Indian-origin wizard wins 'Nobel Prize' of Mathematics

Discussion in 'Politics & Society' started by Srinivas_K, Aug 13, 2014.

  1. Srinivas_K

    Srinivas_K Senior Member Senior Member

    Jun 17, 2009
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    Indian-origin wizard wins 'Nobel Prize' of Mathematics

    WASHINGTON: Mathematicians of Indian- and Iranian-origin are among the four winners of the 2014 Fields Medal, widely considered the Nobel Prize for maths that has been broadly dominated by white males since it was instituted in 1936.

    The award going to Princeton University's Manjul Bhargava, a Canadian-American maths wizard was no surprise; although he is the first person of Indian origin, he was the hot favorite in pre-award polls among peers.

    READ ALSO: Indian-origin Subhash Khot wins global maths prize

    The sensational co-winner is Maryam Mirzakhani, a female Iranian mathematician who teaches at Stanford University. It is the first time a female mathematician has won the Fields medal; all 52 previous winners have been men in a field traditionally dominated by the male of the species.

    Expectedly, it created a ripple in the rarefied maths world.

    Mirzakhani's success was "hugely symbolic and I hope it will encourage more women to get into mathematics because we need more women. I am very happy that now we can put to rest that particular 'it has never happened before'," Ingrid Daubechies, herself the first female president of the International mathematical Union (IMU), said while announcing the award.

    The two other winners this year are Artur Avila from Brazil and Martin Hairer from Austria. Avila is also the first Brazilian and Latin American to win the medal.

    One to four Fields Medals are awarded once every four years to mathematicians under the age of 40 years at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), which meets every four years. The presentation will take place in Seoul on Wednesday at the quadrennial IMU Congress (Hyderabad hosted it in 2010).

    Although the prize money ($15,000) is chump change (approximately 1/100th) compared to the Nobel Prize, the award, long dominated by Americans, Russians, French, and Britons (38 medals between them), is the highest recognition in the world of mathematics.

    Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields instituted it at a time mathematicians felt short-changed that they had no Nobel recognition. The Nobel Prize is awarded for literature, peace, economics, physiology or medicine, chemistry and physics — but not for mathematics.

    Legend — or the apocryphal story — goes that Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, who instituted the Nobel Prize, disdained maths after someone he loved cheated on him — with a mathematician. But there is no historical basis to the story. More likely fact is that Nobel didn't care much for maths because it was not considered a practical science from which humanity could benefit (a chief purpose for creating the Nobel Foundation).

    All that has changed, of course. Mathematics offers solutions to everyday issues from airline scheduling to Internet security, even though many practitioners pursue esoteric problems described in dense language incomprehensible to the layman. Bhargava's PhD thesis, for instance, is said to have helped in the "determination of the asymptotic density of discriminants of quartic and quintic number fields."

    Although a Canadian-American who was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Bhargava is no stranger to India or to Indian mathematicians. Indeed, his mother, Mira Bhargava, is herself a rare female mathematician, teaching at Hofstra University (another well-known female Indian-American mathematician is Bhama Srinivasan at the University of Chicago).
    Manjul has also collaborated with many Indian mathematicians, and his work with fellow Princeton scholar Arul Shankar, his PhD student, won them the Fermat Prize in 2011. Manjul's own PhD advisor was Andrew Wiles, famous for proving Fermat's last theorem.

    Bhargava was awarded the 2012 Infosys Prize in mathematics for his "extraordinarily original work in algebraic number theory, which has revolutionized the way in which number fields and elliptic curves are counted." That came on top of almost every other top prize in maths, from the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize in 2005 to the American mathematical Society's Cole Prize in 2008. So the Fields Medal comes as no great surprise to the mathematical community in the US or in India.

    Last week, as speculation heated up about possible 2014 winners of Fields Medal, an online poll put Bhargava on top with 516 votes, with Avila coming second with 486 votes. Apparently, his peers pretty much expected it. Which is not surprising for someone who became a tenured full professor within two years of finishing graduate school, an Ivy League record, and the second youngest full professor in Princeton's history.

    That's not all. Before you think all he does is crunch numbers, Bhargava is also an accomplished tabla player (tutored by Zakir Hussain) and has the number on Sanskrit, which he learned from his grandfather Purushottam Lal Bhargava, was the head of the Sanskrit department of the University of Rajasthan, during family visits to Jaipur. He sees close links between his three loves noting how beats of tabla and rhythms of Sanskrit poetry are highly mathematical.

    Such recognition came to him early. In past interviews, he has often recounted how in Grade 3, he became curious about how many oranges it takes to make a pyramid. Just as well his mathematician mother and chemist father were well-to-do: they indulged him with oranges till he figured out the answer, which was not long coming. Now he's at the pinnacle of his calling.

    Indian-origin wizard wins 'Nobel Prize' of Mathematics - The Times of India
  3. parijataka

    parijataka Senior Member Senior Member

    Oct 15, 2011
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    For once proud to say an Indian organisation has already recognised his genius - he was awarded the Infosys Science Foundation award in 2012.
    Srinivas_K likes this.
  4. Cliff@sea

    [email protected] C'est la vie Senior Member

    May 31, 2012
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    Lucknow, India
    Here is a great article that i came across through one of my friends on FB ,it makes a great relevant read IMHO and food for further thought

    Made in India?

