ARTLESS INNOCENTS AND IVORY-TOWER SOPHISTICATES: SOME PERSONALITIES ON THE INDIAN MATHEMATICAL SCENE BY DR. M.S. RAGHUNATHAN

At the beginning of the 20th century science was still an esoteric pursuit of reclusive intellectuals. The quiet revolution in the academic worlds of Gottingen, Copenhagen, Cambridge, and Paris of the early decades exploded into global awareness of science with Hiroshima. With Sputnik, science soared even higher in public esteem and many a scientist, became a public figure, a celebrity, an icon for the youth.Physicists dominated this celebrity parade, but there were chemists and biologists in fair number. In this context of hype about science and adulation for the scientist. I think the mathematicians described best by a Tamil proverb: he is the hapless fellow who brought home a coper vessel after taking part in a raid on Kubera’s Alakapuri!Many great names in mathematics are entirely unfamiliar to people outside the scientific community. This article is about some mathematicians who have contributed significantly to mathematics in the 20th century and more importantly, have had considerable influence on mathematics in India. Some of them are probably not very well known even within the scientific community.

A word about the choice of personalities that I have made they are all men who figured a good deal in the mathematical lore that I was brought up on at the Tata Insitute of Fundamental Research: and that lore has its bias.

I begin inevitably with Srinivasa Ramanujan, the best known Indian mathematician, who is reckoned among the greatest mathematical intellects of the twentieth century. The romantic story of the passage of the poor clerk in the Madras Port Trust to the portals of the ivory towers of Cambridge and the subsequent tragedy of genius cut-off in its prime by illness is well-known, and so I will not dwell on it.

To many mathematicians , Ramanujan’s thought processes have an element of mystery about them . Hardy(who was responsible for Ramanujan becoming known internationally) ,would have none of that, but Littlewood, Hardy’s close friend and collaborator certainly thought so. Mark Kac,another famous name, describes him as a “magician rather than a genius.” Bruce Berndt, a mathematician who has now spent two decades unraveling Ramanujan’s note books, says , and I quote-”I still don’t understand it all-I maybe able to prove it, but I do not know where it comes from and where it fits into mathematics.” Some of Ramanujan’s Indian contemporaries were sure that he was deeply religious and were ready to believe even in divine intervention.

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