Matter of pride

It is a matter of some pride for India that an Indian-origin mathematician,  Manjul Bhargava, has been awarded the Fields medal for outstanding discoveries in mathematics this year.

The award is considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics and is given away once in four years. It is given to those who have done significant mathematical work before they are 40 and so sets an ambitious goal for young mathematical minds. No Indian has won the prize in its 80 year-old history and it is also the first time a person of Indian origin has got it. Another young Indian mathematician, Subhash Khot, a professor at New York university, has also been awarded an important Rolf Nevanlinna prize, this year. 

India, where zero was first conceived, has a history of proficiency in mathematics. But its record mainly rests, apart from zero, on the contributions of some early mathematicians who lived many centuries ago.  After a long period of no great creative work, it was Ramanujan in the last century who excelled with his phenomenal genius. It may be argued that the country has better talent in mathematics than in areas of physical science. But it remains a fact that it is mainly Indians, educated or working abroad who won the prestigious world awards.  Manjul Bhargava is a Canadian American working as a professor at Princeton University. Khot studied in India but left for the US for higher studies and work. Both got good support from their family or teachers to develop their talent. The failure of the country to produce great achievers may have to do with the state of education in the country, lack of institutional support or of opportunities for work. The claimed proficiency of Indians in mathematics can be nurtured with better encouragement at home or by the government and institutions. This does not cost too much because mathematics does not need as much infrastructural facilities as other sciences. 

This year’s Fields medal is also notable because one of the three other winners is a woman, an Iranian mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, from Stanford University.  It is the first time that the prize has gone to a woman. Women have found it difficult to earn recognition in other fields of science too, though there are greater numbers of them engaged in study and research than in the past. Mirzakhani’s honour should be a matter of inspiration and encouragement for women.

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