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No one thought I could make it: Ramanujan Prize winner Neena Gupta who solved Zariski problem

Gupta received the Ramanujan Award, announced on 10 December, in particular for her solution to the Zariski Cancellation Problem — a fundamental one in algebraic geometry.

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New Delhi: Circa 2009, Neena Gupta, then a PhD student at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, approached a professor in whose paper she had come across the Zariski Cancellation Problem. Gupta had some ideas about how to crack the problem, but the professor advised her to drop it and not waste her time. While Gupta stopped actively pursuing it, it was a problem that was always haunting her, at the back of her mind. 

Gupta’s ‘eureka’ moment came in 2012, when she found a workable solution. She went on to win the Indian National Science Academy’s Medal for Young Scientists in 2014 for cracking this problem, first posed in 1949 by the Russia-born American mathematician Oscar Zariski — considered the most influential algebraic geometer of his time.   

Seven years later, she brought home the prestigious Ramanujan Award, announced by the Government of India on 10 December. Gupta won the DST-ICTP-IMU Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians from Developing Countries for her work on affine algebraic geometry and commutative algebra, and particularly for her solution to the Zariski Cancellation Problem for affine spaces.

This award for mathematicians under 45 years of age is presented by Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste and is sponsored by the Department of Science & Technology (DST), Government of India.  

Gupta, now a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata, is the third woman to win the prestigious prize, and the fourth Indian to do so. Prior to her, three of the four winners were also associated with ISI Kolkata.

However, Gupta says nobody really believed in her capabilities. “My colleagues have always been supportive of me, and even as one of the few women in the field, I have not faced any discrimination. But I think they didn’t have confidence in me. None of them thought I could make it,” she told ThePrint over the phone. 

“There are many more problems surrounding the Zariski challenge. I am working to solve them too. Although I don’t know if and when I’ll be able to do it, I have to devise a method to crack it,” she added. 

One of the world’s greatest mathematical problems

The Zariski Cancellation Problem is a fundamental problem in algebraic geometry, and often described as among the world’s greatest mathematical problems. To explain it in Gupta’s own words: “The cancellation problem asks that if you have cylinders over two geometric structures, and that have similar forms, can one conclude that the original base structures have similar forms?” 

When ThePrint asked Gupta to explain the problem so a layman could understand it, she said it was “difficult to explain it in simplistic terms”. 

According to a statement by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Indian National Science Academy had described Gupta’s work as one of the best works in algebraic geometry in recent years done anywhere.

Gupta was born and brought up in Kolkata and studied at Khalsa High School, Dunlop. She completed her graduation (BSc Mathematics) from Bethune College, and earned a masters and PhD in mathematics from the Indian Statistical Institute. 

The mathematician has one message for young girls who might be interested in the subject: “It’s not true that girls are naturally bad at maths. There’s a phobia ingrained in their minds, and lack of encouragement, which leads to unclear concepts that prevent girls from excelling in the field. Maths is a very logical subject, nothing to be afraid of.” 

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Birthday tribute to CP Ramanujam, India’s other great mathematician who also died young


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