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13th September 2012

Six of the best: a potted history of Manchester academia

Andrew Williams profiles six of the University of Manchester’s most influential and prestigious scholars, past and present.

The University’s Vice Chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, is the latest in a long and prestigious line of notable academics to have imparted their expertise here at Manchester. Andrew Williams takes a look at six more of our best-known scholars, past and present.

Martin Amis, novelist

Given his reputation as a world-weary curmudgeon, it was something of a surprise when Martin Amis was announced as the inaugural Professor of Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing in 2007. His credentials were undoubted – during his tenure in Manchester, The Times named him as one of the 50 greatest British post-war writers – but some suspected that his acerbic style might be unsuited to working with such raw talent. Amis was quick to allay such fears: “I would find it very difficult to say cruel things to [students] in such a vulnerable position”, he said. “I imagine I’ll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them.”

Amis’ writing is nothing if not political, so perhaps Manchester was a natural choice for his maiden teaching post. Along with his great friend Christopher Hitchens, he was an outspoken critic of radical Islam, whilst many of his thirteen novels have centred on societal breakdown and the absurdity of the human condition.

His appointment was a huge coup for the University, a cornerstone of the ‘Manchester 2015 Agenda’. Indeed, Amis’ arrival saw a 100% increase in applications to courses at the Centre of Creative Writing; he reciprocated, proclaiming the students of Manchester to be “a witty and tolerant contingent”.

The professorship attracted some controversy in 2008 when it emerged that Amis was being paid just shy of £3,000 per lecture – somewhat apt, commentators noted, for a man who authored the 1984 bestseller ‘Money’ – yet it was a roaring success. Students identified with his description of writing as “running away from your unconscious”; Amis inspired scores of would-be wordsmiths during his four year stint at the University, before leaving Manchester to live with his wife in New York in 2011.

Professor Brian Cox, physicist

Currently ensconced within the School of Physics and Astronomy, Professor Brian Cox is surely the first and only man to have both played keyboard on Top of the Pops and worked with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

As a University of Manchester student, Cox achieved a first class degree in Physics, before putting aside his scientific urges to embark upon a successful career as a musician. D:Ream scored nine UK Top 40 hits in a five year period, and are perhaps best remembered for New Labour’s aspirational election anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ – worth a look on YouTube, if you want to see a rhythmically-challenged John Prescott going wild in the party conference aisles.

Cox returned to the academic fold in 1997 to complete his DPhil in high energy particle physics, and now divides his time between Manchester and CERN. In recent years, Cox has established himself as some sort of Patrick Moore for the 21st Century, rejuvenating the factual entertainment genre via his hugely popular TV series’ ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ and ‘Wonders of the Universe’. According to his official University profile, his “accessible style has seen Physics and Astronomy applications to the University of Manchester soar in recent years”.

Brian Cox is currently working with fellow Manchester academics to produce a third series for the BBC.

Sir Andre Geim and Sir Konstantin Novoselov, physicists

The University of Manchester can count an incredible 25 Nobel Laureates amongst its alumni, yet the two most recent Manchester-based recipients captured the Prize with one of the important scientific breakthroughs of modern times.

Russian-born physicists Geim and Novoselov have worked together at the lengthily-titled Centre for Mesoscience and Nanotechnology since its opening in 2003, conducting vital research into innovative materials. Following their discovery of graphene – a one-atom thick sheet of densely-packed carbon atoms – in 2004, the duo set about testing its properties. What they found, according to Geim, was “a prospect so far beyond the horizon that we cannot even assess it properly”.

The discovery of graphene could revolutionise the way in which we use materials in our everyday lives. Heralded as a “miracle material”, the mindblowing facts are endless; just one atom thick, it is the thinnest material known to man, yet it is harder than a diamond and conducts electricity more efficiently than copper. One gram could stretch across several football pitches.

Graphene is 200 times stronger than structural steel, James Hone, mechanical engineering professor at Columbia University, explains: “it would take an elephant balanced on a pencil to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of [cling film]”. In short, says Geim, it boasts “a range of superlatives which no other material can be proud of”.

Scientists have claimed that graphene could replace silicon and become as ubiquitous as plastic; Geim and Novoselov were duly rewarded with the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Theirs is a remarkable discovery that truly captures the innovative spirit which drives the world-leading research accomplished year after year at this University.

Sir Ian Kershaw, historian

Were it not for his six year lectureship at the University of Manchester, Ian Kershaw might never have made his name as one of the world’s leading experts on Hitler and the Third Reich. Kershaw joined the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures in 1968 as a medieval historian and, in the summer of 1972, travelled to Munich to learn German in a bid to aid the teaching of one of his courses.

A chilling conversation during his time in what was then West Germany radically altered the trajectory of his career. Kershaw was shocked to be told by an ageing Nazi that the British were “stupid” for not siding with Hitler, and appalled by his comment that “the Jew is a louse”. The confrontation inspired the young historian to embark on researching the social history of Nazism, and the University promptly allowed him to switch to a job in the modern history department.

The rest – pardon the pun – is history. Kershaw has since become renowned for his work on the Nazi regime, having penned over twenty authoritative works on the subject. His two volume biography of Hitler is considered to be the seminal work on one of the most evil men in history, whilst Kershaw’s fascination with the question of how and why the rise of Nazism was possible has never waned.

Kershaw has become one of the recognisable historians in Britain, and reluctantly accepted a knighthood in 2002 – “I dislike the neo-feudal title” – for services to the discipline. He says of the darkest period of the 20th Century: “I should like to think that had I been around at the time I would have been a convinced anti-Nazi engaged in the underground resistance fight. However, I know really that I would have been as confused and felt as helpless as most of the people I am writing about”.

Joseph Stiglitz, economist

Another Nobel Laureate to add to Manchester’s distinguished history, Joseph Stiglitz has chaired the Brooks World Poverty Institute since 2005. The research centre, dedicated to researching poverty, inequality and growth, was bound to pique the American’s interest given his criticism of hyper-globalisation, fervent free market economics and financial institutions in recent years.

Stiglitz occupies a unique position as an economist who has both held positions at the heart of national and international government and, latterly, criticised the global economic machine which he blames for perpetuating poverty and inequality. As an economic advisor to President Bill Clinton, Stiglitz was central to efforts by the administration to find a ‘Third Way’ between laissez-faire capitalism and oversized, over-powerful government. In 1997, he was appointed Chief Economist at the World Bank, where he uncovered a series of failures on the part of the IMF (detailed in his book ‘Globalisation and Its Discontents’) as it attempted to aid the transition of former Soviet countries to market economies.

One of the world’s leading left-leaning economists, Stiglitz has argued for a fiscal stimulus to kickstart economic recovery in the United States. His latest book, ‘The Price of Inequality’, reached the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year.

Andrew Williams

Andrew Williams

Andrew Williams is The Mancunion’s Features Editor, having previously edited the Politics section of the paper. A PPE graduate, he is studying for an International Relations MA in a last ditch bid to cling on to his student days.For rants about football, obscure pop culture references and wine-induced streams of consciousness, you can follow him on Twitter @andyonpaper

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