Still searching for the next Ramanujan

Still searching for the next Ramanujan

New Delhi: It won’t come as a surprise if an Indian mathematician—or even one of Indian origin—doesn’t win mathematics’ most coveted prize on home ground on Thursday.

While much has been made of India’s legendary mathematical prowess—from inventing the zero to the seminal contributions of Srinivasa Ramanujan—the Fields Medal, considered equivalent to the Nobel Prize, has eluded India since its inception in 1936.

It would, of course, be nice if an Indian could win the next. India will be hosting the International Congress of Mathematics in Hyderabad during 19-27 August. This is the first time in more than 100 years ICM’s history that the event will be held in India and only the third time in an Asian country. In 1990, the meet was held in Kyoto, Japan, and in 2002, in Beijing, China.

Moreover, this year is significant for India as it marks the centenary of the founding of the Indian Mathematical Society, while a second mathematical association, the Ramanujan Mathematical Society, will be celebrating its silver jubilee.

“It would be unfair to speculate, but over the last decade several Indian mathematicians have won top prizes," said M.S. Raghunathan, a leading mathematician at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and among the key organisers of the event.

As examples, Raghunathan refers to recent prizes such as the Rolf-Nevanlinna Prize for computer science won by Madhu Sudan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-Delhi) alumnus, in 2002.

Manindra Agrawal, a computer science professor at IIT Kanpur, was the winner of the Godel Prize in 2006; and S.R. Srinivasa Varadhan, a professor at the New York University, won the 2007 Abel Prize for his contribution to statistics.

But mathematicians point to several factors that squeeze India’s output of enough top-class mathematicians.

“There simply aren’t enough institutes unlike in the US or Europe, where several universities produce several mathematicians of great calibre, that’s not true for our universities," says Gadadhar Misra, a mathematician at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He added that the lament among Indian scientists that not enough students were sticking to basic research in India held true for mathematics too.

“Professional courses continue to attract the best students. While it’s not possible to produce a Ramanujan, with the right incentives we can create a class of very good mathematicians," he said.

It also doesn’t help, he added, that the format of the Fields Medal, of awarding the prize once in four years only to mathematicians below the age of 40, further skewed India’s chances of winning the prize earlier.

Several Indian mathematicians, he said, have done outstanding work, but only after turning 40. “France, which has a high number of Fields medallists, has a policy of identifying mathematical talent early enough and grooming them. That sort of initiative is only just beginning in India."

T. Ramasami, secretary, department of science and technology, said the government’s recently launched initiative INSPIRE (Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research), a Rs2,000 crore scholarship scheme to support top-ranking students from high school till the doctoral level, pursuing basic science research, would raise the standards of mathematics research.

“INSPIRE is precisely to correct such distortions," he said.