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Mathematician at MIT: Indian wins 'junior Nobel'

Mathematician at MIT: Indian wins 'junior Nobel'

Author: Samar Halarnkar
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: September 22, 2002
URL: http://www.indian-express.com/full_story.php?content_id=9951

Introduction: IIT graduate Madhu Sudan's work tackles problems, 'important and deep'

India's techies routinely use their knowledge of mathematics to try and create the next big thing, their first million-or the next. But one Indian has won international acclaim for doing nothing more than brilliant maths, part of a breed faithful to pen and paper.

Madhu Sudan, a native of Chennai and IIT Delhi graduate (class of 1987) has won the 2002 Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, one of the world's most prestigious awards in mathematics. It's also termed the junior Nobel in mathematics, awarded as it is for ''both existing work and the promise of future achievement,'' according to the International Mathematical Union.

Sudan, 35, is an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was recognised for his groundbreaking work in theoretical computer science. He was presented with the award last month in Bejing at a meeting of the International Mathematical Union addressed by the Chinese President Jiang Zemin with 4,000 people in attendance.

Some of the problems Sudan-whose sister is a bank manager is New Mumbai and father a retired government officer in Delhi- has solved have practical applications, but many are purely advances limited to the realm of arcane mathematical research.

The Mathematical Association of America says Sudan has made important contributions, among other more theoretical fields, to error-correcting codes.

These codes play a major role in making digital communication high-quality and reliable: from music recorded on CDs to satellite transmissions to Internet communications. His achievements come immediately after an IIT Kanpur computer science professor, Manindra Agrawal, 36, and his two Phd students garnered international attention last month for cracking a problem-checking whether a number is prime or not-that's dogged mathematicians since the time of the ancient Greeks and Chinese.

Indian mathematicians acknowledge that attention is coming this way after a long time. ''We haven't had a Ramanujam in quite a while,'' says Renuka Ravindran, head of the department of mathematics at Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science, referring to S A Ramanujam, one of India's greatest mathematical geniuses who died in Erode, Tamil Nadu, in 1887.

A number of American institutions see genius in Sudan. ''Madhu Sudan has made important contributions to several areas of theoretical computer science,'' says a statement from the American Mathematical Society. ''His work is characterised by brilliant insights and wide-ranging interests.''

His boss at MIT, John Guttag says, ''Madhu combines enormous technical virtuosity with a rare gift for choosing problems that are both important and deep.''

For a culture that conjured up the zero-as we love to remind the world-Indian mathematicians have faded from public attention. But since mathematics is today the base of everything from aircraft design to computer software and hardware, mathematicians are at work everywhere. So India's techies are by definition strong users of applied mathematics.

But people like Sudan and Agrawal are computer scientists who use their mathematical knowledge for the lesser-known thrill of simply creating a new algorithm-instead of a writing a new code for a computer. ''Right now I am too happy doing what I am doing to try the hectic path of a tech company,'' Sudan told The Sunday Express from Cambridge, Massachusetts. ''If I do pursue such a path, it would be because I have a technical idea that becomes an obsession with me.''

Half a world away at IIT Kanpur, Agrawal, who too does not have techie ambitions from his knowledge of computer science, says he just enjoys playing around with prime numbers and algorithms. ''Just trying to solve them,'' says this plain, modest Allahabadi, ''is a lot of fun.'' Carl Pomerance, a mathematician at the leading research facility of Bell Labs, told The New York Times: ''This algorithm is beautiful.''

Another called it ''crisp and lovely.''

It is this search for beauty and elegance in numbers that drives the young breed of Indian mathematicians. ''It's very difficult to pinpoint the beauty of mathematics,'' says Neeraj Kayal, 22, one of the two Phd students on Agrawal's team. ''It's like when you see a piece of art and are struck by it but don't know how to express it.''

All of them have seen colleagues flee academia and fill the ranks of wannabe entrepreneurs and tycoons, glued to their computers, circuit boards and chips. ''The nicest thing,'' says Kayal, ''is that you require only pen and paper.''

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