KOLKATA: A leading mathematician who did his schooling in Kolkata, PhD from University of California, Berkeley in the US and taught at the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University in Howrah’s Belur before recently moving to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) says that it is a mistaken cultural stereotype to think that students in south India are better at mathematics than those in Bengal.
“In the National Board of Higher Mathematics PhD admission test, 50% students who win the fellowship are from the eastern zone, mostly Bengal.This has been so for the past decade or more. It is true that earlier, a large chunk of students came from Tamil Nadu but that is true no longer,” said Swami Vidyanathananda, also known as Mahan Maharaj, a professor at the School of Mathematics at TIFR, who was awarded the Infosys Prize 2015 for Mathematical Sciences. He was also awarded the prestigious Shan ti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Mathematical Sciences in 2011.
According to him, the rea sons for revival of mathema tics in the country are varied First, India’s participation and good showing at the Math Olympiad has created excite ment about the subject among students. Secondly , students have been fortunate to get good math teachers at various insti tutes, such as Indian Statistica Institute, Chennai Mathemati cal Institute and IIT-Bombay and IIT-Kanpur.
“It is curious that a dispro portionately large number of these students hailed original ly from Bengal, though a sub stantial number pursue their careers outside Bengal. Bu states, such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, have been the focus of the IT boom and have witnessed a decline in the number of students pursuing research in mathematics,” the professor said. The abundance of private engineering and medical colleges in these parts has contributed to this, he said. “The colleges (engineering and medical) attract students in large numbers, leading to decline in students who take up fundamental science in general and mathematics in particular.”
French Jesuit Father Charles Racine reached India in 1937 as a missionary after having taken his doctorate in mathematics in 1934 under Elie Cartan and inspired many students at St Joseph’s College in Trichy and then Loyola College, Chennai. A promoter of modern mathematics, many students of Fr Racine, such as M S Raghunathan and C S Sheshadri, became famous mathematicians. After spending the initial years in Chennai, they moved to TIFR. Prof Seshadri returned in the 1980s to set up CMI that has evolved into a new institute of excellence. But West Bengal did not have as many engineering and medical colleges in the 1990s.
“Bengal is one of the few states where students continued to pursue fundamental science and have always been strong in theoretical physics.That trend started rubbing off on mathematics. After all, theoretical physics and mathematics are closely aligned. The reason is partly cultural. People in the state have always been interested in theory ,” said Mahan Maharaj.
Emphasizing the importance of quality teachers in producing mathematicians, the professor said students benefit when a teacher encourages them to explore beyond books.”The language of mathematics is one of reason. But the poem it constructs is something more–it holds the body of mathematics together cogently and in a unified way ,” he said.
He added it was only teachers actively engaged in research who can communicate this excitement of the subject.”It is a pity that this research orientation is now largely confined to the institutes in the country , while universities largely focus on teaching. This has led to university syllabi becoming dated. A more balanced approach, with more students getting trained, could be developed if there was greater focus on innovative thinking and research at the university level.The onus is on us teachers to ensure this comes through,” Mahan Maharaj concluded.