Author: Samar Halarnkar

Publication: The Indian Express

Date: September 22, 2002

URL: http://www.indian-express.com/full_story.php?content_id=9951
Introduction: IIT graduate Madhu
Sudan's work tackles problems, 'important and deep'

India's techies routinely use their
knowledge of mathematics to try and create the next big thing, their first
million-or the next. But one Indian has won international acclaim for doing
nothing more than brilliant maths, part of a breed faithful to pen and
paper.

Madhu Sudan, a native of Chennai
and IIT Delhi graduate (class of 1987) has won the 2002 Rolf Nevanlinna
Prize, one of the world's most prestigious awards in mathematics. It's
also termed the junior Nobel in mathematics, awarded as it is for ''both
existing work and the promise of future achievement,'' according to the
International Mathematical Union.

Sudan, 35, is an associate professor
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was recognised for
his groundbreaking work in theoretical computer science. He was presented
with the award last month in Bejing at a meeting of the International Mathematical
Union addressed by the Chinese President Jiang Zemin with 4,000 people
in attendance.

Some of the problems Sudan-whose
sister is a bank manager is New Mumbai and father a retired government
officer in Delhi- has solved have practical applications, but many are
purely advances limited to the realm of arcane mathematical research.

The Mathematical Association of
America says Sudan has made important contributions, among other more theoretical
fields, to error-correcting codes.

These codes play a major role in
making digital communication high-quality and reliable: from music recorded
on CDs to satellite transmissions to Internet communications. His achievements
come immediately after an IIT Kanpur computer science professor, Manindra
Agrawal, 36, and his two Phd students garnered international attention
last month for cracking a problem-checking whether a number is prime or
not-that's dogged mathematicians since the time of the ancient Greeks and
Chinese.

Indian mathematicians acknowledge
that attention is coming this way after a long time. ''We haven't had a
Ramanujam in quite a while,'' says Renuka Ravindran, head of the department
of mathematics at Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science, referring to
S A Ramanujam, one of India's greatest mathematical geniuses who died in
Erode, Tamil Nadu, in 1887.

A number of American institutions
see genius in Sudan. ''Madhu Sudan has made important contributions to
several areas of theoretical computer science,'' says a statement from
the American Mathematical Society. ''His work is characterised by brilliant
insights and wide-ranging interests.''

His boss at MIT, John Guttag says,
''Madhu combines enormous technical virtuosity with a rare gift for choosing
problems that are both important and deep.''

For a culture that conjured up the
zero-as we love to remind the world-Indian mathematicians have faded from
public attention. But since mathematics is today the base of everything
from aircraft design to computer software and hardware, mathematicians
are at work everywhere. So India's techies are by definition strong users
of applied mathematics.

But people like Sudan and Agrawal
are computer scientists who use their mathematical knowledge for the lesser-known
thrill of simply creating a new algorithm-instead of a writing a new code
for a computer. ''Right now I am too happy doing what I am doing to try
the hectic path of a tech company,'' Sudan told The Sunday Express from
Cambridge, Massachusetts. ''If I do pursue such a path, it would be because
I have a technical idea that becomes an obsession with me.''

Half a world away at IIT Kanpur,
Agrawal, who too does not have techie ambitions from his knowledge of computer
science, says he just enjoys playing around with prime numbers and algorithms.
''Just trying to solve them,'' says this plain, modest Allahabadi, ''is
a lot of fun.'' Carl Pomerance, a mathematician at the leading research
facility of Bell Labs, told The New York Times: ''This algorithm is beautiful.''

Another called it ''crisp and lovely.''

It is this search for beauty and
elegance in numbers that drives the young breed of Indian mathematicians.
''It's very difficult to pinpoint the beauty of mathematics,'' says Neeraj
Kayal, 22, one of the two Phd students on Agrawal's team. ''It's like when
you see a piece of art and are struck by it but don't know how to express
it.''

All of them have seen colleagues
flee academia and fill the ranks of wannabe entrepreneurs and tycoons,
glued to their computers, circuit boards and chips. ''The nicest thing,''
says Kayal, ''is that you require only pen and paper.''