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K Soundarajan: making Maths easy

Prathibha Parameswaran, CNN-IBN
Jan 06, 2012 at 01:47pm IST

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Chennai: Kannan Soudarajan is someone who revolutionised the mathematical world with his number theory. He is the winner of the Infosys Foundation Science Prize 2011.

Kannan Soudarajan showed that mathematical analysis can influence our day-to-day life - be it tips to become a champion billiards player or even creating a great sound system.

For Soundarajan, even a casual game of pool, is an exercise in science.

Soundarajan says, "The best pool players can bounce balls off the edges of this table and make them go exactly where they want to. That's because these edges are straight, predictable. Imagine what happens if these two ends were U-shaped. You bounce a ball off a U-shaped end and it could go anywhere. It's going to be unpredictable. Chaotic."

What's true for large billiard balls can also be true for the invisible, microscopic world. For example, sound waves. A well designed concert hall makes sound travel evenly to every corner, so everyone enjoys the music. But if the hall's edges aren't precise, sound gets chaotic. Some people enjoy great sound, while others can't hear at all.

Soundarajan says: "Chaos. Unpredictable behaviour. This is an area where physics overlaps mathematics. Physicists wanted to understand how waves are influenced by the geometry of their enclosure. Their equations could predict wave movements to a large extent. But there was still a missing link."

That's when Soundarajan, born and brought up in Chennai, reached back into history and pure mathematics.

In the early 1900s, Ramanujan, a self-taught clerk at Chennai port, wrote reams of formulae that changed international math for ever. His most famous work dealt with prime numbers and number theory.

Soundarajan says, "I was in school in 1987, the centenary of Ramanujan's birth. And I remember being awed that an Indian mathematician could so dramatically affect the world of science. His work has always been an inspiration ever since."

Soundarajan showed that for some mathematical shapes, inspired by Ramanujan's work in number theory, waves always spread out evenly and predictably. It is solid proof for a fifteen year old conjecture called quantum unique ergodicity. But it's only the latest in more than twenty years of breakthroughs in number theory, harmonic analysis and probability theorems.

While playing a game of noughts and crosses, Soundarajan says, "Simple game and it ends in a draw always right?

"Well, imagine the same game played in multiple dimensions. According to Math, the person who makes the first move then always has more chance of winning. And the game never ends in a draw."


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