularly with the work of the ‘Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure’, whose founding triumvirate were Peter Laslett, Sir Anthony Wrigley and Roger Schofield. Wrigley is also notable as an economic historian, with particular emphasis on the industrial revolution and the coal industry. Another social demographer in Cambridge is Professor Geoffrey Hawthorn, who is also a political sociologist. And a further example of the strong tradition of economic history in Cambridge is Professor Peter Mathias, especially noted for his work on the brewing industry and sometime Master of Downing College.


     Bordering on these fields have been others. There is cultural history, which is partly represented by the work of Professor Peter Burke and Professor Lisa Jardine, both of them particularly well known for their books on the Renaissance and the seventeenth century.  There is also an important tradition of the history of political thought, which is here represented by two of the pupils of Peter Laslett, Professor Quentin Skinner and Professor John Dunn, both experts on early modern political philosophy in England and Europe. Skinner was Regius Professor of History, and Dunn, Professor of Political Thought.  



     The history of science and philosophy has also been an important activity theme in Cambridge. Here it is represented by Professor Simon Schaffer, the co-winner of the Erasmus Prize for his work with Steve Shapin on ‘Leviathan and the Air Pump’.


      There have been numerous important historians of classical times, including the previous Master of Darwin and writer on Greek and Roman thought, Sir Moses Finley. Here this school is represented by another ex-Master of Darwin, the philosopher, historian and writer on Chinese science and philosophy, Sir Geoffrey Lloyd.


     Te work of Cambridge archaeologists and prehistorians has been important. Following in the earlier tradition of Graham Clark and Glyn Daniel, one of the most influential in the fields of the origins and spread of civilizations has been Lord Colin Renfrew, sometime Master of Jesus College.


Literature, language and philosophy


    There have been many distinguished thinkers and writers in this field, including I.A.Richards, William Empson, F.R.Leavis, C.S.Lewis and others. At King’s College I have met a number of them. One of the first Fellows I met was Dr Peter Avery, the historian of Iran but also one of the world’s leading experts and translators of Sufi poetry. I have also interviewed the distinguished living literary critics with a very wide range of interests, Sir Frank Kermode.


     Only recently have I encountered some of the other senior figures in this field in conversation, including the polymath and widely published author George Steiner, the Emeritus Edward VII Professor English Literature and sometime President of Clare Hall, Dame Gillian Beer and the former Mistress of New Hall and sinologist Dame Anne Lonsdale who later played an important part in University administration.  In philosophy, Professor Simon Blackburn is a distinguished Cambridge philosopher, an expert on David Hume and well known for his work on the relations between philosophy and religion.




    From my first days at King’s College in 1971 I was aware of the great tradition of music, in particular choral singing, in Cambridge from the sixteenth century onwards. But it is only recently that I have had a chance to talk in depth to several of the practitioners. Stephen Cleobury is the current Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, and has continued to shape the King’s College Choir into an internationally renowned musical institution.  John Rutter, a pupil and co-editor with Sir David Willcocks, is one of the best known composers of choral music in the world.




    The distinguished physicist Rev. John Polkinghorne retrained as an Anglican priest in his mid-forties and the interview covers that aspect of his work. Rev. Don Cupitt, for a considerable time Dean of Emmanuel College, has written extensively on a wide range of themes in relation to religion and its place in modern life.


Social Anthropology


      My own major discipline is anthropology, where I have been a member of the Department of Social Anthropology for over 33 years.  Cambridge has been at the forefront of what is now called Social or Cultural Anthropology for more than a century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Sir James Frazer, W.H.Rivers and A.C.Haddon were internationally known. Then, particularly since the Second World War, the subject has further flourished in Cambridge.


    The small subset of anthropologists from the more than fifty I have interviewed are those who have taught for long periods in Cambridge. Dr Stephen Hugh-Jones has been in the Department since his undergraduate days until his retirement, as well as being for many years a Fellow of King’s College. His major work has been on the forest dwelling Indians of Colombia. Dr Malcolm Ruel worked in west and east Africa and Dr Polly Hill was a noted economic anthropologist. 


      Dame Marilyn Strathern did her undergraduate and graduate degree at Cambridge, taught for a while there, then went for some years to Manchester, to return in 1994 as William Wyse Professor. She is internationally known for her work on New Guinea, gender, accountancy culture and kinship. Dr Keith Hart did his first two degrees at Cambridge. He is probably best known for his work in Ghana, and particularly for developing the concept of the ‘informal economy’.




      The study of economics is an old tradition in Cambridge. The Reverend Thomas Malthus in the early nineteenth century was one of the founders of the discipline, and later T.H.Marshall was a major neo-classical thinker in this field. Then in the first half of the twentieth century John Maynard Keynes was a dominant figure and those who followed him, including Joan Robinson, Lords Kaldor and Kahn (both of whom I knew a little at King’s) and Piero Sraffa were widely influential.


       In various interviews I have explored parts of the Keynesian legacy. Professor Wynne Godley was a contemporary of the post-Keynesians in King’s and sometime Director of the Department of Applied Economics at Cambridge. Professor Geoff Harcourt has contributed to economic theory, but has also devoted considerable attention to the history of Cambridge economic thought. Professor Bob Rowthorn is an important economic theorist and was for long on the fringes of the ‘New Left’ group of economists and historians. Between them they describe some of the major developments in the last half century which have helped to shape the economic policy of Britain and elsewhere. One of the Nobel laureates in economics in Cambridge is Sir James Mirrlees, who contributed to the theory of ‘moral hazard’ and the calculation of uncertainty in markets.


How the Colleges and University work


      There are a number of interviews which touch on that very special Oxbridge institution, the College.  I have interviewed people because I knew or had heard that they were important intellectuals. But such people tend to get promoted to the Headship of Colleges. Thus, by chance, I have interviewed many Heads of Houses. These include Martin Rees and Andrew Huxley (Trinity), John Meurig Thomas and Tony Wrigley (Peterhouse), Gabriel Horn (Sidney Sussex), Pat Bateson (King’s), Robert Hinde (St. John’s), Peter Swinnerton-Dyer (St Catharine’s) Brian Pippard and Gillian Beer (Clare Hall), John Polkinghorne (Queen’s), Colin Renfrew (Jesus), Owen Chadwick (Selwyn), Geoffrey Lloyd (Darwin), Ann Lonsdale (New Hall), John Gurdon (Magdalene), Marilyn Strathern(Girton).


     In terms of the University, there are a number of Vice Chancellors and pro-Vice Chancellors, including Owen Chadwick, Peter Swinnerton Dyer, Andrew Huxley, Alison Richard, and Anne Lonsdale. There is also one of the previous heads of the University Grants Commission, Peter Swinnerton Dyer, and a former Secretary General of the Faculties, Ken Edwards.


The wider sample


     The over 60 Cambridge interviews mentioned above include those who have taught or done research at Cambridge over a substantial period. Another 90 interviews of distinguished thinkers and artists with a less strong Cambridge connection are to be found on the website.