Heavy metal or blue jeans? No, just maths

The Wranglers of Cambridge University – the elite maths students – have a colourful history

Last week, the results of the final examinations in mathematics were read out at the Senate House in Cambridge University. Following tradition, the class list was then tossed over the balcony, and the names of this year’s Wranglers were known.

The Wranglers could be a rock group or a brand of American jeans, but they are also the students who gain first-class honours degrees in the examinations known as the Mathematical Tripos, the one ranked first being Senior Wrangler.

Great prestige attaches to the top few Wranglers, opening opportunities for their future professional careers. To become Senior Wrangler was once regarded as “the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain”. In the past, the rankings in the exams were made public. Since 1910, only the class of degree has been given, but the examiner tips his hat when announcing the name of the top student.

The notoriously difficult Tripos were a test of speed and well-practised problem-solving techniques, and many brilliant students who were inadequately drilled failed to top the class. To have any hope, students needed to be coached like racing thoroughbreds. The “Old Tripos” tested the mettle of the strongest students. In 1854, when James Clark Maxwell was beaten into second place by Edward Routh, the Tripos comprised 16 papers over eight days – more than 40 hours in total. Routh went on to become the most successful coach, training 27 Senior Wranglers. Maxwell made monumental contributions to the theory of electromagnetism.


During the 19th century, mathematics in Britain lagged behind developments in Germany and France. One of the most inventive and original students who did not make Senior Wrangler was GH Hardy, the leading British mathematician of the20th century. Hardy placed some blame for Britain’s poor performance on the Tripos, stating that they were a poor training for a pure mathematician. Substantial reforms, introduced in 1909, changed the nature of the Tripos. Hardy was largely responsible for the change of focus to more pure mathematics.

There were two individuals who were ranked number one but who did not become Senior Wrangler. One was Philippa Fawcett who, in 1890, was declared to be “above the Senior Wrangler”. Her marks were 13 per cent ahead of the next in line but, while women were permitted to take the examinations, they were not allowed at that time to be members of the university or to receive degrees. The other was the Hungarian-born mathematician George Polya. He had contributed to the reform of the Tripos and, at the request of Hardy, had sat the examination in 1925. To the great surprise of Hardy, Polya achieved the highest mark, which, were he a student, would have made him Senior Wrangler.

George Stokes and William Thompson, two Irish-born scientists, were both Wranglers. Stokes was Senior Wrangler in 1841. Thompson, later Lord Kelvin, reckoned himself a “shoo-in” for the honour in 1845. According to legend, he dispatched one of the college servants thus: “Just pop down to the Senate House and see who is Second Wrangler”. The servant returned with the answer: “You, sir!”

Peter Lynch is professor of meteorology at University College Dublin. He blogs at thatsmaths.com