Graduation address – Professor Christopher Hawkesworth

Friday 28 June 2013

Chancellor, Principal, Ladies and Gentlemen, and in particular new graduates of the university.

It is a very great pleasure to add my congratulations to the many you will receive: thank you for being here, I hope you have had a great time, and thank you too for enriching us as an institution through your contributions. And a warm welcome to your families, many of whom have travelled considerable distances to be with us today. We appreciate you being here, we hope you have a most enjoyable visit in this distinctive corner of Scotland, and we look forward to meeting at least some of you in the celebrations afterwards.

This day is above all for the new graduates, to celebrate, to remember the good times and to look forward to the opportunities that lie before you. We hold this graduation as we celebrate our 600th Anniversary, it highlights questions over just what kind of a university this now is, and how it might shape itself for the future. Do those 600 years of history affect us in some way, have they made this university a different place, and if so in what way? I wonder what your expectations were about St Andrews, what you expected universities to provide, whether those views have now changed?

Most of us sitting here were shaped, perhaps to varying degrees by the universities we attended. Some would say they provide a framework, a perspective, an outline map which we will embellish and fill in with what we do as we move on from today. Maps highlight and reinforce our perspectives by making central what is most significant to a particular world view. Thus, medieval maps may have Jerusalem at their centre, and perhaps we take for granted all those maps of the world that radiate out from these islands. Subsequently, perhaps in part as a reaction, there are maps that view the world from the southern hemisphere. Maps require some way to determine where we are, to measure latitude and longitude, and one of the major early advances that we have been celebrating in our 600 year anniversary, was made here in St Andrews.

From 1668-1674, James Gregory held the Regius Chair of Mathematics at the University, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society, he left to go to Edinburgh in 1674, and he died very young, aged only 36. Gregory was among the first to speculate about the existence of what are now termed transcendental numbers, and he developed the first proof of the fundamental theorem of calculus. He described the first practical reflecting telescope, and much of the mathematics behind being able to work out longitude for the first time. It was he who scratched on the floor of the King James Library in the University, the first meridian, a reference line for 0 degrees of longitude, before one was set up in Greenwich in 1675.

After that the story goes less well from the perspective of the University. Gregory wrote:

Because of the prejudice the masters of the University did take at the mathematics, …. the servants of the colleges got orders not to wait on me: my salary was also kept back from me, and scholars of most eminent rank were violently kept from me, contrary to their own and their parents wills, the masters persuading them that their brains were not able to endure it.

Perhaps some of us share that view of mathematics! But more seriously I hope that your time here has provided you with some sense of shape, of a map, of foundations which in turn give us all the authority to branch out, to explore, to take risks. I hope it has given you the self-reliance and the self-confidence to back your own judgment, to be aware of stories such as that of Icarus who sought to fly high but eventually fell to the sea because he flew to close to the sun with wings that his father had made for him. To delight instead with William Blake who wrote

‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings’.

But for now, maybe we should let the future take care of itself. This is very much your day, the result of your hard work and I hope also lots of fun. Very many congratulations on your graduation, and please make the most of what lies ahead. Much of it lies in your hands, travel safely, please remember us, and come back whenever you can, you will always be welcome.

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