Friday, September 10, 2010

What Malcolm Gladwell Missed!

All right, for a change, I will make this article a short one. In his book called Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to Rice Paddies and Mathematics [to know the connection between the two, purchase the excellent book]. In that chapter, he says that Asian students have an innate proclivity towards Mathematics due to which they end up performing much better than their Western[notably American] counterparts.

The reason for their inclination towards Maths, is not because they are very hard working students, but because of their language. Asian languages, like Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc have very short names for the numbers. For eg 4 is Si in Chinese and Shi in Japanese. But in English, we have long names, such as Seventeen, One Hundred and Twenty Two, etc. So it takes more time for us to register that number in our mind when we are thinking and calculating in English, but if we do so in Asian languages, we can do all calculations rapidly and with a very high accuracy. This also improves our memory and our mathematical skills, since we can both calculate and write very fast with a high accuracy.

That is the basic argument as to why Asians outperform Americans in Mathematics. And to some extent the logic is true of course. But that does NOT mean that the only reason Americans lag behind in Mathematics is due to language. For Gladwell, while performing his research on Asian countries, has conveniently forgotten to consider another country, the one with the second largest population, and the second fastest growing economy- India.

We will, for the time being consider only literate Indians, notably the middle class and the high class. Almost all of them, without exception, learn Mathematics in English and not in any other language[asian or otherwise]. Yet, almost ALL of them can easily beat any American student of their level [or even a higher level] when it comes to Mathematics. Let alone Americans, in fact most Indian students can easily compete with any country in the world when it comes to Mathematics[at the middle school or high school level]. And they do that with English as a medium- making Gladwell’s argument fall flat on its feet that it’s due to the language that students perform calculations better.

You [especially if you are not an Indian] may think that I am just being boastful about my own country. But I will take another example- that of the most popular competitive exam in the world- the Graduate Record Examination[GRE]. And you cannot blame me for any bias, because it is an American exam, not an Indian one. So, I give you three guesses to this question-Students from which country perform the best in GRE? If you ask this to an average American, the chances are he will answer this- ‘USA, Germany, France’, or if he is a bit more knowledgeable he can say China. But of course the correct answer is India. Indians dominate in all western exams- GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS, etc. Though now the Chinese have also come far ahead. In fact, take the questions of the Mathematical section of the GRE- designed to test college level students, and give them to any student of class 7 or 8 in India, and he/she will solve them with ease.

Now do the reverse. Bring some of the brightest Western students and make them appear for IIT-JEE, probably one of the toughest exams in the world. And check how many of them can even solve a few questions, let alone crack the exam.

So why is it that if Indian students are so good in Mathematics, hardly any Indian has made any significant contribution to the field of Mathematics? Can we name even a single living [famous] Indian mathematician? In fact I doubt if students can go beyond Ramanujan or Mahalonobis[both dead for quite a while].

At one time, India produced most of the World’s best Mathematicians. However this culture has vastly disintegrated and now we produce only engineers and managers trying to serve their own selfish greed, rather than making any significant progress/research in their field.

In fact, the reason why so many child prodigies who win medals in the International Mathematics Olympiad disappear is because their parents force them to join IITs and do engineering. Once they get into that, the thought of mathematics is all but forgotten. Sad, but true. In the west, such budding youngsters are encouraged to sharpen their talents and do extra-ordinary research in their field, be it Mathematics, Science, Law, Medicine, etc. It’s only in India that we look down upon people who do not choose engineering, medical, etc as a profession and try to do something different.

I will end with this story- I know a person who was interested in Statistics, and wanted to do research work in Mathematics which would help India develop a better mechanism for studying the poverty rate, and the food distribution rate, etc. Instead his parents forced him to join an Engineering college, shattering his dream, which along with him slipped into oblivion.

When will the people [especially realize] realize that forcing your children to study Engineering and MBA against their will is actually harming rather than benefiting them? Getting an ABC job is NOT, and SHOULD NOT BE CONSIDERED THE ONLY AIM IN LIFE.

Just recently, some notable Mathematicians around the world were awarded the Fields medal[equivalent of a Noble Prize] in India [International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM)-Picture Above]. Yet not one of them was Indian. Vishwanathan Anand played chess with 40 Mathematicians simultaneously, yet the people of India are yet to wake up from their slumber.

As long as people keep on pursuing their own selfish interests, ie money and status, India can forget about producing any eminent personality in the field of Mathematics or Science.


Abhid-d said...

Well, I don't exactly agree with you on this one, Satwinder. In 2002, 3 computer scientists from IIT Kanpur, Maninder Agrawal, Saxena and Kayal solved a decades old computer science problem (actually a math problem) of finding a polynomial time algorithm to decide whether a number is prime or not.

They were awarded prestigious international awards for their proof.

A few weeks back, an Indian computer scientist Vinay Deolalikar claimed to have solved a long-standing problem in Mathematics (for which there's a $1 million prize called, Clay Math award), that P=NP.

Although his proof was proven wrong, yet his effort was applauded.

Also, some 2 or 3 years ago an Indian narrowly missed the Nobel Prize in Physics because t went to a westerner. Don't know the exact details, but the westerner's work proved only a particular case of some Physics problem, but the Indian scientist's work proved a more general result.

Ingmar said...

We (Indians) moved to applied mathematics dude which is of more use to the world than the pure one albeit the latter is behind the former.

srikanth said...

ECG Sudarshan was the one who missed Nobel narrowly. He missed twice. The Irony , I understand is that ( incidentally he was a particle physiscist ) he missed it twice. A person by name Glauber won for establishing some relationship in which Sudharshan was involved and was given credit for. The equaltion was called Glauber- Sudarshan equaltion.... He had also worked on some weak... theory , people who worked on the premises set by him ( Dr Abdus Salaam etc..) won Nobel.
He is considered easily a Nobel class + scientist. Incidentally , he was born a christian abut talks extensively on vendanta etc( he is supposed to have embraced Hinduism , may be in a inclusive way amonst others )


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