Remarks at the ISIAM meeting, New Delhi August 15, 2010

Honorable Minister Salman Khurshid and Distinguished Mathematicians Honored at this Meeting

Colleagues and Friends: 

As basic scientific disciplines go, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics are reasonably well organized in India. Applied Mathematics, on the other hand, has not yet received its share of recognition. The reason is partly that it continues to be seen as watered down version of mathematics, or outdated theoretical physics or a somewhat distant cousin of engineering and technology. This should change: applied mathematics includes the application of known mathematics to practical and scientific problems as well as the invention of new mathematics with applications in mind. Applied mathematics often feeds mathematics proper, and, indeed, many first-rate mathematics departments and research institutes in the world have begun to appreciate this fact. Needless to say, applied mathematics has a vital role to play in diverse areas of engineering, energy, material science, geological and geophysical sciences, biological sciences including medicine, social sciences including economics, and so forth. This is why the work of this Society, the Indian Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ISIAM), is very important–­especially at a time when the country is engaged in a technological rejuvenation. This is why the Society deserves, and needs, your support. We greatly appreciate the support of the International Mathematical Union, whose main congress will soon be held in Hyderabad and whose satellite conference this is, the Sharada University, various government agencies which have supported this meeting, the constant background support of SIAM, the support of the chief guest today (as also of his father), the support of the international and national communities of mathematicians, and the support of all of you here. Thanks to Professor Siddiqi, I got involved in this society a few years ago, and wish to take this opportunity to say a few words on the progress made and the work that still remains to be done. Owing to the efforts of the office bearers of this Society, which includes Professors Siddiqi, Gupta, Dikshit, Manchanda and others, the scientific meetings of ISIAM are constantly improving: the invited talks are usually first-rate, Zakir Husain awardees are of high caliber, the fund-raising has become less stochastic, their reach and scope have been expanding, etc. I wish to congratulate the Society on its emergence as an increasingly professional organization with ever strengthening links within India and internationally. Let us not forget, however, that there are many things which we should improve. It is these aspects to which I will now draw attention, while being fully aware that the outlook towards reaching these goals appears good. The following aspects have not changed much. Applied mathematics is still not a well organized and well-knit community in comparison with its importance. The participation of this community in the technological development in the country is yet to reach a critical level; applied mathematics graduate students, whose numbers seem to have increased recently, do not find satisfying jobs quickly enough, and so forth. Applied mathematics in India has not yet made central contributions to the grand challenges of our times, such as climate change, new materials, energy, urbanization, ground water depletion, spread of infectious diseases, etc. The overall quality of applied mathematics research, whether on the applications front or in feeding mathematics proper, has not yet reached the high level it should. The connection between the methods of applied mathematics and computational advances is still not strong. There is a real opportunity here for us—the applied mathematics community—because of the confluence of the importance of the subject and the timeliness and availability of resources. We could make this an exciting time for us and for the subject. Please don’t get me wrong or think of me as being overly critical. I honestly believe that there are accomplished applied mathematicians in this country. This society has honored a small number of them—including some today. To all of them, I offer my congratulations. There are also some first-rate students in applied mathematics. My point is simply that the quality is not sufficiently uniform and that the average level is not sufficiently high. We should strive to improve the situation. In this task, the role of senior mathematicians is to open up new avenues, inspire younger people and mentor them well, in both their research and careers, and eventually build groups in which rigor, accomplishment, creativity and quality are valued above all, and the potential of the younger people can be explored fully and without hurdles. There are some wonderful people of this sort in the country, including this meeting, but there are not enough of them. The role of young mathematicians is to take serious interest in their subject, develop technical skills of high order, and do competitive mathematics. They should understand that mathematics is not a local activity in which to dabble, but is an international arena in which one has to play and excel. There is no ready-made recipe for this situation to work itself out, but the most important need is for the spirit of learning how one’s work is part of a bigger landscape and the willingness to work single-mindedly towards creating one’s own landscape. Hardly are great things possible without this spirit and hard work—especially in mathematics. While it is not possible to do good applied mathematics without knowing mathematics, it is not enough to know good mathematics; one has to move in circles where applications present themselves as opportunities. If our Society can play some role in building this spirit, encourage both senior and young mathematicians, create a culture in which ideas and their interplay with applications are valued, it will have done very well. And our work will have been amply rewarded.

Many thanks.

K.R. Sreenivasan