I'm a Master of Mathematics, they tell me

I was surprised to receive a letter from the University of Cambridge telling me that they are awarding me a Master of Mathematics degree. Or it might be a Master of Advanced Study – the distinction they make is ambiguous. One way or the other, I qualify for the Retrospective Award of Masters Degrees for Part III Mathematics.

To be honest, this feels like a bit of a joke. The studies I did were indeed at a master’s degree level, including a dissertation, but there was no formal award at the end. The applied mathematics I studied was really more theoretical physics, following on from my undergraduate studies in physics. But all this was over 30 years ago. The last time I looked at the dissertation I could hardly understand a word in it, let alone an equation. Even its title means little to me now – something about particles that could in theory exist in imaginary time.

However, this is a reminder to me that it was on this course that, as I wrote here several years ago, I studied under Prof John Polkinghorne. That was just before Polkinghorne left the academic world to train as an Anglican priest – and before he returned to that world as an expert on the relationship of science and faith. Polkinghorne’s example partly inspired me also to leave the academic world and follow God’s calling, which was at first into a job in industry.

I don’t think I will be returning to Cambridge to pick up my new master’s degree in person. I already have an MA in Theology, from London Bible College (now London School of Theology).

0 thoughts on “I'm a Master of Mathematics, they tell me

  1. Thanks, Gary and Alan. I came up with a proof of the Riemann hypothesis while writing the dissertation (those particles in imaginary time were the zeroes of the zeta function), but the margin was not wide enough for it, and now I’ve forgotten how I did it!

  2. This looks similar to what my late uncle found. He duly collected his BA in PPE at Oxford in the 1920s, but I guess studied and did some work to a higher level. He went on to teach, spending most of his career at one school. When in the later 1950s he applied for the Head of Modern Studies Dept, he had to write to Oxford to obtain his MA certificate which was awarded, not quite on a time served basis but without further study at the later time.

  3. Actually, Colin, your uncle’s experience was a different one, which I also had many years ago. It was and I think still is standard for Oxford and Cambridge graduates to be awarded a BA which can then after a few years be converted to an MA. I converted my BA into an MA about 30 years ago, soon after I was first eligible for this. The situation with this MMath is rather different and relates to a course which was not at the time considered a degree course at all. But I guess the motivation for the upgrade is similar to your uncle’s: ex-students’ desire to see their studies adequately reflected in qualifications which look good on their CVs. Indeed my CV will soon feature my new master’s degree.

  4. A slight change of plan. The graduation ceremony was delayed until October, and as I am now in Chelmsford only fifty miles from Cambridge I decided to attend. It will be a chance for my wife to join me in a taste of the British academic life. So next month I should formally graduate as MMath. I hope to have a photo or two to post.

    Meanwhile I found some more reflections on Polkinghorne’s departure from Cambridge, an extract from a new book Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion.

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