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News from ICTP 82 - Profile



From an early age, M.S. Narasimhan was fascinated by geometry. ICTP's Head of the Mathematics Section has turned this passion into a distinguished career.


Counting on Math at the Centre


As a small child growing up in a rural village in southern India, I remember spending hours drawing diagrams on the walls of my house. My parents appreciated my enthusiasm but they wanted me to express my interest in geometry in a different, more conventional, way. So, they bought me a blackboard and some chalk."

That's how Mudumbai Seshachalu Narasimhan, Head of ICTP's Mathematics Research Group, recalls his earliest explorations into the world of geometry.

His childhood delight has turned into a lifelong pursuit of teaching and research that has taken him to universities and institutes in the United States, England, Japan, France and Germany.

For more than 25 years, between the mid 1960s and early 1990s, Narasimhan served as Professor of Mathematics at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay (recently renamed Mumbai), India, one of that nation's pre-eminent research institutions. Then, in 1992, he was lured to the ICTP by the late Abdus Salam, the Centre's founder.

Since his arrival at the Centre, Narasimhan has sought to provide a stronger thematic focus for the activities of the Math Group.

"Each year, we choose a particular theme-for example, last year the theme was algebraic and arithmetic groups. We then invite about 50 young researchers and students who are interested in the theme. We also invite two or three of the world's top experts to come to Trieste so that the visitors can interact with them. For instance, Armand Borel of Princeton University and Israel Gelfand of Rutgers University visited the ICTP last year."

"The goal," Narasimhan says, "is to create a critical mass of activity that allows researchers with similar interests to exchange ideas and learn from one another. We also hope those who attend profit from the presence of well-known experts."

"Right now," notes Narasimhan, "about 50 to 60 percent of our resources are devoted to a particular theme. The rest of our budget is spent on other research activities. We believe this approach provides a good balance between our desire to build a more structured environment at the ICTP and our concerns about becoming too specialised."

The strategy seems to be paying off. Over the past three years, more than 400 researchers from around the world have participated in the activities of the Math Group. Some participants have garnered impressive awards at home. For example, Li Jiayu, a Centre post-doc between 1992 and 1994, recently received a three-year, $125,000 fellowship from the Chinese government.

Narasimhan, who was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of London last year, believes that the ICTP's Math Programme should continue to build a global reputation for itself in the fields of differential and algebraic geometry. "It's not enough for the Centre to be known as a place where young scientists come to study. The ICTP also needs to be recognised as a world-class research centre in select fields."

"We think that geometry is a field where the staff has already established a level of expertise that we can build on," Narasimhan adds. "We also think that its close relationship to quantum physics makes geometry a natural choice for our area of in-house concentration."

The blackboard that Narasimhan's parents gave him years ago has long-since been discarded. But the diagrams he drew on that blackboard helped to build a strong foundation for his career as a mathematician. Now, through the ICTP, he's hoping to provide opportunities for others who will follow in his footsteps.

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