Nurturing excellence

Christopher Wood said: ‘An Oxford man walks down the street and thinks that he owns it, a Cambridge man doesn’t give a toss who owns it’.

In the year 2009 AD, the University of Cambridge celebrated its birthday. What was so special about it? Well, it happened to be the 800th birthday of that venerable institution. How many organisations can today claim a lifespan that long and that too with an exceptionally bright academic and scholastic record of achievements? But the beginning of this institution was by no means in benign circumstances.

There already existed a university in Oxford. But, in 1209, the dominant issue involving the town and gown was: Who had the greater power, the King or the Pope? The issue that crystallised the question was: Who could appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury — King John of England or Pope Innocent III in the Vatican? The town was for the King, whereas many scholars in the university thought otherwise. Such issues often led to violence. Earlier, in 1170, Thomas Becket had been assassinated on the order of King Henry II, the father of King John. Fear of persecution and death prompted the dissenting scholars to quit Oxford and seek safer environment, which they found in Cambridge. There, in 1209, they founded another university. In 1231, King Henry III granted charter to both Oxford and Cambridge which exempted them from taxes. Two years after that a Bull from Pope Gregory IX gave their graduates the right to teach everywhere. Thus the fledgling universities found support both from the King and the Pope.
A look at the long history of eight centuries shows that Cambridge went through periods of controversies both religious and secular. Discussion and arguments were not uncommon when proposals for introducing new topics for teaching were introduced. The appointment of salaried professors who taught certain scholarly subjects in the 15th century led to conflicts between the Regent Masters who had till then been in the administrative driving seats.
It was against this background that King Henry VIII initiated his rebellion against the Pope by eliciting help from some “radicals” from Cambridge like Edward Foxe, the Provost of King’s College. (It is interesting that even today King’s College has the reputation for radical views.) Foxe, however, was outshone by his colleague Edward Cranmer who initiated many religious reforms as the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately, after Henry VIII and Edward VI, the ruler was the catholic Queen Mary. During her short reign, death sentences were handed out to reformers like Cranmer and his colleagues.
The tussle against the monarch continued and Queen Elizabeth imposed new statutes to curtail or limit the powers of academics and raise those of College Masters (the Cambridge word for “Principals”). These controversies finally led to the Civil War in which Oliver Cromwell, the Cambridge Member of Parliament, defeated King Charles I. The King was beheaded and there was a short period of anti-royal feeling in the country. Amongst the supporters of the anti-royal feeling, one may mention John Milton the poet and John Wilkins, the Founder of the Royal Society.
Isaac Newton’s work heralded a new era when science stepped in. Natural philosophy, as the new discipline was called, described man’s attempt to solve the riddles of nature. This opened out the field in which Cambridge has always been amongst the leaders. The number of Nobel Laureates from the university (including those who had a Cambridge connection, like a degree or fellowship), is 89 since 1904, the highest amongst all institutions.
But historically, the university has had friendly rivalry in sports as well as in other fields with Oxford. Cambridge has done better in science whereas Oxford has excelled in the humanities and politics. Oxford can rattle off names of alumni who became famous as British Prime Ministers, whereas Cambridge can read off its list of scientists. As expressed by the author Christopher Wood: “An Oxford man walks down the street and thinks that he owns it, a Cambridge man walks down the street and doesn’t give a toss who owns it”.
Even Cambridge with its long history is not free from academic rivalries, power politics and other human failings. The apocryphal story involving two great scientists who could not get on well as colleagues is an example. Rutherford at the Cavendish Labs in Cambridge ran into Eddington, the cosmologist, and asked the latter, how old he thought the universe was. Using the then available cosmological data, Eddington replied, “About 2,000 million years”. Eddington felt that such a large number would impress any person, scientist or otherwise. But not Rutherford, who produced a piece of rock from his pocket and said: “I have just estimated the age of this rock to be 3,000 million years.”
In my student days at Cambridge, I attended lectures on Einstein’s relativity theory. As it happened, a new experiment verifying a prediction of Einstein’s general relativity was announced at Oxford. Naturally it received a lot of publicity in the media. However, an undergraduate who was attending the same lectures as I, found an important issue that the experimentalists had not addressed. As a result the conclusion drawn from the experiment became null and void. This finding was considered important and was published in an important journal. The caveat found by him was indeed important and the experiment had to be repeated with that in view. The undergraduate was Brian Josephson who later went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work that became famous as Josephson Effect.
The virtues of exclusivity and excellence do not come easy in a competitive world. They have to be appreciated and sought after. The following anecdote tells a lot. A tourist was admiring a college lawn in Cambridge. He finally summoned up the courage to ask the dignified college porter standing nearby: “Sir, will you please tell me how you nurture these lawns that they are so lush and healthy?” The porter described the procedure. “But I do all that back home. But our lawn does not look so good.” The porter smiled and added: “I forgot to mention that the lawns have to be tended for two centuries before they attain that quality.”

The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus

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