Notes from my interaction with Dr. Kannan Soundararajan, Infosys Prize winner

My article on this interview and Dr. Soundararajan’s opinions appeared in The Hindu’s EducationPlus supplement on October 22, 2012 titled “It’s a mixed bag“.

Dr. Kannan Soundararajan is a professor at Stanford University and the director of its Mathematics Research Center. He is a recipient of the Infosys Prize for the Mathematical Sciences, the Ostrowski Prize (both in 2011), the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize (2005), and the inaugural Morgan Prize (1995). Dr. Soundararajan’s research interests concern L-functions and multiplicative number theory.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with him (My comments appear in square-brackets).

You’ve been awarded the Infosys Prize in the mathematical sciences category in 2011 for your work in number theory. Could you explain the nature of your work?

I work with Riemann zeta-functions, which are used to encode properties of integers and prime numbers together [Bernhard Riemann observed about 150 years ago that the properties of primes could be studied with this function].

As the director of the Mathematics Research Center at Stanford University, may I ask what your responsibilities are?

I am responsible for administering funds received from the university. We also bring in 40 to 50 visitors every year to the department of mathematics for seminars.

Further, we encourage research collaborations by inviting and paying for researchers from outside the university. There are also lecture series, and the conduction of outreach activities for undergraduate and high-school students.

Do you think there’s sufficient encouragement for students to pursue a career in pure research? Have you seen this interest decline in the last five or so years?

There is lots of enthusiasm for students going from school to college these days. We encourage some of those students to take up summertime research with university professors. Moreover, our proximity to Silicon Valley helps because it draws in a lot of people interested in pure-mathematics research. There is also an increasing interest in the subject due to the export of problems from computer science.

Because of these factors and some others, there has been an increase in the number of mathematics majors by nine times in eight yrs! Another important way for us to judge the interest of our students is through their participation in extracurricular activities.

As far as teaching the technical sciences is concerned, do you think there are any shortcomings in the education system – in the West and in India?

Classroom education is in a period of flux. Online education is changing things for the future.

The most successful model has been one that involved one-to-one interactions along with small class-sizes, but that is bound to change as classes grow bigger. Also, with an increasingly interdisciplinary nature of courses in the mix, balancing online courses with interactive sessions in the classroom is necessary.

I believe that this evolution will continue for the next five to ten years before it stabilizes.

With budget cuts by states around the world, big experimental physics has taken a hit. This isn’t to say theoretical research thrives – in fact, the public has always had trouble understanding the latter. So, in the current economic scene, what’re the ways in which the government can be convinced that advanced mathematics also deserves investment?

A good question.

A lot of solutions in various fields have spun out of advanced mathematics research. There is an increase in the number of problems being exported by computer science. Mathematics has for a long time been influenced by problems in physics, and vice-versa, but now, computer science has come to assume that mantle.

Further, advanced mathematics research has grown to become a huge field by itself now, and has come to influence many aspects of life. The give-and-take between fields continues to happen: as one grows, the other does, too. Pure mathematics now shares connections with other sciences, most recently with biology.

Although it might be difficult to see physical results of pure-mathematics research in the short-run, they will become visible with time. In fact, such benefits have always been hard to foretell, but they have been there all the same.

Do you think the Infosys Foundation and others like it are doing enough to offset this imbalance?

Science research in India is still funded in large parts by the government. Around the world, the trend has been toward using private funding for research, especially in light of the economic recession. For example, in the USA, the Simons Foundation has started to contribute for many research initiatives.

So, where public spending has gone down, foundations like Infosys’ are doing good work. The influx of private funding for science research is welcome.

In terms of your research, what’re you looking at next?

I am working on a couple of books, one on the Riemann zeta-function and the other on quantum unique ergodicity. Both are aimed at graduate students.