Face to Face – Prasanta J Baruah

Anupam Saikia, Professor in Mathematics at IIT, Guwahati is the first ‘Wrangler’ from Assam. He studied at Golaghat Govt Bezbaruah School and Cotton College before graduating from St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge on Ramunujan Scholarship and obtained his PhD on Number Theory. He has worked in Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques, Paris, McGill University, Montreal and IIT, Bombay.

You have the rare distinction of being a ‘Wrangler’ in Mathematics from Cambridge University. What is the significance of this achievement?

A student who secures first class in the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge University is called a ‘Wrangler’.  The Mathematical Tripos has been considered as one of the toughest examinations for centuries, and perhaps it led students of mathematics to covet the recognition of being a ‘Wrangler.’

In what ways have you found the environment of mathematical study and research in Cambridge different from India?

In India, performing well in examination has become the primary goal largely due to a sense of insecurity among students and parents. Due to huge population of India, there is a struggle for seats in premier institutes as well as jobs which makes students marks-oriented. The education system is comparatively rigid, and options available to students are limited. In Cambridge, I saw that most students study the subject they love out of their own free will, and are very passionate about what they are learning. I saw few students studying only for exams there. My impression is that students are brought up in a way to feel more confident about their own abilities and to express themselves freely there. As for mathematical research, there is a very rich tradition in Cambridge owing to great mathematicians such as Newton, Hardy, Ramanujan and many Field medallists of modern era.

In what ways are the approach of the common people towards Mathematics different in India and abroad?

I think there is a lot in common there. Most people tend to think of mathematics as a difficult subject, and presume that they will not be able to appreciate the beauty of mathematics.

India is said to have discovered the number zero. So we have a tradition of studying numbers. Are we still maintaining this tradition and development?

India contributed significantly to the development of mathematics in ancient age. We all know about mathematicians such as Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara and Madhava to name a few. However, there was a kind of discontinuity for quite a few centuries in India when most significant contributions were being made by mathematicians in Europe, and in particular by the French and the Germans. Ramanujan inspired new generations of mathematicians in India in the twentieth century.

The coming of the British witnessed the introduction of English education. It also produced great mathematicians like Ramunujan. Was this transition disruptive or smooth?

I am unsure how much of Ramanujan’s achievement can be attributed to English education system. He was a natural genius who made so many mathematical discoveries without having exposure to contemporary books and mathematical developments of the day. As such, he had not completed his college education in India before his famous letter to Hardy caused a stir in Cambridge and eventually brought him there. I would venture to say that common people had too little access to formal education beyond religious teachings when English education was introduced.

Unlike the rest of India, Assam and the Northeast do not have a rich tradition of trade and commerce. We started formal study of numbers only after the British took Assam in 1826. Do we have a lot to catch up?

As a student who studied in Assam till class 12, I never felt that I was at any disadvantage compared to students that I came across in Delhi from other states of India. The school students under the SEBA have the advantage of learning ‘Advanced Mathematics’ as an elective subject. However, for undergraduate study in mathematics, colleges in Assam or the North East have some catch up to do with the colleges affiliated to the premier universities of the country. If we want to look beyond India and consider the education system of some of the developed nations, a lot of reforms are needed from primary schools onward.

You come from Golaghat in Upper Assam. What are the factors which motivated you to take up the study of Mathematics?

I developed a liking for mathematics early in my life. I enjoyed solving oral mathematical puzzles that my father used to pose while I was in primary school. I got further stimulated when Jehirul Hussain Sir gave me more problems to solve from various books during class 8 to 10. The Mathematical Olympiads started by Assam Academy of Mathematics around those years motivated me too.

As a brilliant student you could have gone for engineering, medicine and other attractive disciplines. Why Mathematics?

I was very much attracted to mathematics. As a school student, I immensely enjoyed working out solutions of mathematical problems and struggling with those which I could not immediately solve. There was no doubt whatsoever in mind that I would only pursue mathematics in college. Engineering or medicine did not hold such charm for me.

What advice will you give a student interested in the study of Mathematics. What career roadmap should he follow to achieve his goal?

I would advise interested students to try and develop a thorough understanding of the mathematical concepts, layer by layer. Then they should attempt to solve as many problems as they can, with as little help as possible from books or teachers so that their own thought process develops.

Students must be aware of the opportunities, resources, and the programmes at premier institutes of the country as well as abroad. They must prepare for gaining admission into undergraduate or postgraduate programme of such institutes.

What advice will you give to parents to imbibe interest in Mathematics in their children?

I would say parents may encourage their kids to solve mathematical puzzles and problems, which should be neither too easy nor too much out of their reach. Exposure to books or even online videos about lives of great mathematicians, and their work may stimulate the young. Parents have to maintain a delicate balance as more expectations can have a detrimental effect.

Besides academic and research, what career options are there for a young mathematician?

Training in mathematics opens up career options in different sectors such as IT, Finance, Analytics etc.

How can we produce good mathematics teachers in our state?

We should have regular training programmes for teachers. There should be various forms of incentives for the teachers who teach the subject successfully. More resources such as books and online access should be available. There can be annual sessions on pedagogy and interaction with educationist as well as mathematicians.

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