New Delhi: Shortage of
top quality mathematicians in India today could be due to lack of
flexibility in the education system, feels prize-winning Indian
American mathematician Srinivasa Varadhan.
"We do produce in India a large number of excellent engineers and
doctors. But science today tends to be multi-disciplinary and
perhaps our education process for the most part is not flexible
enough to adapt to changing needs," Varadhan, 71, told IANS in an
e-mail interview from New York.
The Indian American, who shares his first name with the late maths
prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan, has done pioneering work in
probability theory, helping in understanding rare events.
"During the last few years, the (Indian) government has been
committing more resources to education and research, particularly
in basic sciences. But it is a slow process and will take time,"
The son of a science teacher from Tamil Nadu, Varadhan completed
his Ph.D from the Indian Institute of Statistics in Kolkata in
1963 before moving to the Courant Institute of Mathematical
Sciences in New York University. He is now a professor there.
In 2007, Varadhan won the Abel Prize, which is considered the
Nobel Prize for mathematics. Also a Padma Bhushan recipient, he
was conferred the US' 2011 National Medal of Science by President
"It is satisfying when one is recognised with an award. My
immediate thought was one of astonishment and a feeling of how
fortunate I have been. I was able to find environments both in
India and in the US that helped me develop and grow as a
professional mathematician," he said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Ramanujan's birthday announced
2012 to be the National Mathematical Year and urged the
mathematical community to address the shortage of top quality
mathematicians in India.
Referring to this, Varadhan suggested India needed to develop a
large number of colleges providing quality education for students
earning their first college degree.
"This is the pipeline that feeds talent into higher studies in
non-professional subjects. There are many more institutions of
high quality today, but they are mostly open to postgraduate
He says mathematics is like solving puzzles. "This is one of the
things I learnt from school and my early education. One can do
mathematics for fun," he said.
His findings are widely used in fields like insurance and finance.
He said the probability theory cannot predict rare and unexpected
events but can help us understand them and minimise the risks.
"We live in an uncertain world. Unexpected and rare events happen
all the time. While we cannot predict them, we need to understand
them," Varadhan said.
"Probability is a quantitative measure of how likely an event is.
Small probability signifies how rare it is. If a rare event has
serious negative consequences, we definitely want to keep its
probability low. How low should it be before we can tolerate the
risk depends on the circumstances. It therefore becomes necessary
to estimate the probability of rare events with some precision,"
"Of course, this does not come from thin air, but rather from a
mathematical model that describes the phenomenon," he added.
Probability, as a field, was already in the mainstream of
mathematics from 1930s when an axiomatic treatment was provided,
"But the mathematical theory is only about methods of calculating
probabilities from the model. The validity of the model and an
understanding of how accurately it describes the underlying
phenomenon is not strictly speaking part of the mathematical
theory. It is more statistical in nature and depends on an
understanding of the rationale for the model and one's past
experience with it," Varadhan said.
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