Manchester: Britain's greatest university?

It now has more working Nobel Laureates than any university in the country – and a history of discoveries that have shaped the world, writes Jonathan Brown

Saturday 09 October 2010 00:00 BST

The start of a new academic year always brings with it an extra sense of excitement to Manchester's Oxford Road.

This year, for the thousands of students and staff scurrying between lectures, dodging traffic or simply hanging out in the autumn sunshine, the new term has already brought the promise of something far more satisfying than the lure of the free drinks flyers being handed out by bar staff from local clubs.

As of this week, the University of Manchester, whose buildings bestride the busy road artery leading to the Cheshire countryside beyond, can boast four members of academic staff as Nobel laureates – a unique achievement in British academia. For the first time in living memory, the provincial red brick university has more Nobel Prize winners on its staff than either Oxford – which has none – or Cambridge, which has two.

The milestone was passed after the committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Professor Andre Geim and his young protégé Professor Konstantin Novoselov the Nobel prize for physics for their discovery of two-dimensional graphene, a 21st century wonder substance which at just one atom thick is the strongest material known to man. It is set to revolutionise everything from electronics to aviation.

The two Russian-born professors join Manchester alumni including the former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, who won the economics prize in 2001 and who now chairs the university's Brooks World Poverty Institute, and Sir John Sulston, who took the coveted trip to Stockholm in 2002 in recognition of his work sequencing the DNA of the nematode. He now heads Manchester's Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation.

That the city occupies a unique space in the development of the modern world is in little doubt. Its position at the centre of innovation is mirrored and informed by its university, which was founded by local industrialists in 1824 as the Mechanics Institute – a place to help workers master the scientific basics required in the new machine age. It was within these laboratories that Ernest Rutherford began his experiments that would lead to the splitting of the atom; where Sir James Chadwick discovered the neutron and where Alan Turing bequeathed the world the modern-day computer. Now with 25 Nobel laureates to its name, Manchester University – though still behind Oxford and Cambridge in total – has more than Austria, China, India and Hungary.

From her office in the newly constructed AV Hill building, named after another of Manchester's Nobel winners Archibald Hill, who was recognised in 1922 for discoveries in biophysics, the university's vice chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell has clearly been enjoying the attention the news from Sweden has focused on the institution.

Having four Nobel laureates on staff was a goal set by her predecessor in the job, Alan Gilbert, who hoped to achieve it by 2015. "It creates a real buzz," she said of the excitement surrounding the win. "But Andre [Geim] wants a car parking space near his building which is the biggest problem I am facing at the moment."

One of the reasons that everyone has been so proud of Geim and Novoselov's achievements is that their research was conducted entirely in Manchester. Stiglitz and Sulston, though undisputed giants in their respective fields, have academic commitments across the globe and have at best a part-time relationship with the university.

"Hiring in has been criticised and people say 'Doesn't it cost a lot?', but the answer to that is that both [Stiglitz and Sulston] have brought in more research money than they have cost," said Dame Nancy, who combines running the university with her own pioneering research into brain disease. And they pull in students as well.

"A friend of mine's daughter wanted to study economics and Manchester was top of her list because Stiglitz was here. I told her it was unlikely he would teach her but she wanted to come anyway," she added.

The value of big-name lecturers has become part of the Manchester tradition. Both the author Martin Amis, who teaches at the Centre for New Writing, and television scientist Dr Brian Cox pack out 600-capacity lecture halls within minutes of tickets becoming available.

Dame Nancy accepts that university heads have much in common with Premiership football managers, who must balance the need to sign big-money international talent while bringing on the "youth team" all at a time when the academic world – particularly in science – is increasingly competitive, due to the rise of research in India and China.

Over at the Schuster Building – which was opened in 1967 by another Nobel laureate, Professor Patrick Blackett, inventor of the cloud chamber – Professors Geim and Novoselov are trying to get on with their research after the furore of the past week. It has been unusual for these two driven scientists (they each work 80-hour weeks) to find themselves being stopped for autographs, asked to pose for pictures alongside awe-struck undergraduates or sent personal messages of congratulations from presidents and royalty – and, one senses, not a little discomfiting.

Surrounded by his three computer screens, his whiteboard plastered with complex equations, Professor Geim sips his tea from a frog mug (he once levitated one of the amphibians using magnetism). His wife has a laboratory down the corridor and he has little time for his new-found celebrity. But he does have concerns for the future.

"I have no plans to move, but if George Osborne's axe is as sharp as the rumours tell, we will all be considering moving to places like Singapore where they spend 3 per cent of their GDP on research – not a paltry 1.5 per cent which is going to be cut," he said.

Distinguished Alumni

Sir James Chadwick (1891-1974)

After surviving a spell in a German prisoner of war camp during the First World War, he returned to England and in 1932 discovered an unknown particle at the centre of an atom, which became known as the neutron due to its lack of electric charge. Three years later, his work won him the Nobel Prize in physics.

Joseph Stiglitz (1943 - )

The celebrated economist's work in the related areas of "screening" and "asymmetric information" – monetary transactions where one party has more or better information than the other – earned him plaudits. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, which he shared with George A. Akerlof and A. Michael Spence.

Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)

Known as the father of nuclear physics, the New Zealand-born scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 "for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances".

Hans Bethe (1906-2005)

Another nuclear physicist, the German-American scientist followed in the footsteps of Rutherford by doing further research into nuclear reactions – in particular the energy production of stars. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967.

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