In the July 2009 issue of the Gazette of the Australian Mathematical Society, the president Nalini Joshi described spending time at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge as being “in mathematical heaven” and I must say that I agree.

The Newton Institute is one of the buildings in Cambridge University’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences which is a pretty spectacular modern complex (though I’m not sure what the “towers” are for?) devoted entirely to various flavours of mathematical science.

The Newton Institute itself seems to have been designed simply by asking mathematicians what sort of environment would be most conducive to producing mathematics. An open central area is dotted with chairs and tables, with small shared offices around the perimeter. An automatic coffee machine supplies reasonable quality raw material to be turned into theorems. Even though Cambridge University’s mathematics library is about 50m from the Institute, the Newton Institute has a small private library that contains a good selection of well-known books.

The main sign that the building was designed by mathematicians though is that on almost every wall, there are the highest quality ground glass chalkboards, complete with signs saying “Please Leave” on one side and “Please Erase” on the other, to be left for the cleaners. And when I say “almost every wall”, I really mean it!

I was there for about four months during the first half of 2008, attending the program on Combinatorics and Statistical Mechanics, and it was a wonderful experience. Cycling round Cambridge, thinking, doing and talking mathematics, Wednesday evening soccer and the English pubs – heaven indeed!

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