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Indian-origin wizard wins 'Nobel Prize' of Mathematics
August 13, 2014, 11:26 am
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Manjul Bhargava

Mathematicians of Indian- and Iranian-origin are among the four winners of the 2014 Fields Medal, widely considered the Nobel Prize for maths that has been broadly dominated by white males since it was instituted in 1936.

The award going to Princeton University's Manjul Bhargava, a Canadian-American maths wizard was no surprise; although he is the first person of Indian origin, he was the hot favorite in pre-award polls among peers.

The sensational co-winner is Maryam Mirzakhani, a female Iranian mathematician who teaches at Stanford University. It is the first time a female mathematician has won the Fields medal; all 52 previous winners have been men in a field traditionally dominated by the male of the species.

Expectedly, it created a ripple in the rarefied maths world.

Mirzakhani's success was "hugely symbolic and I hope it will encourage more women to get into mathematics because we need more women. I am very happy that now we can put to rest that particular 'it has never happened before'," Ingrid Daubechies, herself the first female president of the International mathematical Union (IMU), said while announcing the award.

The two other winners this year are Artur Avila from Brazil and Martin Hairer from Austria. Avila is also the first Brazilian and Latin American to win the medal.

One to four Fields Medals are awarded once every four years to mathematicians under the age of 40 years at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), which meets every four years. The presentation will take place in Seoul on Wednesday at the quadrennial IMU Congress (Hyderabad hosted it in 2010).

Although the prize money ($15,000) is chump change (approximately 1/100th) compared to the Nobel Prize, the award, long dominated by Americans, Russians, French, and Britons (38 medals between them), is the highest recognition in the world of mathematics.

Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields instituted it at a time mathematicians felt short-changed that they had no Nobel recognition. The Nobel Prize is awarded for literature, peace, economics, physiology or medicine, chemistry and physics — but not for mathematics.

Legend — or the apocryphal story — goes that Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, who instituted the Nobel Prize, disdained maths after someone he loved cheated on him — with a mathematician. But there is no historical basis to the story. More likely fact is that Nobel didn't care much for maths because it was not considered a practical science from which humanity could benefit (a chief purpose for creating the Nobel Foundation).

All that has changed, of course. Mathematics offers solutions to everyday issues from airline scheduling to Internet security, even though many practitioners pursue esoteric problems described in dense language incomprehensible to the layman. Bhargava's PhD thesis, for instance, is said to have helped in the "determination of the asymptotic density of discriminants of quartic and quintic number fields."

Although a Canadian-American who was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Bhargava is no stranger to India or to Indian mathematicians. Indeed, his mother, Mira Bhargava, is herself a rare female mathematician, teaching at Hofstra University (another well-known female Indian-American mathematician is Bhama Srinivasan at the University of Chicago).

Canadian-American maths wizard ​Manjul Bhargava.

Manjul has also collaborated with many Indian mathematicians, and his work with fellow Princeton scholar Arul Shankar, his PhD student, won them the Fermat Prize in 2011. Manjul's own PhD advisor was Andrew Wiles, famous for proving Fermat's last theorem.

Bhargava was awarded the 2012 Infosys Prize in mathematics for his "extraordinarily original work in algebraic number theory, which has revolutionized the way in which number fields and elliptic curves are counted." That came on top of almost every other top prize in maths, from the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize in 2005 to the American mathematical Society's Cole Prize in 2008. So the Fields Medal comes as no great surprise to the mathematical community in the US or in India.

Last week, as speculation heated up about possible 2014 winners of Fields Medal, an online poll put Bhargava on top with 516 votes, with Avila coming second with 486 votes. Apparently, his peers pretty much expected it. Which is not surprising for someone who became a tenured full professor within two years of finishing graduate school, an Ivy League record, and the second youngest full professor in Princeton's history.

That's not all. Before you think all he does is crunch numbers, Bhargava is also an accomplished tabla player (tutored by Zakir Hussain) and has the number on Sanskrit, which he learned from his grandfather Purushottam Lal Bhargava, was the head of the Sanskrit department of the University of Rajasthan, during family visits to Jaipur. He sees close links between his three loves noting how beats of tabla and rhythms of Sanskrit poetry are highly mathematical.

Such recognition came to him early. In past interviews, he has often recounted how in Grade 3, he became curious about how many oranges it takes to make a pyramid. Just as well his mathematician mother and chemist father were well-to-do: they indulged him with oranges till he figured out the answer, which was not long coming. Now he's at the pinnacle of his calling.

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