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Tabla to top of the tables
- Math prize for indian-origin professor

New Delhi, Aug. 13: An Indian-origin mathematician at Princeton University who once took tabla lessons from Ustad Zakir Hussain and considered music as a career today received the Fields Medal, among the most prestigious honours in mathematics.

Manjul Bhargava, a professor at Princeton who has been described as “a mathematician with extraordinary creativity”, received the award for developing new methods in number theory, at times drawing inspiration from an 18th century mathematical tome and Rubik’s Cube.

Bhargava is one of two Indian-origin researchers among eight mathematicians who received prizes from the International Mathematical Union (IMU) today at the opening of the International Mathematics Congress in Seoul, South Korea.

Subhash Khot, professor of computer science at New York University, bagged the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize for a conjecture that the IMU says is yet to be proven true but has already proven its value by “casting light on previously dim areas of computational complexity”.

His conjecture, among other things, can show the best way to estimate the number of celebrities at a party given only knowledge of who shook hands with whom.

Subhash Khot, (above) Maryam Mirzakhani

The IMU said Bhargava, who was born in Canada to immigrants from Jaipur, has “developed powerful new methods in the geometry of numbers”, and predicted that his research would “bring more delights and surprises to mathematics in the years to come”.

“This is really great for both the department and the university,” David Gabai, the chair of Princeton’s mathematics department, said in a media release. “The Fields Medal is probably the most prestigious recognition in pure mathematics.”

Only mathematicians under 40 years of age are eligible to receive the Fields Medal.

Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian-born mathematician at Stanford University who has worked on geometry, specifically the symmetry of curved surfaces, today became the first woman to receive the Fields Medal since the award was first given in 1936.

“This is a great honour, I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said in a media release from Stanford. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in the coming years.”

Bhargava, who was appointed a full professor at Princeton in 2003 and was among the youngest ever to be appointed to that rank, had learnt to play the tabla from his mother when he was a child, a profile published by the Princeton Weekly Bulletin had documented.

Bhargava has taken lessons from Ustad Zakir Hussain and had considered pursuing music as a career before choosing to study mathematics at Harvard University, the Bulletin said.

At Princeton, Bhargava is hailed as an extraordinary teacher. He offers a seminar titled “The Mathematics of Magic Tricks” that allows first-year students to explore the mathematical principles underlying games and magic tricks.

Bhargava’s work on number theory, the IMU has said, seems to have been inspired by a book by the 19th century mathematician, Carl Gauss, who had developed an ingenious composition law to use two mathematical terms called polynomials to create a third one.

While reading the book, Bhargava suspected there would be a better way of doing that. A solution emerged quite unexpectedly while he was playing with a Rubik’s Cube and led him to discover 13 new composition laws for higher-degree polynomials.

“Until Bhargava’s work, no one realised that other composition laws existed for polynomials of higher degree,” the IMU said in its description of his work.

Khot, who received the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, is also a Princeton alumnus, having received his PhD in computer science there after a BTech in computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

The IMU said Khot’s Unique Games Conjecture has opened up a fruitful way of tackling a key question in computational complexity: how hard are problems to solve? His conjecture has also shed light on unrelated problems in geometry and even the mathematics of voting.

Illustrating this point, the IMU said there is a simple algorithm to find an approximate solution to the problem of determining how many celebrities were at a party by knowing only who shook hands with whom.

But the algorithm may give twice the actual count. Computer scientists had long assumed that there would be a better algorithm, but if Khot’s Unique Games Conjecture is true, the existing algorithm is the best one available.

Two other mathematicians received the Fields Medal today --- Brazil’s Artur Avila, the first South American to receive the award, and Martin Hairer from Warwick University in the UK. The Fields Medal also carries a cash award of US $15,000.

Stanley Osher, whose mathematical ideas have been used for special effects in Hollywood productions such as Avatar, The Lord of the Rings and Shrek, today received the Gauss Prize for his work in applied mathematics.

A mathematical tool called “level-set method”, developed by Osher and his former colleague James Sethian in the late-1980s, has been refined by others to produce realistic movie special effects. In an interview to The Telegraph at the International Mathematics Congress held in Hyderabad in 2010, Osher had said: “Water, bubbles, fire, and explosions appear more real in movies.”

Phillip Griffiths, 76, at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton, received the Chern Medal for his work in complex geometry, while Adrian Paenza from Argentina received the Leelavati Prize, an award inaugurated in Hyderabad in 2010 and given for contributions to public understanding of mathematics.


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