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Oxford prof documents India’s math contribution

india Updated: Jul 05, 2007 03:25 IST
Naomi Canton
Naomi Canton
Hindustan Times
India’s math contribution

Indians' contribution to the development of mathematics has largely been swept under the carpet in global history books. But a BBC crew, led by an Oxford professor, was in the country last week to film a documentary revealing Indians created some of the most fundamental mathematical theories.

The West has always believed that Sir Isaac Newton, famous for developing the laws of gravity and motion, was the brainbox behind key branches of maths such as calculus.

In The Story of Maths, Dr Marcus Du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, claims Indians made many of these breakthroughs before Newton was born.

The Story of Maths, a four-part series, will be screened on BBC Four in 2008. The first part looks at the development of maths in ancient Greece, ancient Egypt and Babylon; the second focuses on India, China and Central Asia and the rest look at how maths developed in the West. The India reel focuses on how several Indians developed theories in maths that were later discovered by Westerners who took credit for them.

“A lot of people think maths was a Western invention,” said Du Sautoy. “This programme is about how a lot of things were done here in India before they were discovered in the West. So the programme is in fact quite political because it shows how much we have ignored discoveries in the East,” he said. Du Sautoy’s team of a director, a cameraman and a researcher left Mumbai on Monday.

In India, the team filmed on trains, inside sari stores, on the backwaters of Kerala and in rickshaws. “It’s been fantastic filming in India as the visual backdrop is so rich,” Du Sautoy said.

Aryabhatta (476–550 AD), who calculated pi, and Brahmagupta (598-670 AD) feature in the film, which also showcases a Gwalior temple, which documents the first inscription of ‘zero’.

“One of the biggest inventions in India was the number zero. Indians used it long before the West did,” said Du Sautoy. “When the West had Roman numerals there was no zero and that is why they were so clumsy. On the other hand, Brahmagupta was one of the key mathematicians in the world because he invented the idea of zero.”

The documentary also features the history of Kerala-born mathematician Madhava (1350-1425) who created calculus 300 years before Newton and German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz did, said Du Sautoy. “We learn that Newton invented the mathematical theory calculus in the 17th century but Madhava created it earlier,” Du Sautoy said.

Chennai-born Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) also features in the film. “He developed a lot of his own maths. He contacted English mathematician G.H. Hardy, who persuaded him to come to Cambridge. They began a collaboration between the analytical maths of the West and the intuitive maths of India, and together produced brilliant theories and amazing results.”

It was difficult for Ramanujan to travel to Britain because he was a Brahmin and not allowed to travel by sea. “He had to almost give up his religion but maths was also like a religion to him. He had no one to talk to in India because at that time no one was interested in his ideas,” said Du Sautoy.