Dr Manjul Bhargava, the first mathematician of Indian origin to win the Fields Medal, has noted that most Indian talent shies away from research. He says mathematics and science in India, at least in recent times, are being viewed as “tools for engineering or medicine” and “not viewed as subjects and careers” in themselves.
“This is a problem. Basic science and mathematics are very important for the long-term success of the nation,” Bhargava told The Indian Express in an interview, part email and part over the phone.
“It’s definitely not too late to rectify,” he said. “It will require a change in attitude in society. Parents and teachers must encourage young people who are talented in and excited about mathematics and science to pursue their passions; that is where they will do their best work, and that will be best for the nation as a whole in the long run.”
He said that while India makes a very big contribution to mathematics and science every year, “it is still not nearly as big as it should be, because much of the mathematics and science talent in India does not go into basic science research. This must be fixed”.
He added, “With new IITs and IISERs opening all over India, there is more opportunity for scientific research and careers than ever before. So, in that sense, the rectification process has already started. Students wanting to go into basic scientific research will now have many wonderful jobs and research opportunities waiting for them.”
Bhargava is currently R Brandon Fradd Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, and adjunct professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, IIT Bombay, and University of Hyderabad.
He has been involved in starting a new institute in Bangalore, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, to be inaugurated next year. “I hope to spend even more time in India after the inauguration. A number of things must still be done to really attract scientists abroad back to India… I hope to work on these issues as I spend more time in India,” Bhargava said.
Born in Canada, Bhargava grew up mostly in the US in a “very Indian home”. “We always spoke Hindi at home, ate Indian food, and discussed Indian literature at the dinner table. There are a lot of academics in my family. My grandfather was a scholar of Sanskrit and ancient Indian history, and my mother is a mathematician with deep interests in linguistics and music. They were always my two biggest influences. Because of them, I was truly inspired to pursue interests in mathematics, music, and Sanskrit.”
Every three or four years, Bhargava would take about six months off from school to spend with his grandparents in their hometown Jaipur. “There, I spent time learning Hindi, Sanskrit, mathematics, tabla, sitar, and of course kite-flying, in preparation for what was my favorite holiday as a child, Makar Sankranti. My Indian heritage and the time I spent in India was a very important part of my upbringing, and played an important role in shaping my professional interests too,” he said.
“I think my mathematics has taken inspiration from these subjects [music and art]. I find I think about all three of these subjects — mathematics, music, poetry — in a very similar way. It’s also nice to use both sides of the brain. Mathematics has a creative side too, and for that reason I feel it’s important to study the arts to keep that creative side alive when doing mathematics.”
Bhargava works in the field of number theory. His work, primarily about determining when certain fundamental equations in mathematics have solutions in whole numbers, has helped introduced a new geometric method for answering such questions.
The Fields Medal is the highest honour in mathematics. “I’m of course very honoured to receive the Fields Medal,” Bhargava said. “Beyond that, it is a great source of encouragement and inspiration, not just for me, but I hope also for my students, collaborators, and colleagues who work with me. I hope it may also be a source of inspiration for more Indians to take up mathematics and scientific research in general.”
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