M3 Features

Infosys Prize for monk

November 30, 2015

Back in the nineties, Professor Sobha Madan had inculcated the interest in topology in a young student, who had just opted out of electrical engineering to pursue the five-year integrated MSc course [at IIT Kanpur]. The interest of space, dimension and transformation had shaped the student's future academic pursuits. Recently, the Infosys Science Foundation awarded the Infosys Prize 2015 in mathematical science to this student for his contributions to geometric group theory, low-dimensional topology and complex geometry.

In 1997, the student, then called Mahan Mitra, was awarded his PhD degree by the University of California, Berkeley. The very next year, in 1998, he renounced the world and joined the Ramakrishna Mission order. But his love for mathematics continued.

The award Mahan Maharaj (or Swami Vidyanathananda) received has a Rs 65-lakh purse, a 22-carat gold medallion and a citation certificate. But for him, these are of little value.

Speaking to TOI in between organising a week-long seminar at his workplace – the mathematics department in Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University, Belur – Mahan Maharaj said: “I have little to do with awards. It is the recognition of the work, which I value.”

“Mahan's work is an important milestone in Thurston's programme, started almost 40 years ago, of classifying the possible shapes of low-dimensional spaces using the group of symmetries that they have as a tool,” says New York University professor Srinivasa SR Varadhan, an Infosys Prize jury member.

In a rare 2013 interview to TOI, Maharaj had explained why he chose to be a monk. “Perhaps because I wanted to find the peace to work away at mathematical problems,” he had laughed, easing off at last. “I am enjoying being a monk as much as I enjoy my mathematics.”

He travels all over the world collaborating with mathematicians and lecturing students.“I am very much a part of the mathematics community, my uniform has got nothing to do with it,” he jokes.

Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University vice-chancellor Swami Atmapriyananda said, “Mahan Maharaj is considered one of the brightest mathematicians in the world today. His findings and explanations are extremely sought after globally. He is the perfect synthesis of religion and scientific quest, a breed that Swami Vivekananda wanted to establish in his Mission.”

Here is an interview that Mahan Maharaj gave to NDTV after winning the award:

Text as published in The Times of India (Kolkata) on November 25, 2015

Feature image: Mahan Maharaj (bongfeed.com)

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