    Home-grown excellence in education remains elusive

    We don’t need no education.
    [SUB]— Pink Floyd[/SUB]

    On reading recently that the 2014 Pritzker Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in architecture, was awarded to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, my first thought was: why doesn’t an Indian win such prizes? The Pritzker Prize honours a living architect for excellence in architecture, ‘irrespective of nationality, creed, race, or ideology’. The list of winners shows that 23 of the 35 winners have been from developed and advanced countries. However, in the last 35 years of the prize, there was not a single person from South Asia, let alone India, who was nominated.

    Critics may argue that the Pritzker Prize, like others for excellence in different fields, is a Western-dominated award. However, there have been winners from Brazil, China and Mexico. What may be a valid claim is that there is a greater chance for creativity and individuality to shine through in the education system in, for example, the United States, rather than India. As a product of the Indian educational system, I can say that studying logarithms in middle school and calculus in high school has scarred my life. What, may I ask, is the point of poring over indecipherable figures in translucent sheets? Ruining the eyesight? Yes. Learning life-enhancing skills? Probably not.

    Some exceptions, of course, prove the rule. Take the example of Subhash Khot, the Indian-American theoretical computer scientist who last week won the International Mathematical Union’s Rolf Nevanlinna Prize. He studied in a humble school in Ichalkaranji in Maharashtra, doing his middle school and high school years there, then topped the JEE to gain admission to IIT Powai before leaving for the United States. The winner of the IMU’s Fields Medal, Manjul Bhargava, also has Indian origins, but was not educated in India.

    India-born scholars winning top prizes in mathematics is indeed great news. However, even this re-emphasises the point. Although their educational foundation might have been laid in India, they are, in essence, Western-backed scholars who were exceptional but whose talent was nurtured to the fullest in the West and not in their home country. They might be ‘India-born’, but are not or ‘India-nurtured’ success stories.

    The Indian educational system, from kindergarten to university, focusses on rote learning. Although the Central Board of Secondary Education has come up with a number of measures to alleviate the anxiety of students, this is surely not the case with the different Board systems followed by the different States. For example, in Tamil Nadu, there are virtually no application-oriented questions in the State Board examination, a life-altering event for many students that determines which college they would get into. All questions, barring the multiple-choice questions for just 25 marks out of 200, in the Mathematics paper are from the prescribed text book: with no numbers changed, no names altered. It is actually possible to gain grace marks if a math problem is asked outside of the textbook or if the numbers are changed in the problem: it is conveniently considered as ‘out of syllabus’!

    This is an example of how memory power and handwriting skills are the only pre-requisites for gaining good scores and getting into a good college. However, once a student goes through the motions of getting a university degree, which again is only slightly different from the school examinations, in that you have to mug up and throw up twice a year as opposed to once a year, the student is then thrown into the ‘real’ world.

    And this is where the Indian system decides to abandon him or her and perform the disappearing act. The new graduate, with consistently high scores in school and university, is unable to find a job. Even if he or she does, the candidate will find it difficult to come up with solutions to real-world problems at work or home, or think out of the box. After all, how do you expect a person to think out of the box after the ‘education’ that he or she has received precisely was about stuffing him or her into a box every day? This explains why India churns out engineers as China churns out plastic souvenirs. Most Indian graduates in the job market are unemployable; whether they really wanted to be what they studied for is a different story. They do not have the requisite communication skills to express their ideas and they have not been trained to think (the upside is that they have an amazing memory).

    So, back to the question: will an Indian these days ever receive the Pritzker Prize (or any prize that recognised creativity and innovation, for that matter)? And when I mean ‘Indian’, I mean an Indian who lives and bases his or her work in India, not the countless Indian-origin American, British and Australian citizens whose achievements we are quick to borrow without permission and brand them ‘Indian’ success stories. The Indian diaspora might have affinity toward their motherland, but we Indians have no right to brag about their achievements. It was probably because of a lack of a motivational and nurturing environment, and a society that places one’s caste before one’s capability, that the Indian diaspora became a diaspora, in the first place.

    So well, here’s my answer: I really do not think the Indian educational system is going to change much. A possible solution is to abolish all State Boards and put in place an autonomous Indian educational board that provides uniform, inspired education cutting across different regions. Minor changes could be made to accommodate State-specific preferences, for example, in languages. But as long as we follow a system that stifles creative thinking and individuality, the Pritzker Prize, and all other prizes for that matter, will be a distant dream for the desi Indian.

    There is a paradox in the way we treat talent in India: on the one hand, parents rarely allow their children to pursue research careers in pure sciences, and the educational system is structured to hone memory, not talent. On the other hand, we are quick to ‘claim’ Indian talent that has shined outside the country as our own achievement.

    There have also been a handful of other celebrated global-level achievers over the decades, but except in the case of an innate genius such as Srinivasa Ramanujam, how many of them were shaped and moulded by the educational system prevalent in India?

    Made in India? - The Hindu: Mobile Edition
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