Bring Mathematics to the front
Glamorize basic research to attract young talent
In recent times, the scientific community in the country have observed with alarm the flagging interest of students towards study of basic sciences. The lure of high salaries in the IT and services sectors has resulted in the best and brightest minds turning their back on scientific research. This has had a debilitating effect on the nation’s scientific and technological might. Greatly acclaimed scientists like Manjul Bhargava and the Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan have expressed the view that the nation needs to restore the glamour and appeal the career of a dedicated scientist attracted during the Nehru era.
Persons of Indian origin were quite conspicuous in the list of eight winners of the top awards in mathematics which the International Congress of Mathematicians awarded in Seoul on August 13. One Fields Medal was won by Indian-origin Manjul Bhargava and the other by the Iranian woman, Maryam Mirzakhani. The Rolf Nevanlinna Prize Was won by Subhash Khot, also of Indian origin.
Quite predictably, Indians are elated and proud to see such recognition of people who have their roots in India. One has to keep in mind that they owe their success not to India’s colleges, universities and research laboratories, but to institutions abroad where their talents flourished.
Dr. Mirzakhani deserves a special applause because she is the first woman to receive this coveted prize. She is an Iranian. Her country is known for its lukewarm attitude towards women’s education. Dr. Mirzakhani must have battled against the system with all her vigour to come to the fore with all guns blazing. By any measure, she is a formidable mathematical genius.
Two things come out loud and clear when one studies the path these mathematicians travelled in their way to glory. First, there must be very good teachers of mathematics in schools, colleges and universities to rekindle interest in mathematics among students. Secondly, there must be institutions and labs where they can pursue their fields of specialization with little worries about their own financial security. Guides, access to research journals and visits to international symposiums pave the way for a budding talent to flourish.
If Dr. Bhargava was lucky to have a mother, who taught him mathematics and music. Her mentoring set the foundation for Dr. Bhargava’s long journey to fame. Dr. Khot’s mathematics teacher spotted his talent early, and made him stay in his house so that he could give more time to groom his pupil adequately. The school in Ichalkaranji, where Dr. Khot studied, was clearly not the place for a prodigious talent like him to flourish.
Dr. Mirzakhani’s rise to international fame takes the wind out of the sail of western propaganda that Iran frowns upon girls’ education. She has said that boys and girls study in separate schools. But, there is no restriction on girls to compete in Olympiad type contests. Tehran, in fact, has a special middle school for exceptionally talented girls, to which Dr. Mirzakhani went. The Principal there was a very dedicated teacher who encouraged Mirzakhani to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiads. She blazed a new trail in being the first girl student in Iran to participate in this contest. This, however, does not weaken the perception that in most oriental societies, women are seldom allowed to excel in education, much less in competitive mathematics.
The Indian S&T Ministry has established a laudable scheme to nurture talented school students to pursue their interests in science. There are also programmes for women scientists to pursue research careers. But, what is needed more is a general awakening among the public about the desirability of basic research, and a love and adulation for the scientific community. Mathematics, the mother of all sciences, must return to the nation’s mainstream as the most coveted academic subject.