Dr Ron Reid-Edwards, Fellow in Mathematics

Dr Ron Reid-Edwards

It’s BHM this month – which aspect of Black history, be it a person, event or movement, would you like people to learn about this year?

I’ll give three.

There is a feeling that we are living through an important point in Black history in the form of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Regardless of your personal views on defunding the police or decolonising curricula, I hope that people will continue to take the time to reflect on the experiences of those who may be their colleagues or neighbours but have experienced very different lives. The open mindedness and willingness to question assumptions about the society we share and our own behaviour is not unique to the BLM movement but it does have a special resonance during BHM.

This year in particular, the shaping of many of our public institutions such as the NHS by people traveling from the Caribbean to make new lives in the UK, often meeting tremendous hostility at the time, deserves recollecting. The juxtaposition of this part of our history, the outpouring of gratitude towards those who work in and support the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic, and the all-too recent Windrush scandal is illustrative and reminds us why BLM is relevant and (sadly) necessary.

Finally, I find it a shame that ancient human history is not taught in schools. Our views are often formed by perspectives that are parochial in both time and space. I think an appreciation of the origin of homo sapiens, the great migrations, and how we got to where we are today would provide a counterweight to some of the more ugly rhetoric that is now resurgent in some parts of the world. It’s a gripping story but it also gives a healthy perspective and a reminder that ultimately we are all of one race. Human.

Who are your BME role models and why?

I remember reading Barack Obama’s book Dreams of my Father and finding his description of racial tolerance from the perspective of someone of mixed race resonating with me. I am mixed race and I had often felt that discussions of race were often very polar, neglecting the experiences of those of us who don’t really fit neatly into one box or another. In many ways mixed race couples, such as my mother and father, are the physical embodiment of a racially tolerant society and I felt that such experiences did not have a voice. Obama was not the first to give that perspective such a voice but his prose is especially eloquent and, moreover, honest.

Martin Luther King Jr. He was a great orator and had remarkable and enduring vision of, not just racial reconciliation and harmony within the United States, but of a better society. Even in the face of those who would try to pull him in more radical or violent directions he remained reflective, open-minded and honest. Not a bad set of principles to try to live by. His writing, even taken out of the context of the times, is powerful, uplifting and resonates still today. Whereas some political writing provokes outrage at injustice, his is uplifting and leaves you hopeful of a brighter tomorrow.

I have an affinity for Ronald McNair, not just because we share the same first name. He was an astronaut. That was the job I had wanted to do when I was growing up. I gave up my space travel dreams and embraced theoretical physics. Like me, he also trained as a Physicist. Unlike me, he flew as a mission specialist on the space shuttle and became the second African American astronaut to fly in space. He even has a crater in the moon named after him. Sadly, he died in the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986. He also has another place in African American history: At the age of nine he refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library without being allowed to check out his books. After the police and his mother were called, he was allowed to borrow books from the library. The library is now named after him.

What would racial equality look like to you?

We are all to some degree products of our upbringing. I think growing up in a mixed race household, watching films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (a favourite of my parents), gave me a certain colour-blindness that has informed my world view (my wife finds it interesting that I don’t hear my mother’s Jamaican accent). I think my idea of racial equality would be a world in which a person’s race is about as relevant as the colour of their hair in determining their opportunities, chances of success in life and how accepted they feel by society. As is often the case, Martin Luther King Jr said it best “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. I think the challenge today is to ensure that this sentiment extends to unconscious judgements too.

What have you gone on to do since graduation?

I studied my undergraduate degree in Oxford and only later came to Cambridge to read Part III Mathematics (at Caius, where I met my wife). I then went on to do a PhD at Queen Mary in London. During my PhD I spent a lot of time visiting Imperial and stayed on there for a year after my PhD. I then did postdoctoral work in Hamburg, London and Oxford before taking up a permanent lectureship in Hull. I returned to Cambridge as a Staff Fellow and the Thomas and Stephan Körner Fellow in Mathematics at Trinity Hall in 2017. I am also the Director of Studies in Mathematics and a Tutor in the College, an affiliated lecturer at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and a member of the High Energy Theory research group. I teach mostly applied mathematics and am currently the lecturer for the Part III course in String Theory.

What’s your abiding memory of Trinity Hall?

There are many and, I hope, very many more to come. Something that will always stay with me is the memory of the Admission of Fellows and Scholars, where I formally became a Fellow of the College. The evening begins with a ceremony in the College chapel in which the Master calls on new Fellows to take an oath and then presents them with a copy of the College Statutes (which they have just vowed to uphold). Before returning to your seat, the chaplain leads you to the College Register, a huge and ancient book to which you are asked to add your name. At the end of the ceremony, everyone proceeds through a secret door from the chapel to hall to have dinner. It does nothing for ones own sense of humility but it was a lot of fun. It was on my birthday too.

On the other end of the scale, I remember my children (aged three and five) coming into College one Saturday and later explaining to a family friend what Trinity Hall is like. With much excitement my eldest regaled her of tales of a “room full of sweets and hot chocolate”. It was only in the following week, when I spotted the rather diminished bowl of sweets in the SCR, that I realised which room he had been talking about.

Why did you choose to study your subject?

I actually started academic life as a physicist. I became interested in Theoretical Physics reading popular science books whilst at school and decided on a plan to read Physics at University. What excited me then and still does today is the fact that we can study physical processes here on Earth and determine what is true and what is not true about nature. We can then use that knowledge to gain a concrete and detailed understanding of events outside the scope of what any human will ever directly experience. Extreme events such as the process occurring moments after the Big Bang or in the heart of an atom, can be understood and appreciated in intricate detail. It’s beautiful and it’s exciting. We also find that the mathematics we develop and discover independently of the real world usually finds its way into descriptions of nature at some level. It seems no matter how clever we think we are as mathematicians, nature has always had those ideas first and employed them in elegant ways we would never have dreamed of.

What advice would you give your younger self?

The same advice I give to my kids: listen to your parents! In fact, I think I might like the advice to go the other way. Watching my children grow up and explore the world, I fear that I had a wisdom and clarity in my youth that has somehow diminished with age. I’m interested to know what advice my younger self would give me.

I would encourage my younger self to be more patient with mathematics. The way textbooks and lecturers present results is with the clarity of hindsight. The right way to think about something is often obvious when you have the answer but can be disorientingly obscure beforehand. Finding mathematical truth in nature involves a lot of trial and error, dead ends, and following hunches. It is a very creative process which can be demoralising at times but is ultimately wonderfully rewarding.