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September 10, 2009

The Case of a Beautiful Mind

There is nothing that shackles the free and fearless intellectual spirit — something that India’s education system fails to appreciate and respect

His name is Tathagat Avtar Tulsi, from Patna. At 22 (his 22nd birthday was on Wednesday last), he is India’s youngest PhD holder — in fact he got his PhD in physics before he was 22, conferred by the prestigious Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore two weeks ago. The PhD thesis, running into just 33 pages — a feat again — is titled ‘‘Generalizations of the Quantum Search Algorithms’’. By quantum search algorithm one means a software for powerful, superfast, future computing called quantum computing, a domain that can prove immensely useful in other disciplines too, such as in maximizing business profits with minimum investments. In other words, Tulsi’s is an ingenious contribution to an evolving interdisciplinary pursuit, the genesis of which lies in the rigours of the fusion of pure mathematics and theoretical physics.

Today Tulsi is in the league of geniuses like MIT mathematician John Forbes Nash who completed his PhD at the age of 21 from Princeton University, US. (Nash’s life has been turned into a popular Hollywood film titled A Beautiful Mind.)

Look at the prodigy called Tathagat Avtar Tulsi: he passed high school at the age of nine and went on to earn a BSc at the age of ten and an MSc at the age of 12! No wonder, Tulsi has had the distinction of being one of the world’s youngest scientists — at the age of 17 he was invited by the world-class Bell Laboratories of the United States to do research on quantum search algorithm in collaboration with Lov Grover, the inventor of quantum search algorithm. It culminated in the form of a paper titled ‘‘A New Algorithm for Fixed-point Quantum Search’’.

On September 9, 1993 — Tulsi’s sixth birthday — his father gave him a gift that would serve as one of the best inspirations for the genius: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, the celebrated British theoretical physicist, described as the most intelligent living man. The book was a matter of just three days for Tulsi who had just turned seven; a book that delves into the origin of the space-time continuum and ultimately questions as to whether God had any role in creating this universe or whether the universe is self-contained, self-sustained! Having read the book over ten times ever since I purchased it while pursuing my graduate studies in mathematics, I can tell you that it is absolutely impossible for a six-year-old child to make a meaning out of Hawking’s bestseller unless of course he is very specially endowed with a very specially beautiful mind (to borrow from the film A Beautiful Mind).

Tulsi would then foray into a new world: as he writes in his website, he got that book because he used to ‘‘disturb’’ his father ‘‘asking questions about universe, earth, stars etc’’; he finished the book in three days flat; and his mind then was swarmed with a whole gamut of further questions about black holes (exhausted stars whose gravitational field is so strong that even light cannot escape from them), Einstein’s theory of relativity (which revolutionized physics beginning 1905 and changed the whole Newtonian world view) and quantum mechanics (a branch of physics that gives a probabilistic description of the universe and that further revolutionized physics both in tandem with and independent of Einstein-ism).

However, the greatest impediment to Tulsi’s intellectual adventure was his school. He writes: ‘‘...I was not able to focus on my school studies. I wanted to do some original research and the school studies were the biggest hurdle for me. I found school very boring, and finally, I decided to finish my schooling as soon as possible.’’ So, as mentioned earlier, he finished high school at the age of nine. In other words, Tulsi’s was an act of deschooling himself (to quote from Ivan Illich’s path-breaking work on education, Deschooling Society) — the only option left out for beautiful minds to chart out radical intellectual trajectories and contribute uniquely to man’s quest for deeper insight into the vagaries and mysteries in this planet and beyond, be they physical (of the material world), emotional or spiritual.

Tulsi has been offered a post-doctoral research position at the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Canada. But his interest lies in one of the IITs. In case he gets a teaching position at one of the IITs and access to a good library, he would continue his research in the country itself — another manifestation of a beautiful mind.

So how does a beautiful mind, in the sense as pointed out, operate? He is beyond the stereotype of school pedantry, beyond the confines of prescribed syllabus, beyond the teaching imparted, beyond all school or college or university conditionings. A beautiful mind is, therefore, a free and fearless mind: free, because he has the freedom to move about in the knowledge domain in any direction; fearless, because he is not afraid of questioning the existing teaching-and-learning or knowledge paradigm. There is nothing, in other words, that shackles the free and fearless intellectual spirit — something that India’s education system fails to appreciate and respect.
A beautiful mind is sometimes not a prodigy as such. In that case it is an evolving pattern of radical thoughts and ideas challenging the well-established schools of thought. It is a systematically cultivated mind — often as a response to one’s own curiosity when faced with an apparently incomprehensible or hostile universe and as an evolving faculty of reason to decode this universe, both material and non-material, and its myriad phenomena. Which is to say that such a beautiful mind could either be a subdued prodigy exploding in a suitable time-frame or, better still, a mind that learns out of his quest for originality and that then contributes to the originality. And remember, a beautiful mind is a non-conformist, for he does not allow himself to be deterred by any conditionings.

‘‘Education,’’ says Bertrand Russel, ‘‘in the sense in which I mean it, may be defined as the formation, by means of instruction, of certain mental habits and a certain outlook on life and the world (sic) (‘‘The Place of Science in Liberal Education’’, Mysticism and Logic). How does it apply to a beautiful mind? A student with such mind — and mindset — does not develop mental habits and define life-outlook on the basis of ‘‘instruction’’ alone; he exploits the instruction to develop an independent set of instructions based on his ingeniousness and quest for knowledge beyond the school or university system. However, he is often branded eccentric, crazy, and worse, is ridiculed. It is this ill that India’s school and university system must first eradicate before embarking upon other pompous reforms.

Bikash Sarmah


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