A radical tradition

Formed by students fleeing persecution, the University of Cambridge has fostered a spirit of iconoclasm, disruption and intellectual freedom for 800 years and counting

When Lord Byron – poet, politician and Romantic troublemaker – was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was so antagonised by a rule forbidding students from owning a pet dog that he decided to do something about it. In a typically transgressive stroke of brilliance, Byron got hold of a bear instead, feeding it on bread and milk and arguing that there was nothing in the university statutes banning these particular beasts from being kept as pets. And the college, to its credit, played along, allowing Byron to keep his bear (which died in 1810) just as Selwyn College, two centuries later, allowed a master to keep his Bassett hound, so long as he registered it as a “very large cat”.

The story of Byron and his bear isn’t mere whimsy. Academic flair for disruption and the institutional accommodation of a certain amount of rebellion are powerful tools, and some even consider them the key to understanding Cambridge’s success at producing so many historic innovators. Cambridge has a reputation for welcoming those unafraid to push the boundaries, and who are encouraged and inspired rather than constrained and stifled by the educational apparatus of the institute that surrounds them.

It is surely no coincidence that Cambridge alumni have broken new ground in just about every area of arts and science. These include Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Germaine Greer, JK Galbraith, Dian Fossey, Niels Bohr, Dorothy Hodgkin, Bertrand Russell, Rosalind Franklin, Joseph Stiglitz, Sylvia Plath, Delia Derbyshire, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Francis Crick, James Watson, Amartya Sen and Vladimir Nabokov. Cambridge has produced the people who invented the camera, the computer and the jet engine, and the discoverers of penicillin, IVF, DNA and hydrogen, as well as trailblazing economists, philosophers and writers. Almost 100 people affiliated with Cambridge University have been awarded Nobel prizes and dozens more have received Grammys, Emmys, Oscars, Pulitzers and Bookers. It’s a pool of talent that spills over into the surrounding city – Cambridge has more patents granted per 100,000 residents than the next five UK cities combined, reflecting a dynamic approach to innovation that embraces entrepreneurship.


Inventors of science

In recent decades, Cambridge has excelled in the fields of life science and computing. Byron surely would have approved of his only legitimate child, Ada Lovelace, who is considered the world’s first computer programmer. Lovelace excelled with both words and numbers, and once tried to find a mathematical formula for winning at gambling, but is famous for writing the world’s first algorithm while working on the proto-computer designed by Cambridge’s Charles Babbage.

Indeed, it seems apposite that the word “scientist” itself was coined by a Cambridge man, William Whewell, a student and master at Trinity. Whewell was a polymath who began his studies in mathematics but published papers on mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, architecture and economics, wrote poetry, translated Goethe and invented numerous new words (in addition to “scientist”), among them “physicist”, “linguistics”, “ion”, “anode” and “cathode”. He even found the time to become ordained as a priest, before dying after falling when riding a horse – the one skill, it seems, he failed to master. Whewell was the sort of figure who CP Snow lamented the lack of in 1959 when Snow gave his far-sighted speech about “the two cultures”, arguing against specialisation, most notably the growing division between science and the humanities. Snow, needless to say, was a Fellow at Christ’s College and delivered his lecture at Senate House, Cambridge.


Iconoclasm in action

So what is it about Cambridge that cultivates such iconoclasts? Cambridge has produced notably fewer Prime Ministers than Oxford University – 15 to Oxford’s 27 – and none since Stanley Baldwin. Indeed, it is often argued that Cambridge creates men and women who set out to change the world rather than simply run it, something that can be traced directly to its foundation in 1209. Cambridge was initially created by those fleeing state persecution at Oxford, and has thereafter maintained the utmost respect for the principles of academic freedom and self-government, modelling itself on Paris as much as Oxford.

This defining spirit of fierce individuality can be detected throughout Cambridge University’s evolution. It was to Cambridge that Erasmus came to teach in 1510, and his translation of the New Testament into Greek and Latin was a major signpost on the road to Reformation. The first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury was a Cambridge man – Thomas Cranmer – as was William Tyndale, the first man to translate the Bible into English. Several leading Pilgrim Fathers were educated in Cambridge, striking out for North America having absorbed the university’s atmosphere of disruptive reform, as did England’s own revolutionary Oliver Cromwell. Cambridge was a Roundhead/Parliamentarian city during the English Civil War, while Oxford remained loyal to the crown.

While leading Cambridge scientists of the 16th and 17th century include the brilliant and unorthodox Isaac Newton and Sir Francis Bacon, many of Cambridge’s most impressive achievements came after the Enlightenment. This is when Charles Babbage began applying his knowledge of mathematics to the invention of the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was an extraordinary device that would perform mathematical calculations using punch cards. Although uncompleted, it is considered to be one of the first steps on the road to computing. Charles Darwin came to Cambridge in 1828, and developed a love for natural history as well as theology and medicine. Biographers suggest that the achievements of both Darwin and Babbage were directly related to the nature of the educational and philosophical experience they received at Cambridge.


Cambridge vs Oxford

The principle difference between Cambridge and other great universities was articulated by Stephen Fry (Queens’, Cambridge) in his autobiography, when he quoted from a book by Robert Hewison about Monty Python, the pioneering comedy group.

