Mahan Maharaj, Monk And Winner Of Infosys Prize, Holds 'Science Is For All'

19/11/2015 4:03 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Mathematicians are the godliest of scientists, mostly because other than the indisputable fact that they're extremely smart and tenaciously creative, it's usually hard--unless you're sufficiently initiated-- to understand their work.

Mahan Maharaj, the 47-year-old mathematician, who's won this year's Infosys prize for mathematical sciences, has a citation that reads:

Mahan Mj’s most prominent result is a proof of Thurston’s conjecture that every Kleinian surface group admits a Cannon-Thurston map. A Kleinian surface group is a properly discontinuous action of the fundamental group of a closed surface on hyperbolic 3-space by isometries. A Cannon-Thurston map is a continuous equivariant map from the boundary of the surface group into the boundary of hyperbolic 3-space. In many cases, the Cannon-Thurston map will be a sphere-filling curve. As a consequence Mahan Mj proves that if the limit set of a finitely generated Kleinian group is connected, then it is locally connected. This result has already had many applications in the study of hyperbolic 3-manifolds and Mahan Mj and his co-authors have studied Cannon-Thurston maps in more general geometric group theoretic settings. The Jury was also impressed by Mahan Mj’s varied work on pattern rigidity and fundamental groups of complex manifolds.

But the aura around Mahan Maharaj, ever since he won one of India's top science prizes--the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (SSB) in 2011-- is due to no small measure of being an ordained monk of the Ramakrishna Mission. In 2011, the saffron-robed, barefoot monk--who's made significant advances in a sub-field of geometry-- stood out among the numerous scientists who'd lined up to receive their prize of Rs 5 lakh, a medal and a citation from PM Manmohan Singh and while it isn't surprising to discover that scientists are introverted and self-effacing, Mahan, even after receiving his prize, was disinclined to talk to this reporter about himself or the nature of his work.

Biographical details that are available about Mahan are, to the mathematically-untrained, digestible evidence of his intellect and achievements.

Currently a professor of mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, he was born Mahan Mitra and later enrolled at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur to major in Electrical Engineering, but switched later to mathematics. He graduated with a Masters degree in mathematics, in 1992 and later, a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1997. Almost immediately, it appears he joined the Ramakrishna Mission in 1998 and in 2008, was ordained a monk.

Newspaper reports, in the aftermath of his SSB prize, gleaned that he was a 'charismatic teacher' who also enjoyed the 'occasional smoke' there's very little that details how this gifted mathematician embraced the spiritual life and how his pursuit of mathematics tied in with his spiritual inclinations. The only instance when touched upon this was in an interview to one of India's top mathematicians, Sujatha Ramadorai, that appears in a e-publication dealing with mathematicians. He told Ramadorai:

"It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to sharply delineate what exactly it was that attracted me to this (monastic) way of life. It certainly was not any kind of theology and I remember being quite strongly atheistic during my MSc. On the other hand, there are certain fundamental values — truth and unselfishness--that we as human beings, in general, and scientists, in particular, subscribe to."

In the same interview, he speaks of encountering the writings of Swami Vivekananda, the most famous disciple of Ramakrishna, as a student at Berkley and of his conviction that "fruits of scientific discovery should, at least in principle, be available to all."

Though a relatively new prize, Infosys Prize, which "...endeavours to elevate the prestige of science and research in India and inspire young Indians to choose a vocation in research.." is one of the richest that confers a gold medal, a citation and a purse of Rupees 65 Lakh. The award is given annually to honour outstanding achievements of contemporary researchers and scientists across six categories : Engineering and Computer Sciences, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences and Social Sciences.

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