Saturday, March 19, 2016

Manjul Bhargava on fringe science

Fields medalist Manjul Bhargava has a higher tolerance for fringe science than I do -- and perhaps I need to learn from him.

Perhaps Ramanujan’s struggle to find an audience for his work and the hardship he underwent to be taken seriously by the mathematics establishment of his time informs Dr. Bhargava’s relatively tolerant take on the inclusion of sessions on ancient Indian science in the proceedings of the Indian Science Congress. Last year, an ex-pilot made the apocryphal claim that an ancient Indian sage had laid down detailed plans of ancient airplanes; this year, too, a bureaucrat successfully submitted in the environmental sciences sub-conference a ‘research paper’ on how Lord Shiva was a “great environmentalist” — though he didn’t go on to present it.

To Dr. Bhargava, this is “fringe” science, though he adds that it’s in the very nature of science congresses the world over to occasionally entertain speculative claims and “fringe” science. The key, according to him, is that fringe science be treated as such and not be given greater space than actual scientific discussions or talks. “I was upset at the last Congress [in Mumbai] that the fantastic achievements of the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) were barely covered in the media and all space was taken up by those discussions. Real scientists there were wondering, ‘Hey, what about us?’” he says. Moreover, he adds, at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM), there were always claims that someone had solved the Riemann hypothesis [a bedevilling maths problem, nearly a century old, whose solving guarantees a million dollars in prize money from the Clay Mathematics Institute]. On the other hand, the solution to another tricky problem — of rapidly testing whether a given number was prime — was proffered by an Indian computer scientist, Manindra Agrawal and his two graduate students. “They are computer scientists and not professional mathematicians. Imagine if their work wasn’t accepted at an ICM… solutions can from anywhere,” he reasons, “Science marches ahead when as many ideas are allowed to be communicated.”