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Michael Green Replaces Hawking at Cambridge

Michael Green has been appointed as the Cambridge University Lucasian professor of mathematics, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton and previously held by Stephen Hawking. Hawking resigned from the university at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year because of a university policy that requires resignation at age 67 (see "Hawking to Step Down from Professorship"). Hawking will, among other things, be working some at Canada's Perimeter Institute, where he has accepted a Distinguished Research Chair position. (The Institute recently named a new building after Hawking.)

So on to his successor, Michael Green, who assumes the professorship on November 1. He has some big shoes to fill - not only has the position been held by Newton & Hawking, but also by Charles Babbage and Nobel-winner Paul Dirac (known as the British Einstein) - but he's created some big footprints himself, as one of the major innovators in the early days of string theory. Together with John Schwarz, Green helped to show that string theory had the ability to cancel many anomalies which had almost doomed the theory, leading to the "first superstring revolution" in the early 1980s.

While Green is certainly worthy of accolades, I've got to confess that I'm a bit startled that he's been appointed to this role. Green is 63, which means that he'll only be able to hold the position for 4 years before retiring himself. Hawking, alternately, was appointed when he was 37, so was able to hold the position for 30 years. Because of the high profile of the position with Hawking leaving, Cambridge University was no doubt under pressure to give it to someone with extensive achievements, and Green is an excellent choice in this regard.

However, I wonder if this isn't partly a sign that there just not that many younger British innovators of mathematical physics to choose from. Hawking was awarded the post in 1979 for work done in the 1960's and early 1970s. Thirty years later, his replacement is largely being recognized for groundbreaking work performed in the early 1980s. What younger British physicist could be appointed the position for groundbreaking work performed in the late 1990s and early 2000s? In four years, when Green is forced to retire, what worthy successor will replace him? What young up-and-comer will have the gravitas needed for this post?

Honestly, I can't think of many, and with a new emphasis on only funding research that provides explicit economic benefit, it's unclear that the British government will foster more theoretical physics innovators in the future. Do you have any suggestions? Leave them here.

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