Mathematics Kolkata-rooted mathematician solves century-old math problem

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Samit Dasgupta, a math professor at Duke University in North Carolina and a man with family roots in Calcutta, solved a problem mathematicians have grappled with for more than five decades. Together with Professor Mahesh Kakde of the Indian Institute of Science, he managed to find the building blocks of special polynomials – number 12 of 23 unsolved math problems identified by German mathematician David Hilbert in 1900.

Dasgupta, who has always had a tight-knit extended family in Calcutta, was born and raised in the United States and has a simple but deep definition of mathematics. “Mathematics is the study of truth,” he says.


So what does this problem, which has taken the professor half of his academic career to solve, concretely involve?

Dressed in a brown sweater and with a cup of tea by his side, Dasgupta explains to My Calcutta on a Zoom call while cruising on a typical busy Thursday morning.

“There are certain number systems that exhibit symmetries with certain properties. If the symmetries are commutative, it means that the order of the operations does not matter. If I do A then B, it’s like doing B then A.

So far so simple.

“Building systems of numbers which have commutative properties has been done for rational numbers. We wanted to create number systems for more complex numbers by integrating things like the square root of positive numbers, ”Dasgupta continues.

After successfully describing his work to a layman, Dasgupta laughs and jokes, “I don’t think Hilbert would be very happy with our response. The methods we used are p-adic instead of complex analyzes, and Hilbert was very fond of complex analyzes.

“Mathematics is the study of truth,” says Dasgupta

The mathematician might have disapproved, but Dasgupta was understandably satisfied when an almost 20-year quest finally came to fruition. “There wasn’t a specific moment when it clicked, it was a process. We realized we were going to get it. It was a progressive happiness that seeped in, ”recalls Dasgupta.

Did Dasgupta feel frustrated and wanted to give up everything at all times?

“You are frustrated, but you have to keep working even if the ultimate goal is out of reach. You think of other interesting problems, learn other projects that keep you coming back and solving the problem that is really close to your heart.

Samit says his biggest priorities are his two daughters, Shayla and Sarina

Samit says his biggest priorities are his two daughters, Shayla and Sarina

When not solving math problems big and small, Dasgupta watches sports at night – “American football and ice hockey are my favorites.” Her biggest priority, however, are her two daughters, eight and three, who naturally take up most of her time at home.

Growing up in the Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, he was the “mathematical exception in a physics family”. His parents, Ranjit and Arati, both physicists, are from Kolkata. At home, mother Arati Dasgupta was instrumental in teaching mathematics to young Samit, who also took over the mathematical frameworks from his father’s old Indian textbooks.

Dasgupta burst onto the American math scene at just 16, with the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search, where he placed fourth among 1,667 applications from some of America’s smartest young people.

Darlyn Counihan, who taught her math in middle school, said The Washington Post in a 1995 article that her student “has talent … and a lot of integrity” and that she felt lucky to teach children like him.

Samit with his wife, Smriti Rana

Samit with his wife, Smriti Rana

A joyful moment

As a child, Dasgupta visited his ancestral city every few years and spent time with his cousins ​​and relatives.

“We played guitar and sang songs. It was a joyous time, which was etched in my consciousness. I will never forget the outpouring of unconditional love from my extended family in Kolkata. It was very meaningful to me. Unfortunately, a lot of people of this generation have passed away, so it’s more difficult to go back and not have them there, ”says Dasgupta.

Nandita Dasgupta, her paternal aunt, who resides in the southern city complex of Kolkata, is still strong in this generation. The 90-year-old instantly remembers memories of young Samit. “He’s always been very polite and gentle. As a child, he was usually absorbed in his studies, never disturbing the adults in the family. There was an inherent curiosity about him that stood out even as a child, although his intelligence or knowledge didn’t make him arrogant.


Incredibly, Dasgupta has never been to Calcutta during Durga Puja, although it is dotted with photos of festivities every year. Speaking of Calcutta’s biggest festival, Dasgupta acquires a somewhat childish aura.

“I have talked about Durga Puja all my life. My dream is to take my daughters there, to see it myself, to show them… all the majesty and the celebrations.

Once Kolkata arrives, so does its food. Especially signature Bengali preparations like ilish maach. ” My grandmother ilish is unmatched in the world … I also love Kolkata mishti doi, but my favorite is the rabri that you get there. You can’t get it anywhere else, ”reflects Dasgupta.

As the conversation shifts from sumptuous Bengali specialties to math, Dasgupta retains the passion in her voice. “An elegant mathematical proof is as beautiful as a painting or an amazing poem … I wouldn’t if it [maths] were not beautiful.

“An elegant mathematical proof is just as beautiful as a painting or an amazing poem”, says Samit

The importance of mathematical relationships

With the appointed hour of the call drawing to a close, he analyzes his observations as mathematicians in the making. “Young mathematicians specialize very early on and do their best to engage in cutting-edge and fancy research. This is not necessarily the best approach. On the contrary, if you have a wide and solid base, you can tap into a number of branches later, without getting locked into a narrow space. This broad knowledge base and a driving passion for the subject are the two fundamental qualities for mathematicians to prevail, according to Dasgupta.

At the end of the call, presumably before he resumes his search for the next big deal, Dasgupta walks away with a concluding thought, expressed in his typically genius and understated manner. “Whether in America or India, teachers need to stress the importance of mathematical relationships between structures and shapes beyond just calculating numbers and memorizing algorithms.


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