Two Indian-origin academicians have won prestigious global prizes in the fi eld of mathematics, with one of them being awarded the Fields Medal – known as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Manjul Bhargava won the Fields Medal, while Subhash Khot won the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, awarded by the International Mathematical Union (IMU), at the International Congress of Mathematicians 2014 held in Seoul. NRI Achievers focuses on one of them, Manjul Bhargava, in this feature…
Manjul Bhargava, professor of mathematics at the Princeton University, was among the four winners who have been awarded the Fields Medal, given out every four years. Bhargava was awarded the Medal for developing powerful new methods in the geometry of numbers, which he applied to count rings of small rank and to bound the average rank of elliptic curves. According to the award citation, Bhargava’s work is based both on a deep understanding of the representations of arithmetic groups and a unique blend of algebraic and analytic expertise.
Khot was awarded the Nevanlinna Prize for his prescient defi nition of the ‘Unique Games’ problem, and leading the eff ort to understand its complexity and its pivotal role in the study of effi cient approximation of optimisation problems. A PhD from Princeton, Khot is professor of Computer Science at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. His work has led to breakthroughs in algorithmic design and approximation hardness and to new exciting interactions between computational complexity, analysis and geometry.
Iranian-born mathematician and Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani becomes the fi rst ever woman to win the Fields Medal this year, as all previous 52 winners have been men in a fi eld traditionally dominated by the male of the species. Expectedly, it did create quite a ripple in the rarefi ed world of math. Mirzakhani’s success was “hugely symbolic and I hope it will encourage more and more women to get into mathematics because we need them. I am very happy that we can now put to rest that particular ‘it has never happened before’,” Ingrid Daubechies, herself the fi rst female president of the International mathematical Union (IMU), said while announcing the award. Th e two other winners this year are Artur Avila from Brazil, and Martin Hairer from Austria. Avila is also the fi rst Brazilian and Latin American to win the medal. Mathematics off ers solutions to everyday issues from airline scheduling to Internet security, even though many practitioners of this rarefi ed discipline do tend to pursue pretty esoteric problems described in dense language mostly incomprehensible to a lay audience. Bhargava’s PhD thesis, for example, is said to have helped in the “determination of the asymptotic density of discriminants of quartic and quintic number fi elds.” A Canadian-American born in Hamilton, Ontario, Bhargava is no stranger to India or to Indian mathematicians. His mother, Mira Bhargava, is herself a rare woman-mathematician, teaching at Hofstra University (another well-known Indian-American mathematician belonging to the fairer sex is Bhama Srinivasan at the University of Chicago). Born in Canada in the year 1974, Manjul grew up in the US, and also spent much time in India. He received his PhD from Princeton University in 2001, and went on to become a professor just aft er two years, in 2003. Bhargava’s honour call includes the Merten Hasse Prize of the Mathematical Association of America (2003), the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize (2005), the Cole Prize in Number Th eory of the American Mathematical Society (2008) and the Infosys Prize (2012).
Manjul has also collaborated with several Indian mathematicians, and his work with fellow Princeton scholar Arul Shankar, one of his PhD students, won them both the Fermat Prize in 2011. Manjul’s own PhD advisor was Andrew Wiles, well known for having proving Fermat’s last theorem. Bhargava was also awarded the 2012 Infosys Prize in mathematics for his “extraordinarily original work in algebraic number theory, which has revolutionized the way in which number fi elds and elliptic curves are counted.” Th at 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 month, even as speculation heated up about possible 2014 winners of the Fields Medal, an online poll put Bhargava on top with 516 votes, with Avila coming second at 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 fi nishing 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 during family visits to Jaipur from his grandfather Purushottam Lal Bhargava, who was the head of the Sanskrit department of the University of Rajasthan. He sees close links between his three loves, noting how beats of tabla and rhythms of Sanskrit poetry are highly mathematical. Recognition did came to him early. During past interactions, he had oft en recounted how in Grade 3, he became curious about how many oranges it takes to make a pyramid. Just as well that his mathematician mother and chemist father were well-to-do, they indulged him with oranges till he fi gured out the answer, which was not long in coming. We could beyond doubt now say that he is at the pinnacle of his calling today.