Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Outstanding Outsider

Professor D. D. Kosambi was one of India’s most veritable and versatile scholars who traversed diverse disciplines with gay abandon backed by intuitive discipline – be it Mathematics, Genetics, Numismatics, Indology, Sanskrit studies or peace activism. Far from being recognized and rewarded for his intuitive explorations, he was made a victim of convenient conjectures about his self-contained thought and action. Sudhir Raikar recounts Dr. C K Raju’s timeless tribute to the incomparable polyglot and polymath on the occasion of his 107th birth anniversary.
Sudhir Raikar / 13:55, 31-Jul-14

Damodar Kosambi, just like his father, the great Pali scholar Dharmanand Kosambi, was a gifted non-conformist, far ahead of his times. In all his pioneering work across spheres of mathematics, numismatics, statistics, anthropology, archaeology, genetics, Indology, Sanskrit literary critique and peace activism, Kosambi traversed beyond conventional confines to make lasting contributions. That some of them were debatable does not take away even an ounce of the significance of his herculean effort and foresight.

Poignancy was a recurring feature of Kosambi’s life and work. His seminal paper on prime numbers which he called his life work went mysteriously missing after his demise, so did the priceless manuscript of The Hump on Nandi's back - his only book for children which was being illustrated by the V & A Museum, London. Time and again he was shabbily treated by academic institutions and peers - whether at Harvard, BHU, AMU or Fergusson. He died in his sleep on the night of June 28, 1966 immediately following a medical examination which declared him fit as a fiddle. His detractors were countless but even many of his admirers were only content with their ‘balanced’ appraisals, more a cerebral labour to remain politically correct than any genuine concern for Kosambi and his astonishing body of work.

Even today, ‘branded’ speakers go gaga over him on umpteen podiums but when it comes to guarding the indisputability of his bohemian ways, most prefer to keep mum. That's perhaps the price one pays for defying the mediocrity of the establishment or the crippling insecurity of our academicians who conceal their ineptitude in the perfunctory worship of specialization. There’s an urgent need to rescue Kosambi’s original thought from the vortex of prejudiced opinions and ill-nourished analyses of scholars and academicians across the globe.

It’s heartening to note that some thinkers, practitioners and media persons are doing just that.

Like Ramkrishna Bhattacharya who aptly calls Kosambi a ‘veritable Durvasa, the sage known and feared by all for his irascibility’. Looking beyond Kosambi’s seemingly irrational and evidently eccentric ways, Bhattacharya rightly points that Kosambi never shied away from making systematic theoretical generalizations, an endeavour most historians detest for obvious reasons.

Like Prof. D J Jha who highlights the fact that Kosambi’s research work was rooted in practical application. His statistical technique called Proper Orthogonal Decomposition (POD) in 1943 positively impacted diverse fields including image processing, signal processing, data compression, oceanography, chemical engineering and fluid mechanics. His deep study of the seasonal death rate proved that at least 500 lives could be saved annually in the city of Bombay alone by concentrating on anti-typhoid work about three weeks before the onset of the monsoon. He had intimated the then Bombay government that a motorable all-weather road for Naneghat would prove more economical than the proposed expensive funicular.

Of course Chintamani Deshmukh’s superbly articulated Marathi biography is a must for all Kosambi admirers and students while Arvind Gupta’s painstakingly compiled online resources and references are a rich and handy repository on both father and son Kosambi.

There are several incisive reviews from Kosambi’s friends and followers from the East and the West but the best tribute to Kosambi comes from Dr. C K Raju, noted computer scientist, mathematician, educator, physicist and polymath researcher.

On the face of it, C K Raju’s essay ‘Kosambi the Mathematician’ is centred on Kosambi’s mathematical contributions but it throws light on much more. For one, it effectively brings out the pathos of Kosambi’s life which Raju aptly calls “one long clash of values” in the context of mathematics. He tells us without mincing words that Kosambi’s wider interests jeopardized his career in a capitalistic environment which breeds specialization solely for its promise of a better ROI. A man who knows no bounds in the quest for knowledge and truth does not fit into the scheme of things of any sphere, mathematics included. No wonder, Kosambi had to repeatedly suffer unceremonious exits from esteemed academic institutions of the world.

And to those who question Kosambi’s roundabout ways of applying statistics to history, Raju raises a few pertinent questions like ‘Why have not the leading Indian historians provided any space for the history of science in the last 60 years?’ or “Why didn’t Marxist historians never bothered to study Kosambi’s main pre-occupation of mathematics?”

With the honest submission of being aware of Kosambi’s English work alone (excluding Kosambi’s papers published in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian) Raju highlights several key issues pertaining to and emanating from Kosambi’s scientific contributions.

He unfolds the significance of Kosambi’s work in chronological order – his first paper ‘Precessions of an Elliptical Orbit’, his pioneering research in path geometry, his elaborate design for an analogous computer, his ground-breaking work in numismatics as applied to history and also his credible conjectures in probability and number theory.

Raju succinctly explains the tragedy of Kosambi’s infamous solution to the famous Riemann hypothesis (not settled to this day) which asserts that all the (non-trivial) zeroes of the Riemann zeta function lie on the vertical line Re(z)=1/2

Based on his work on Tauberian theorems, Kosambi singularly developed a statistical approach to the Riemann hypothesis but, strangely enough, published a purported proof in the Indian Journal of Agricultural Statistics. He made it amply clear that his was only a conditional proof that “shows that if the primes in suitably defined covering intervals behave like an unbiased random sample, then the Riemann hypothesis follows.”

While Raju insists that Kosambi’s joke fell short of commensurate explanation, he rightly points out the Kosambi didn’t expect his detractors at TIFR to hit him ‘below the belt’ and the ‘possible attempt at subtlety and humour had a tragic consequence’. Kosambi was circuitously sacked by the powers-that-be at TIFR through a non-renewal of his engagement contract. Kosambi was not even given an opportunity to put forth his side of the story.

Raju extends this incident to drive home a larger point: the central challenge of formal mathematics. The value of a mathematical theorem, like the value of a piece of art, lies solely in the eyes of the beholder. But unlike a piece of art, a piece of advanced formal mathematics is blessed with a handful of beholders – ‘five or six people in the world if one is indeed lucky.’

Therefore the value of a mathematical conjecture is typically assessed by the ‘establishment’ authorities who are known to play with the subjectivity of the subject matter with intentions not always noble. Kosambi’s paper on Riemann Hypothesis was engineered to be his nemesis for precisely the same reason. The prospective worth of his paper, and the possibilities inherent in it, was suitably buried in the ignoble rejection of his radical approach.

Re-reading C K Raju’s incisive essay is undoubtedly the best way to revive, more than remember, the mercilessly spurned genius of D. D. Kosambi. The paper is available here: http://ckraju.net/papers/Kosambi-the-mathematician.pdf

Also refer to http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/bs24kosambi.pdf for a neat account of the key milestones of his life and work.

In the coming time, we only hope that the inspiring and enlightening literature of both father and son is made available to today's generation of school, college and university students. This grassroots percolation is more important that the umpteen committees, public lectures, postal stamps and University Chairs constituted in his memory.

Courtesy: http://www.indiainfoline.com/Lifestyle/Art-Approach/The-Outstanding-Outsider/4775078

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