Monday, December 26, 2011

PM’s Speech in the 125th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of Ramanujan at Chennai `on December 26, 2011

The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, addressed the 125th Birth Anniversary celebrations of noted mathematician Srinivas Ramanujan in Chennai today. Following is the text of the Prime Minister’s address:

“We have gathered here today to celebrate the life and work of a great son of India and of Tamil Nadu, and one of the greatest mathematicians the world has seen. It is a pleasure to participate in this function in the memory of Srinivas Ramanujan, whose extraordinary genius so very brightly lit up the world of mathematics in the second decade of the last century. Men and women of such dazzling brilliance and deep intellect are born but rarely. Indeed, Srinivas Ramanujan`s genius was ranked by the English mathematician G. H. Hardy in the same class as giants like Euler, Gauss, Archimedes and Isaac Newton. While we rightly claim Ramanujan as one of our own, he equally belonged to all humanity like the other great men and women in any sphere of human thought.

Before I proceed further, let me compliment the Ministry of Human Resource Development, and my colleague Kapil Sibal, for planning year long celebrations to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Ramanujan. As a tribute to the great mathematician, our government has decided to declare his birthday, that is December 22, as the National Mathematics Day and the year 2012 as a whole as the National Mathematical Year. India has a long and glorious tradition of mathematics that we need to encourage and nurture. I hope these steps will help in providing the additional impetus to the study of mathematics in our country, apart from making our people more aware of the work of Ramanujan.

Mathematics seems to have acquired an independent identity as an intellectual discipline early on in human history. This identity became more sharply defined in the second half of the millennium before Christ, thanks to major developments in Greece. In this period, India too made great strides in mathematics, though in ways very different from the Greeks. In the early centuries of the Common Era, India was in fact in the lead in mathematical developments. Aryabhata in the fifth century, followed by Brahmagupta in the next are reckoned to be among the all-time great mathematicians. And we taught the world to think of zero as a number and the modern way of representing all numbers with 10 symbols. This arguably is the single most important mathematical development in all human history.

Indian mathematics remained in the forefront for almost a thousand years following Aryabhata. The last name in the great mathematicians we produced in this period is that of Madhava of Kerala. I understand Madhava had discovered the essentials of Calculus some two centuries before Newton and Leibnitz. His work however was not known beyond the school he had created in Kerala. That school unfortunately did not last beyond the middle of the 16th century.

Intellectual activity receded into the background in the country for the next few centuries to revive only in the nineteenth century. In the early part of the nineteenth century, most of our intellectual energies were given to humanities and it is towards the end of the century that India began taking an interest in the sciences. In the second decade of the 20th century, the country could once again stake a claim to producing world class mathematics, and that was because of the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan came from an economically disadvantaged background and had but a minimal training in mathematics and yet his genius overcame formidable difficulties to reach the pinnacle of greatness. The whole of India is proud of Ramanujam and many an Indian has been inspired by his shining example. Tamil Nadu of course has a special claim on him for he was a Tamilian. Along with Sir C. V. Raman and Subramanyam Chandrashekhar, he is among the three great men of science and mathematics that Tamil Nadu and India have given to the world in modern times.

The story of Ramanujan cannot be told without a mention of the Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy, who was responsible for Ramanujan getting the recognition that was his legitimate due. The parts that Hardy and Cambridge, which became Ramanujan`s alma-mater, played in the great mathematician’s development represent the very best of the academic traditions of the West. The stories of the special relationship between G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan are a part of the folklore of mathematics.

The fascinating and inspiring story of Ramanujan needs to be told to the world. I am, therefore, very happy that the organizers have chosen this occasion to honour Professor Robert Kanigel who has written an excellent biography of Ramanujan and I am very happy that he is present here among us today. I greet you sir, and I understand that yours is a book that has made Ramanujan well known to the public at large all over the world, capturing vividly the atmosphere of the early nineteenth century academic world in that part of the world as well as in Britain. I am also happy that on this occasion, a new edition of the Notebooks of Ramanujan is also being released. These are photographic reproductions of unpublished mathematical work of Ramanujan, written out in his own hand in a series of notebooks during the days he spent in the city of Chennai. The originals, I am told are in the University of Madras and I congratulate the University authority for preserving them in its archives.

The Government of India sets great store by science and has pursued a policy of encouraging scientific activities of diverse kinds. Given our traditions, we naturally attach special importance to mathematics. Since Ramanujan, a number of mathematicians from the country have distinguished themselves by performing at very high levels. However, it is a matter of concern that for a country of our size the number of competent mathematicians that we have is badly inadequate. Over more than the last three decades many of our young men and women with a natural ability in mathematics have not pursued the discipline at advanced levels. This has also resulted in a decline in the quality of our mathematics teachers both at the school and college levels. There is a general perception in our society that the pursuit of mathematics does not lead to attractive career opportunities. This perception must change. This perception may have been valid some years ago but today there are many new career opportunities available to mathematicians, and the teaching profession itself has become much more attractive in recent years.

The mathematical community has a duty to find out ways and means to address the shortage of top quality mathematicians in our country. It must reach out to the public particularly in the modern context where mathematics has tremendous influence on every kind of human behaviour. In many ways, mathematics can be regarded as the mother science. The Natural Sciences have had a long symbiotic relationship with mathematics. Life Sciences did not seem to have much use for mathematics till about a hundred years ago, but lately mathematical interventions have had a tremendous impact on Biology. Mathematics has also influenced the study of Social Sciences in a big way. The work of many of the Nobel Laureates in Economics is highly mathematical. Students, parents and people at large need to be more aware of these facts so that the study of mathematics as an academic discipline gains popularity in our country. I am happy that the activities planned in the National Mathematical Year would focus on promotion of mathematics at all levels- from schools to cutting edge research.

The Ramanujan story illustrates the inadequacy of the university evaluation system in the early decades of the last century while at the same time it shows that the system displayed enough flexibility to take care of mavericks like Ramanujan. There have been many reforms since those days but there would still be talent which would elude proper evaluation. Our institutions of higher learning, therefore, must be sensitive to this problem. A genius like Ramanujan would shine bright even in the most adverse of circumstances, but we should be geared to encourage and nurture good talent which may not be of the same caliber as that of Ramanujan.

Let me end by wishing the National Mathematical Year all success. I expect the activities initiated during this year would be continued in the coming years as well, so as to help our country make it to the forefront of education and research in mathematics. That is my ardent prayer and with these words I thank you for listening to me patiently.”

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