Actually things might be even worse: nobody wants to study physics or chemistry either. Or biology. Today’s young Indian would rather be an engineer – again, not to do honest engineering, but to facilitate his entry into an IT firm, and, a little later, his gateway to a management degree.
It’s only now that we are finally getting worried by this turn of events. If the next generation doesn’t have competent mathematicians, then who will predict cyclones, rainfall and tsunamis? Who will devise better guidance and control systems for our missiles and aircraft? And who will come up with superior stochastic models for risk management?
In 2007 I sat through a workshop on Perspectives and Future Prospects in Higher Mathematics at NIAS for the best part of two days, and returned unscathed; perhaps because I enjoy the company of mathematicians. Most mathematicians, certainly most good mathematicians, are very unpretentious: they seldom wear three-piece suits, although they are quite likely to turn up with unkempt beards. They argue passionately about rather trivial things, and smoke many more cigarettes than they should. They are blunt, and rather truthful. M S Narasimhan, a veritable pitamaha of Indian mathematics, said at the end of the workshop: “sometimes I worry that we assemble at such meetings simply to talk, and then go away without doing anything!”.
The NIAS workshop returned a generally gloomy verdict: “pure” and “applied” mathematicians are still at odds, the pure mathematician is still rather proud of his purity, and the applied mathematician is still rather envious of it. The teaching of mathematics, especially at the undergraduate level, is in shambles. There’s precious little to entice a good teacher into a college math faculty (dismal wages, and rapidly declining social esteem), and this hapless math teacher, in turn, is woefully ill-equipped to entice a bright youngster into a mathematical career.
Even if a bright young kid should accidentally stray into the world of mathematics, his elders will ferociously dissuade him: “do you want to become a software engineer with Google or end up as a college teacher in Gurdaspur?”. Finally, that’s the crux of the matter. The glitter of the lucre is overpowering.
So if mathematics is to be revived, you must make sure that the lucre glitters your way. Now that could indeed happen if this KPO wave were to hit India. With BPO, or business process outsourcing, the deal was: “our brain, your brawn”. With KPO, or knowledge process outsourcing, it will be: “your brain, your brawn, our money!”. And then our KPO merchants will discover that mathematics can provide the best “value add” to the business. And then doing mathematics would suddenly become lucrative … and the best brains would come rushing in.
I see this as the only big hope. Of course our bureaucracy will still see things its way. They will say that mathematics can be revived by more generous funding: “increase the Eleventh Five Year Plan outlay by a certain per cent, which will translate into an additional inflow of so many crores of rupees, which, in turn, will trigger off an upswing of a certain magnitude, etc. etc”. I’ve seen a bit of this government funding business: and I now know that intent seldom works, but serendipity might still deliver.
The workshop also exposed the alarming chasm between the mathematician and the engineer. The mathematician (pure or applied) tells the engineer: “just write down the governing equations for me and I’ll provide you the solution”. The engineer is confused: “but I came to you only because I don’t know how to write down these equations myself!”. In the end the mathematician finds himself out of the loop and the engineer often ends up making poor and ill-informed decisions.
This inability to communicate professionally hurts us much more than we realize. Denied a sophisticated or optimal mathematical solution, the engineer opts to buy a (very expensive) “black box” which claims to embed the desired mathematical ingenuity. Soon he must buy a second (expensive) black box and then a third. Finally he cobbles together his product or solution which either delivers the desired performance (but he doesn’t fully know how) or fails to deliver (he doesn’t fully know why). A lot of India’s R&D failures can be attributed to faulty management, but a significant proportion of failures, or non-compliances, are also because of poor mathematical acumen and even poorer inter-disciplinary communication.
The NIAS workshop also highlighted the need for inter-disciplinary research and interactions, and of the mathematical energy that it would unleash (Roddam Narasimha called it “hybrid vigour”). Narasimha recalled the happy consequences of a series of unstructured meetings between scientists and businessmen that he attended for a few years around New York: “while we scientists merely saw them as friendly interactions, the businessmen were exultant: you don’t realize how many problems you have solved, they told us”.
So it’s really rather worrying: the country clearly needs mathematicians, but no one (outside a measure zero set) apparently wants to become one. In fact, I once posed the following question to Narasimha: “what if India completely eschews science and technology? There are so many countries who live, and apparently quite well too, just on trade, commerce and other economic instruments!”. Narasimha was first horrified by the thought, and then deeply pained. “I just hope that never, never happens to India”, was all that he could say.
–This article first appeared in Current Science in 2007.