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Tour de Force: A Noble Ambition

For what was once a damp, insignificant and remote fen town on the edge of England, Cambridge is one of the UK’s great overachievers. And there is no area in which the city’s university has achieved more than in the field of science.

“There must be something ‘scientific’ in the city’s air,” says Blue Badge guide Rosie Zanders. “Cambridge colleges have produced 91 Nobel Prize winners; more than any other university in Europe – more than the whole of France.”

Trinity College boasts an astonishing 32 laureates, but centuries before the Nobel avalanche, it was home to oneof the world’s greatest scientists: Sir Isaac Newton.

“Newton was born in Lincolnshire on Christmas Day in 1642 – the same year that Galileo died,” explains Rosie. “His widowed mother wanted him to run the family farm, but Newton hated the idea. So, with financial help from his uncle, he went up to Trinity College.

“In 1665, plague closed the university and Newton returned home where – according to legend – he sat under a tree, an apple fell on his head and the theory of gravity was born.

“At the front of Trinity College is an apple tree said to be taken from a cutting of the original ‘gravity tree’. The college library has a first edition Newton’s Principia Mathematica; often described as the most important science book ever written, this copy includes the great man’s hand-written notes. In Trinity chapel there is a statue of the scientist holding a prism – Newton also discovered the property of light – and whenever I show this to young kids, they ask me if he did experiments with Toblerone.

“During the 17th century superstition and science were inextricably linked. The man who wrote the theory of gravity spent half his time experimenting with alchemy. This was a heresy – and Newton risked being tried and hanged – so he did this work in secret. When the college dug up its garden to put in new cables, they discovered chemicals in the ground believed to originate from Newton’s alchemy experiments.

“Newton’s brilliant ideas may have defined the modern world, but ‘scientific’ teaching at Cambridge was stuck in the past. It was based on the study of ancient texts, not experiment and new discovery. In the 1800s one student defied these traditions with a radical new theory that he developed while at Christ’s College.

“Charles Darwin failed his medical degree at Edinburgh because he could not stand the sight of blood. So his father sent to him Cambridge to study for the priesthood, but Darwin was more interested in local fenland beetles than the cloistered world of divinity. He befriended a botany professor who arranged for him to join HMS Beagle on the five-year voyage that inspired his ideas about evolution – theories that are the foundation of modern life sciences.

“Darwin represented the last of the university’s ‘gentleman scholars’ – men from wealthy families for whom science was an all-consuming interest, but not a profession. This changed in 1874 with the opening of the Cavendish Laboratory, the first purpose-built research and teaching laboratory in Britain.

“Named after the former Peterhouse college student who discovered hydrogen, the Cavendish belatedly brought proper experimental science to the university. It was designed by James Clerk Maxwell, whose theory of electromagnetic radiation led to the development of radio, TV and radar.

“No other building can claim so many world-changing scientific achievements: in 1897 JJ Thomson discovered the electron at the Cavendish, paving the way for electronics and the computer; Ernest Rutherford first split the atom in this building, ushering in the nuclear age; and in 1953 it was where Crick and Watson determined the structure of DNA.

“The pair announced the discovery of the double helix in The Eagle, across the road from the Cavendish. The pub has a corner dedicated to the duo and sells Eagle DNA beer, brewed in their honour.

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“Charles Babbage was another Peterhouse graduate. In the 1840s he drew designs for a Difference Engine, the first mechanical computer. The inventor didn’t have money to construct his machine and it wasn’t built until The Science Museum in London made one in 1985. Babbage was aneccentric inventor, who designed aquatic shoes for walking on water – and nearly drowned while testing them – and an aerial postal system using wires and church spires.

“Another giant in the history of computing was Alan Turing. He was a student and fellow at King’s College, where he developed the ‘Turing Machine’ – the basis of all modern computing. Scruffy, solitary and shy, Turing would go on to be the key figure in breaking German secret codes during WWII, an achievement that shortened the war by several years. It is to Britain’s shame that after the war he was put on trial for being gay – the conviction leading to his eventual suicide.

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“Turing has since been officially pardoned and Hollywood recently paid tribute to him in the film The Imitation Game. This movie came out at the same time as The Theory of Everything, with actor Eddie Redmayne – himself a Cambridge graduate – winning an Oscar for his portrayal of the world’s most famous living scientist: Stephen Hawking.

“Hawking came to Trinity Hall as a postgraduate student in 1962. He had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given two years to live. Hawking later became a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, who made sure he could continue his research and provided him with an adapted house where the wrote his book, A Complete History of Time.

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“The cosmologist is a living symbol of university science that started with Newton and continues today. For Cambridge guides it is a unique opportunity to tell the story of people who created the modern world, and to talk about the latest cutting edge research that is shaping our future.”

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