CS Seshadri, the wide-eyed curious good-humored professor who lets his heart do the math
Professor CS Seshadri had a bad memory for names and slipped into the stereotype of the “distracted professor” but the mathematician deliberately maintained the image to blunt the edges of a personality marked by a sharp intellect that was becoming more and more more focused as he gets older, say friends and colleagues. Professor Seshadri died in Chennai on Friday at the age of 88.
He was the founder and director of the Chennai Mathematical Institute. He has spent quite a bit over the past three decades building the institute as a rare haven for research and academia, following his stint at TIFR-Mumbai.
He recorded many achievements in the field of algebraic geometry, and among many others, fundamental contributions like the Narasimhan-Seshadri theorem, a 55-year breakthrough that changed connections and perceptions in spheres until to theoretical physics.
Professor Seshadri’s impressive work was very light on him. Instead, he chose to downplay it, putting his intellectual prowess among other interests – his passion for mathematics was perhaps matched only by his love for Carnatic music.
He came from a Kanchipuram family who had a line of musicians on the maternal side, and some also on his father’s side.
The professor, however, didn’t look on him at all. Most of the time, his energies were focused on expanding the institute into new branches and building capacity in different areas.
“Four or five years ago, when he wanted to plan the future of the institute, he brought together the best minds in the world. He brought in Dr MS Narasimhan and Dr Srinivasa Varadhan (NYU Courant), and several others… ”said Cognizant software exporter co-founder Lakshmi Narayanan, who knew Seshadri well.
“One of his special relationships was the one he shared with Fields Medal winner Manjul Bhargava. Whenever Manjul was in town, he made a point of visiting Seshadri… ”
According to Professor Madhavan Mukund, Deputy Director and Dean of Studies at the Chennai Mathematical Institute, Seshadri’s genius lay in engaging with, arguably, one of the most complex branches of mathematics in a holistic way:
“As the name suggests, algebraic geometry is a way of understanding geometric concepts through algebra. At the school level, we learn how algebraic equations can represent geometric shapes such as lines, parabolas, and circles. Algebraic geometry takes this correspondence to a very abstract level, where geometric objects are difficult to visualize and the corresponding algebraic manipulations are just as complex… ”declared Professor Mukund.
Professor Seshadri’s achievements, which have brought him international recognition, come into clear relevance with the connection that algebraic geometry has been found with the P-vs-NP problem, a famously unsolved problem sitting at the junction of the computer science and mathematics. , IA and many other fields.
“Recently, algebraic geometry has also been linked to the central P-vs-NP problem in computer science, which attempts to understand whether some computational problems are inherently more complex than others,” Prof Mukund said.
Compared to his peers, Seshadri looked at math with wide-eyed curiosity.
“He had a very broad view of mathematics, unlike many of his contemporaries. He was one of the first high-level mathematicians in India, for example, to recognize the strong mathematical foundations that underpin computer science. In recent years he has been enthusiastic about the interplay between mathematics and fields like biology and economics, ”said Professor Mukund.
CMI was the first academic institution in India to actively involve high-level research mathematicians in undergraduate education. Over the past two decades, CMI graduates have established themselves as accomplished researchers in their own right.
They have held faculty positions at leading academic institutions across India as well as the rest of the world.
In his own way, Seshadri had developed the eccentricities of a mathematician which included an eternal thirst for teaching. Any opportunity to obtain knowledge transmitted, he would seize it.
At a CMI summons, when Infosys founder Narayana Murthy was speaking, largely about human values, Seshadri approached Murthy and said (into the microphone): “Can you talk about all you’ve done and quantum computing opportunities? ”
Speaking about the incident, Narayanan said, “When an idea strikes him (Seshadri), he forgets himself.”
His characteristic abruptness, at times, had its immediate advantages. One day, Seshadri asked Narayanan why the latter lived in such a large detached house. Even as Narayanan drafted a response, “Would you be okay if I conducted my classes here?”
“Be my guest…” Narayanan said.