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Desperately seeking Ramanujans

By Matthew Schneeberger
Last updated on: August 19, 2010 12:53 IST
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The time has come, believes Matthew Schneeberger, when India must dig up geniuses that lie unknown, untapped and languishing in its villages.

In 1910, impoverished and sick, Indian mathematician S Ramanujan was near death. Just 22, he handed over his now-famous notebooks to a friend, entrusting him to pass them on to India's top mathematicians. Had he died, his work might have been lost forever.

Three years earlier, Ramanujan had failed, for the second time, his Fine Arts degree exam at Pachaiyappa's College, Madras (now Chennai). Despite his brilliance in pure mathematics, he could find no place in British India's higher education system without the backing of a wealthy and prominent family or an aptitude across all academic disciplines.

For those three years, he worked independently, unable to break into the mainstream of Indian professional society, unable to make a career, unable even to share his work with those who could appreciate it.

Yet, he bounced back and eventually found work in Chennai, from where he got in touch with British mathematician G H Hardy in 1913. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England the following year -- overriding resistance from the traditional Iyengar community to sea travel.

For the next five years, the two worked together at Cambridge, creating stunning new theorems, revising and exploring Ramanujan's earlier insights. But Ramanujan fell ill again and went back to India where he died in 1920, just 32.

His work is still being applied to fields like crystallography and string theory -- complex science -- the mathematician could never have imagined.

Despite many achievements and a lasting influence, conversation on Ramanujan usually turns to melancholy speculation, because questions linger: What if he had been discovered earlier? What if he had never been found at all? How many Ramanujans languish in Indian villages without access to education?

In histories of Ramunjuan published since his death, early problems in drawing attention have been blamed on the rigid British Raj. It fostered a system that had no place for individual flair and innovative brilliance from Indians, rather everyday stewardship of the empire.

Yet, 100 years later, after 63 years of independence, can we honestly say that India's present-day Ramanujans are being nurtured and encouraged? Aren't brilliant Indian minds still being poached by foreign universities and corporations, robbing India of potential luster?

Perhaps the parallel story of another Tamil, 2009 Nobel Prize-winning chemist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, provides lessons.

Answers to these are important, for India is extraordinarily young, with half its population under the age of 25.

In the next few decades, as the effects of China's one-child policy begin to manifest, India will become the most populous nation on Earth, and by 2050 will be home to more than 1.6 billion people.

Even today, the contiguous Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are home to more young people, less than 25 years of age, than all of Western Europe. It's time the world realises this, and it's time for India to fulfill its destiny as South Asia's leader, a cultural superpower and an important cog in the new global economy.

But will it all pan out? We hear much talk of India's 'demographic dividend' and how the country can leverage its burgeoning work force to create robust, sustained economic growth.

But questions remain: Will there be jobs waiting for 300 million youth at the threshold of the job market? And, if so, will workers be well trained and have employable skills? Will India's information infrastructure allow potential employers and employees to connect? And, finally, will India's infrastructure continue to lag behind the rest of the world, dragging down productivity and quality of life?

Take Internet infrastructure. Despite Bengaluru start-ups, multitudes of software engineers and visionary geniuses exported to Silicon Valley, India still has laughably pathetic Internet penetration levels.

With the Internet so obviously a fundamental, integral component of future global communication and business, why hasn't it been done? Brazil and China have shown large, developing nations can achieve it, so what's holding up India?

Perhaps, the most important questions aren't diagnostic in nature. Rather, they seek solutions to infrastructure woes, broadband connectivity and systems to root out waste, bureaucracy and corruption.

I don't know the answers and, as a foreigner, probably never will. However, drawing on my time spent in India, recalling my interactions with so many brilliant Indians, I am confident there's a young Ramanujan out there right now, entering primary school, with the potential to some day figure these things out. Let's begin by helping him.

Born in Ohio, United States, Matthew Schneeberger is Chief Feature Writer,

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Matthew Schneeberger