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Fear of Maths is much less among Asians
She has decades of highly recognised research work in maths spanning across India and the West behind her. Bhama Srinivasan, 76, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, is best known for her work in the field of representation theory of finite groups. She has also headed the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) in the US
How would you compare the place math enjoys in academics and society in general in the West and in India?
As leading Indian mathematician MS Raghunathan has said the "academic in the West has a much better socioeconomic standing" than in India. (A test: Do middle-class Indian parents aspire to find academic husbands for their daughters?) As for society in general, I feel that fear and anxiety towards maths are less prevalent in Asian countries including India than in the West. Indeed, India changed to decimal currency and the metric system without much pain among all socio-economic classes. Parents do feel pride in the mathematical abilities of their children. No doubt the general public does not know what research in mathematics is about, but to quote MSR again, "Despite this general lack of public awareness about mathematics, there is in this country a feeling that we are very good at mathematics and there is a certain pride in its past achievements. We have no doubt major past contributions to mathematics to our credit, as has already been pointed out. The romantic story of Srinivasa Ramanujan no doubt contributes (very justifiably) to this belief. . . ". In the West, names of famous mathematicians are generally known only to a small segment of society.
There is an increasing feeling that maths education needs to be overhauled drastically. What is your opinion?
In a sense, the US and India have similar problems: being democracies they have to see that good education is provided to all segments of society. In both countries, educators point to the disparities between educational facilities for rich and poor children. They also point out that maths education should not consist of drills and memorisation. My perception is that there is a tendency to move towards too much technology. (A young couple I know in India have given their 3-year old daughter an iPad. ) Ideally there should be a mixture of drill and concepts, but this is difficult to achieve.
How do you assess the quality of maths research in India?
There are many Indian mathematicians doing excellent research all over the world. In India there are great research institutions such as TIFR, ISI, HRI, CMI, and IMSc. However, the Western concept that university faculty should combine research and teaching has not taken root in India. Many gifted students are taught by teachers who are not scholars and cannot bring an extra dimension to their lectures. Thus it has become common for such students to go abroad for graduate study and then to obtain faculty positions there. I am pleased to see that some mathematicians trained abroad are returning to India;for example, Amritanshu Prasad has returned to a position at IMSc after his PhD from the University of Chicago.
You talk of having faced gender stereotypes during your early years as a mathematician in India. Is this still an issue?
Keith Devlin of Stanford University, "Math Guy" on National Public Radio, said while discussing the Russian mathematician Olga Ladyzhenskaya that she crushed two myths: that women cannot do mathematics, and that old people cannot do mathematics. It has been the case, though perhaps less so now, that girls are discouraged from pursuing mathematics. My perception is that there is less of this feeling in India. In spite of this, there are far fewer women in India doing research in maths than in the West. When I look at the group photo from a conference at TIFR last December, I can count about 30 male students and four female students. One reason might be the difficulty of combining a mathematical career with a family, a tendency on the part of women to subjugate their careers to those of their husbands, and so on. Recently the AWM celebrated its 40th anniversary. There were 18 sessions with all the speakers being women. This would not have been considered possible in 1971 when AWM was founded.
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