Genius advocates better treatment of mathematics

Shortage of top quality mathematicians in India today could be due to lack of flexibility in the education system, feels prize-winning Indian American mathematician Srinivasa Varadhan.

“We do produce in India a large number of excellent engineers and doctors. But science today tends to be multi-disciplinary and perhaps our education process for the most part is not flexible enough to adapt to changing needs,” he said.

The Indian American, who shares his first name with the late maths prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan, has done pioneering work in probability theory, helping in understanding rare events.

“During the last few years, the (Indian) government has been committing more resources to education and research, particularly in basic sciences. But it is a slow process and will take time,” he said.

The son of a science teacher from Tamil Nadu, Mr Varadhan completed his PhD from the Indian Institute of Statistics in Kolkata in 1963 before moving to the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in New York University, where he is now a professor.

Global recognition

In 2007, Mr Varadhan won the Abel Prize, which is considered the Nobel Prize for mathematics. The Indian government conferred on him the ‘Padma Bhushan’ title, while US President Barack Obama honoured him with the ‘US 2011 National Medal of Science.’

“It is satisfying when one is recognised with an award. My immediate thought was one of astonishment and a feeling of how fortunate I have been. I was able to find environments both in India and in the US that helped me develop and grow as a professional mathematician,” Mr Varadhan said, commenting on the US Award.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on December 27, the birthday of Srinivasa Ramanujan that 2012 would be the ‘National Mathematical Year’ and urged the mathematical community to address the shortage of top quality mathematicians in India.

Mr Varadhan said India should develop a large number of colleges providing quality education for students earning their first college degree.

“This is the pipeline that feeds talent into higher studies in non-professional subjects. There are many more institutions of high quality today, but they are mostly open to postgraduate students,” he said.

He said mathematics was like solving puzzles.

“This is one of the things I learnt from school and my early education. One can do mathematics for fun,” he said.

Universal usage

His findings are widely used in fields like insurance and finance.

He said the probability theory cannot predict rare and unexpected events but can help us understand them and minimise the risks.

“We live in an uncertain world. Unexpected and rare events happen all the time. While we cannot predict them, we need to understand them,” he said.

“Probability is a quantitative measure of how likely an event would occur. Small probability signifies how rare it is. If a rare event has serious negative consequences, we definitely want to keep its probability low. How low should it be before we can tolerate the risk depends on the circumstances. It therefore becomes necessary to estimate the probability of rare events with some precision,” Mr Varadhan said.

“Of course, this does not come from thin air, but rather from a mathematical model that describes the phenomenon,” he added.

Probability, as a field, was already in the mainstream of mathematics from 1930s when an axiomatic treatment was provided.

“But the mathematical theory is only about methods of calculating probabilities from the model. The validity of the model and an understanding of how accurately it describes the underlying phenomenon is not strictly speaking part of the mathematical theory. It is more statistical in nature and depends on an understanding of the rationale for the model and one’s past experience with it,” Mr Varadhan said.

India Abroad News Service, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Delhi

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