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The Man Who Knew Infinity


By Arun Kumar Sahu*

“Do you work in the building opposite?” questioned the gentleman to my right just as I was about to settle down with my sandwich.

“Yes, I do.”

“So, you are an Indian diplomat. I’ve been coming to this coffee-house for years now and since it’s in front of the Indian High Commission building across the road, I guessed you must be working there,” he tried to explain. I didn’t want to discourage him. Hotels, restaurants, airports, coffee-shops, bars, playgrounds, parks, tennis courts, and clubs are places diplomats get to interact with the common man, share some light-hearted conversation and get a sense of the mood of the local public. They’re also places where one feels alive; a sort of break from the monotony of sophistry.

Pic Courtesy: interrete.org

“What do you do? I asked.

“I’ve been with the Canadian Science, Technology and Innovation Council for the last ten years or so.”

“Have you visited India?” I asked, aware that Canadian collaborations with India are underway under the I-C IMPACTS (India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability) framework.

“Yes, a few years ago,” he said. “Indians are very good at mathematics. A couple of years back, I watched a movie, ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, about an Indian mathematician who was brought to Cambridge by a British professor…during wartime… from a very poor family, but a genius…I forget his name…” He looked up at the ceiling as he tried to remember.

Mathematical genius? From a poor background? Cambridge? War? Of course it rang a bell. Yes, a British biopic on Srinivasa Ramanujan had been made two years ago, commissioned by Cambridge University.

“S. Ramanujan?” I suggested.

“Yes, yes….” He was relieved and was very excited to talk about Indians, their competence in mathematics and their concomitant global success in information technology. We continued talking for a few minutes, then parted ways.

I felt both happy and sad after he left. Happy because of the global identity that our workforce has earned in information technology, for India and Indians; sad because we have still been seen as poor, wretched and pitiable, as a nation, full of talents, but having not enough resources and institutional strength to cultivate them. We are yet to achieve a similar level of success in scientific research and innovation as certain countries like the USA, Canada, UK, Germany and France. We have not nurtured our institutions for Ramanujan-like mathematicians. We have produced a significant number of highly skilled engineers and professionals, but not enough scientists, and have not encouraged institutions enough to stimulate fundamental research in mathematics, physics, chemistry and other basic sciences. We as a nation have become one of the most formidable sources of labour for the international market, but have failed to become global leaders in science, innovation and cutting-edge technology. I just hope we’ll propel our basic science research to world-class level and not wait for external patronage in order to cultivate brilliant minds like that of Ramanujan.

*Arun Kumar Sahu is the Deputy High Commissioner of India to Canada. He may be contacted [email protected]

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