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A 'big honour' for a versatile computer scientist

By R. Prasad

Madhu Sudan

CHENNAI Aug. 20. Madhu Sudan, who has won the Nevanlinna Prize, in recognition of his contributions to probabilistically checkable proofs, non-approximability of optimisation problems and error-correcting codes, was born in Chennai in 1966. He did his B.Tech. in computer science at the IIT, Delhi, and Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley.

"The award marks the winner's choices of problems, their methods and their results being different from one another," said Mr. Jacob Palis, president of the International Mathematical Union, "and this diversity exemplifies the vitality of the whole of the mathematical sciences."

His work on probabilistically checkable proof showed that the traditional way of proving a proof to be either `correct' or `incorrect' and those inconsistencies in proofs are not meant to be quantified was a pure misconception.

Speaking to The Hindu, Madhu Sudan said, "traditionally we had fixed a `format' for the proof and asked if inconsistencies could be quantified. Instead, `formats' are and ought to be modified so as to suit us."

One area which may benefit from his work is cryptography and computer security where the notion of a proof underlies many basic tasks that we perform routinely. The second area is the non-approximability of optimisation problems (NOP).

This works around the central idea of whether P equals NP — where P consists of problems that are `easy' to solve with current computing methods and NP stands for problems that are fundamentally harder. His work showed that for many problems approximating an optimal solution was just as hard as finding an optimal solution. "A major impact of this result was to curb a lot of ongoing research into approximation algorithms," he said, "as all efforts would prove fruitless where approximation algorithms are sought widely for optimisation problems."

The third area where he had made significant contributions is error-correcting codes. These codes play a role in information transmission. A certain amount of noise is produced in any message that is being transmitted and this causes errors. The Reed-Solomon codes were used to reduce the quantum of errors. His new decoding algorithm has challenged the general notion that the Reed-Solomon code could correct only a certain number of codes.

Commenting on the award he said, "it is indeed a very big honour for me. It's perhaps my good fortune to be chosen for this award." The Nevanlinna Prize has been awarded since 1982. It is given to researchers not older than 40 for work with great depth and originality in theoretical computer science work. The award is in honour of Finnish mathematician, Rolf Nevanlinna who was president of the International Mathematical Union from 1959-1962.

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