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Max Newman's Medal

Originally published in Gazette 297 (Spring 2010)

Thanks to the sharp eye of Alan Willis and some nifty Ebay bidding by David Rose (the school librarian) the archive has recently acquired the Beaufoy Medal for Mathematics awarded to Max Newman in 1915.

The origin of the Beaufoy Medal, first presented in 1843, was described in the Gazette three years ago (Summer 2007, pp 8-9). This one is silver, in good condition though slightly dented round the edge, and inscribed ‘Maxwell Neumann/July 1915’.

Maxwell Neumann, whose father was German and mother English, was born in 1897 and entered CLS in 1908. He was clearly a good all-rounder, gaining prizes in French, German and Mathematics in 1912, a Finnis Prize ‘for General Proficiency and Good Conduct’ in 1913, and a Fishmongers’ Scholarship as well as the Beaufoy Medal in 1915[1]. He was also a very gifted pianist and a good chess player. With the medal came book prizes, in this case Dynamics, A Course of Pure Mathematics (presumably G.H.Hardy’s celebrated text which appeared in 1908 and was still used in the Maths VI in the 1960s) and A Treatise on Differential Equations.

Max gained a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1916 he gained a first class in part one of the mathematical tripos, and changed his to Newman by deed poll. Much of the next three years he spent in war work, returning to Cambridge in 1919. After completing his first degree with distinction and studying for a year in Vienna he was elected to a fellowship at St John's in 1923 and appointed a university lecturer in 1927. He was a pioneer of combinatory (or geometric) topology and wrote important papers on it in the late 1920s. In the 1930s, apart from continued work on combinatory topology, he wrote a seminal paper topological groups and an admired book, Elements of the Topology of Plane Sets of Points (1939), which was described by a reviewer as “beautifully written in the limpid style one would expect of one who combined clarity of thought, breadth of view, depth of understanding and mastery of language”.  As a gifted lecturer he drew the 23 year old Alan Turing’s attention to the problem which led him to the ‘universal Turing machine’ - this later became the foundation of the theory of computation.

During the Second World War, in 1942, Newman joined the government code and cipher school at Bletchley Park. There he became familiar with an important, German army cipher system, the Lorenz Schlüsselzusatz 40 (the SZ40) which had been ‘broken’ following an error by a German cipher clerk. Under Major Tester, a section called the Testery was started for routinely decoding SZ40 messages by hand. Newman joined the Testery but felt he was not good at the work and disliked it. He realized that it should be possible to perform the statistical aspects with the help of rapid, special-purpose electronic machinery employing paper tape and photoelectric cells, and with Turing proposed the logical requirements for such machinery. These requirements formed the basis of actual machines, culminating with the Colossus, the world's first large-scale electronic computer.

The section at Bletchley that used the machinery was headed by Newman and was called the Newmanry. The staff there consisted of about twenty cryptanalysts (including some distinguished mathematicians), about six engineers, and 273 Wrens. Newman ran this large section with the natural authority of a father figure, but in a democratic spirit. He took pleasure in the achievements of his staff, and originality flourished.

From 1945 to 1964 Newman was the Fielden professor of mathematics at Manchester University. He went there convinced that general-purpose computers were on the horizon, and he was active in persuading the authorities to build one. Manchester in June 1948 had the world's first demonstration of Turing's computer principle in working electronics, and at Newman’s invitation Turing moved there  that October as Reader in Mathematics.

Newman ran the mathematics department effortlessly, attracting a formidable succession of fine mathematicians and getting the best out of them. His retirement saw a second burst of mathematical research in geometric topology, culminating in a major theorem on topological manifolds, published in 1966, a remarkable counter-example to the view that mathematics is a young man’s game. He was elected FRS in 1939. In 1959 he was awarded the Sylvester medal of the Royal Society and in 1962 the De Morgan medal of the London Mathematical Society. He died in Cambridge in 1984.

It is perhaps fortunate that our most distinguished Old Citizen mathematician changed his name, for if the University of Manchester or Bletchley Park had realised whose medal was for sale we might have had stronger competition.
Terry Heard

[1] This list may not be complete as the prize lists for 1909-11 and 1914 are missing.