BY V. GANGADHAR
For some, Maths is a breeze. For others, a part of childhood nightmares.
I would hesitate to fly with a pilot who is more qualified in Sanskrit and Philosophy than Maths.
THE eyes of small-built P.K. Sebastian, who sat next to me at the SSC class in Fort Cochin's Santa Cruz High School, lighted up whenever our Maths teacher entered the class. Dozens of brilliant class mates in Ernakulam's Maharaja's College, even when the Maths question paper clearly mentioned, "Two Thirds of the paper carry full marks", solved the entire paper to get 120 out of 100 marks! And I still remember first-bencher Sankaran Kutty at the Government Victoria College in Palakkad who solved problems in differential and integral calculus in double quick time, leaving the rest of the class gasping. Excelling in Maths is a gift and somehow, the South Indian has acquired a special talent in this. My friends in Tamil Nadu refer to hundreds of Maths geniuses from the town of Kumbakonam and attribute their brains to bathing in the local river. A recent issue of The Hindu carried a detailed write up on the career of Prof. M.S. Narasimhan, who belonged to the small village of Tandarai of North Arcot district, went to school in a bullock cart and ended up as an outstanding Mathematician, winning the 2006 King Faisal International Prize for Science. As a low level Maths graduate, I salute men like him. Prof. Narasimhan's interest in the subject was kindled by one of his professors in Loyola College, Chennai, Father Racine, a French Jesuit missionary. I remember some of my own Maths teachers with affection: Kasinathan Sir of Santa Cruz High School, K.X. John of Maharaja's College and the awesomely brilliant T.R. Subramaniam of Victoria College who solved the most difficult maths problems in just two steps. He was too much for the likes of me who would have preferred more detailed explanations. Despite being only an average student of the subject, my wife says I calculate figures quicker than others and this is often made use of in checking domestic budgets. Part of the credit should go to a grandfather who believed that a student's life, even during holidays, should be spent learning Maths. Living far away, he used to send us a long list of arithmetic problems featuring two characters A and B, who, with the occasional help of C, did all kinds of work. There were also sums where two pipes filled water in a tank over a particular period of time while another set of pipes emptied the tank. All sorts of complications were involved in these problems, which we had to solve and post the answers back to the grandfather. Very often, he ruined our holidays. May be such work sharpened our brains. Higher Maths seldom helped my professional work as a journalist. While covering all sorts of riots where mobs threw stones at everything, who would care to remember that the path of a projectile was a parabola? My main concern was avoiding those projectiles and not getting hurt. Yet several of my colleagues in the profession were impressed that I had graduated with pure Maths! That, combined with the fact that I was a "Madrassi" put me on a pedestal and I did not mind! If of late, I have been thinking of Maths, it is because of a current controversy in Mumbai over a proposal that the subject should be made optional in high school. It is argued that the high percentage of failures in SSC is caused by poor performance in Maths. Impressive statistics were handed out to prove this point. Failures were particularly high in the rural areas. The issue raised a heated media debate in Mumbai. Most parents, teachers and Principals seemed to agree that making Maths optional would be a backward step and lead to lowering of standards. I think this argument makes sense. The Civil Aviation Ministry too is considering dropping Maths and Physics from the list of subjects to be studied for obtaining a pilot's licence. India is now facing an acute shortage of pilots and out of the 3,000 candidates who appeared for a recent Civil Aviation examination for pilots, only 10 per cent passed. The only solution is to hire foreign pilots which is not good for the Indian economy. It was also pointed out that pilot aspirants in other countries could avoid taking Physics and Maths. I don't know if this is a wise step. Pilots do a lot mental work and complex calculations where knowledge of Maths and Physics would be an advantage. I would hesitate to fly with a pilot who is more qualified in Sanskrit and Philosophy than Maths and Physics. I cannot deny there is a fear of Maths among students. This is because the subject is not taught properly. It needs a good teacher to make the subject more interesting. If there is an element of fun in the teaching of the subject, the bogie over Maths would disappear.