Friday, September 26, 2014

Trinity 40 years on

On Weds back to Trinity for the Annual Gathering of our year, the year above and below for a reunion 40 years after we came up as undergraduates. To my astonishment the Master had asked me to be the Speaker and propose the toast to the College. Because the PA system had broken down we both spoke from the Musician's gallery.

FWIW this is what I said:

Master: it is a great honour to thank you, and the College, for the wonderful hospitality we have received tonight, and indeed ever since we matriculated 40 years ago. Things change, but they don’t change.

One big change happened just after we were undergraduates. Simon Mollett came back to do a PhD and was told by a porter: “the College has changed sir. There are women, sir….. In the daytime, sir.”

When my grandfather* graduated here Trinity men won 3 Nobel Prizes. In my father’s time Trinity men won 3 Nobel Prizes . In our time fellows won the Nobel Prize for Physics two years in a row.

We had amazing teaching here. I had supervisions from Bolobl├ís (whose Erdos number is 1), Goldstone (who should have won a Nobel Prize) and Baker – a Fields Medalist. John Polkinghorne was also very generous with his time and inspired many students to see that the relationship between science and religion is not at all the caricature of popular imagination. He sends his regards today. Small groups of scholars had lunch with former Master and Nobel Laureate Lord Adrian.

We had a reasonable share of mad maniacs. One of them announced that he had booby-trapped his room and dared all comers. Naturally Ross Anderson broke in and successfully defused the bomb, only to discover that it was a decoy when the real bomb exploded, knocking the door off its hinges. The police entered, switched on the lights, and another bomb exploded in a teapot on the mantelpiece.

This would be frowned on in today’s Health and Safety culture. Perhaps we need a warning notice: “This college will change the way you think – may contain nuts.”

Our cohort has done pretty well academically. We have 6 FRSs and 9 FBAs which is a record, a flight of FREngs and a plethora of Professors including (slightly alarmingly here tonight) a Professor Moriarty. This Prof Moriarty is a doctor, who has devoted much of his life to saving eyesight in the third world.  One of the many Trinity people taking the long view.

Taking the infinitely long view, we have two of the world’s most influential religious leaders: Nicky Gumbel and Justin Welby – the first Trinity Archbishop of Canterbury since 1604, the first to have been a senior FTSE 100 executive , and the first to have been fined for threatening to throw an umpire into the river.

So how has Trinity been doing since we left? What’s it like for students?  It’s still wonderful. I speak from experience. Our son matriculated the year Mirrlees won his Nobel Prize, and had dinner with former Master and Nobel Laureate Andrew Huxley. He was a member of Trinity Choir and married a fellow-member, and may I take this opportunity to thank the Choir for their wonderful singing today . Our Elder Daughter matriculated when Pople and Sen won Nobel Prizes and Borcherds and Gowers won Fields Medals, and our Younger Daughter matriculated the year after Ramakrishnan won his Nobel.  Things change, but they don’t change.

Trinity is the wealthiest college, with outstanding investment performance from taking a long view.  Robert MacKay, our cohort’s first FRS, had his Part III paid for by Trinity.  Trinity has funded the whole career of John Marenbon, one of our FBAs, and the postgraduate study of many, including my daughter.  But leading US Universities have over 10x the endowments, Princeton has 45% more per student.

So yes we should support Trinity financially. And more generally we have a particular responsibility to take a long view. Many of us can influence business decisions. We can help tip the balance towards responsible behaviour - away from short-termism.

Sometimes acting altruistically makes great long term returns: Cambridge Science Park for example. I put this to Tresillian Nicholas. He said: “Yes - I remember thinking ‘If young Bradfield is behind it, there’s probably money in it somewhere!’”

Trinity has two Nobel-prize winning philosophers: the greatest is Amartya Sen. He embodies a long view, the rise of Asia, and globalization. His wonderful book The Idea of Justice should be required reading; especially for those who think democracy is simply getting 50.1%.

Justice was the lifetime work of Lord Denning. He spoke at the Union in 1974. I’ll end with his words. “There is nothing I like better than eating with nice people, drinking with nice people, and sleeping with – a quiet mind.”

Things change, but they don’t change. I give you – Trinity!

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* ESL Beale (born 1901). He became a Consultant in Engineering Physics in the 1930s and was a brilliant engineer not at all interested in money. Family legend has it that he did some work with the Braggs when he moved to London after graduating. He got quite a long obituary in The Times.

I cut from my speech that my school (Winchester) advised me against applying to read Maths at Trinity becasue they thought I wouldn't get in. I asked my father (who became BA FRS) about this and he said that he had been given the same advice and ignored it. So I ignored it as well, and received the memorable telegram: "Warmest congratulations Scholarship Trinity."

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