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Indian education needs more flexibility: Indian American mathematician

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, 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,” he said. 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 Barack Obama. “It is satisfying when one is recognized 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 students.” 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 minimize 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,” Varadhan said. “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, he noted. “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. (SIFY)

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