As Fry writes: “Monty Python: The Case Against shows how the great Pythons were divided along Oxford and Cambridge lines. Those long lean Cantabrigians (Virginia Woolf had noted 50 years earlier how Cambridge breeds them taller than Oxford) Cleese, Chapman and Idle were all icy logic, sarcasm, cruelty and verbal play while the Oxonians Jones and Palin were warmer, sillier and more surreal. ‘Let’s have a dozen Pantomime Princess Margarets running over a hill!’ Jones might suggest, to which Cleese would coldly riposte, ‘Why?’ You might see the same thing in the differences between Cambridge’s Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller and Oxford’s Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. It is more than possible that you find the cuddly Dudley and the even cuddlier Alan Bennett and Michael Palin much more likeable than their tall, aloof and rather forbidding Cambridge counterparts. And perhaps this extends down to the later incarnations – Oxford’s Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis are shorter and surely sweeter than the lofty and fractious Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’.”

Similarly, a biographer of Lord Byron has noted that the incident with the bear could be seen “as a superior sort of joke”, with a “particular Cambridge resonance in its comedy of logic taken to extremes”. Cambridge, observed Fry, has little of the romance of Oxford, with its dreaming spires and Brideshead nostalgia. Instead, it is more idealistic, iconoclastic and dissident. “Cambridge produces martyrs and Oxford burns them,” wrote Fry, adding that although he’s often attributed this quote, he can’t actually remember whether he borrowed it from somebody else.


Fostering intellectual freedom

“The core founding principle of Cambridge is to find really bright people and give them freedom to pursue that interest,” explains Stewart McTavish, Director of IdeaSpace, a body that works with Cambridge to identify entrepreneurs and engineers who can combine to produce high-impact technological start-ups. While McTavish admits his wariness of generalisations, he argues that Cambridge’s effectiveness has a great deal to do with the trust it places in its students and professors. “If you are exploring things there will always be opinions about what should be explored,” he says, “but if you find the best people to do that exploration in their field, they will be able to find the answers.”

McTavish applies his thoughts specifically to the area of intellectual property (IP). “Cambridge and Oxford took very different approaches,” he says. “At Cambridge, although the university asserts ownership, it leaves control of the commercialisation down to the academic. So, while Cambridge owns the IP, the academic can choose whether to work with Cambridge Enterprise or take it down his or her own route – it is left to the academic to decide the best way to do that rather than the university or any other corporate body. At Oxford there isn’t that choice. For Cambridge, that creates a space. It’s a structural thing and the structure needs to be set up to enable freedom of exploration and expression. You are creating parameters for freedom, not parameters to control the outcome.”


The gift of the lab

To do this effectively, Cambridge needs both platforms and partners, and the university has been adept at finding both. This can be epitomised by the history of the Cavendish Laboratory, a factory of innovation that was founded in 1874 for the express purposes of exploring experimental physics and meeting the requirements of the new industrial world. Previously, Cambridge scientists had to do without any sort of overarching institutional support but the Cavendish, created by the brilliant Scottish mathematician James Clark Maxwell, provided them with both the equipment they needed and a surrounding support network, and then pretty much left them alone. Cavendish professors were thereafter instrumental in beginning the revolution that lead to the discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, in discovering the electron, in proving that E=mc2, in producing the first controlled nuclear disintegrations induced by accelerated high-energy particles and in determining the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. More recently, the Cavendish has lead research into nanotechnology, cold atoms and ultra-low temperature physics.

The Cavendish was also instrumental in taking the world of the laboratory out into the surrounding city, opening lines of communication between scientists and the marketplace. When Nevill Mott was Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics he produced the Mott Report in 1969, which recommended an expansion of “science-based industry” close to Cambridge to take advantage of the area’s growing scientific expertise, equipment and libraries. This led directly to the creation of the Cambridge Science Park, the oldest science park in the UK and a space that has adapted to changing needs. The Science Park has been a key aspect of the Cambridge Cluster, which can therefore trace its heritage directly back to the Cavendish Laboratory.


Where science meets business

It’s into this “high-serendipity environment” that a body like IdeaSpace is able to tap. It is the closest thing that the university has to an incubator, although, in the spirit of Cambridge’s history of academic and intellectual freedom, McTavish insists “we very consciously run it not as a university incubator”. IdeaSpace brings together innovators and investors from across different disciplines with a view to fostering the emergence and growth of new innovation leaders.

“We find the best people in the shared space between the university and the entrepreneurial community,” he says. “With that interaction, we do our best to encourage not individual companies as much as leaders who will go on to create many companies over time. Again, it’s about allowing people to develop and discover their own potential.” Success stories include Audio Analytics, which produces embeddable sound sensors that can detect different tones, such as aggression and distress, to be used in a new breed of intelligent baby monitor.

This is just one of the numerous businesses currently operating out of Cambridge that hope to change lives in the uncertain world of the future, where computing, climate change and increased life expectancy raise enormous and complex issues. Cambridge, for instance, is at the forefront of research into the opportunities and challenges presented by artificial intelligence (AI), with the Leverhulme Centre For the Future of Intelligence taking a “two cultures” approach to the issue of AI. The centre was created as a typically Cambridge response to a call for “bold, disruptive thinking” regarding AI and builds on the work of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which analyses emerging risks including climate change, disease, warfare and technological revolutions.

Stephen Hawking has said that when human-level AI does occur “it’s likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, so there’s huge value in getting it right.” The Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence brings together computer scientists, philosophers and social scientists to examine the technical, practical and philosophical questions raised by AI – namely, what should we be considering during scientific explorations to make sure we don’t accidentally kill everybody on the planet. After all, just as Lord Byron made sure the bear he brought to Cambridge was a tame one, nobody wants to innovate themselves out of existence.