An Interview with Prof. Bruce C. Berndt

Bruce C. Berndt is an American mathematician working on analytic number theory. Prof. Berndt is at present, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His main research interest lies in the works of Ramanujan and he has taken the task of editing and collecting all the results of Ramanujan under one roof in a series of 5 books titled “Ramanujan’s Notebooks” published by Springer-Verlag. He along with his numerous collaborators has furthered our knowledge of the mathematics of Ramanujan. He is at present working with Prof. George E. Andrews on a 4 volume series on “Ramanujan’s Lost Notebook”. Prof. Berndt has published more than 200 research papers and has authored or edited more than 10 books on the life and works of Ramanujan. Recently, Prof. Berndt was on a visit to India, and as part of that visit he spent a few days at Tezpur University where managed to get an interview of him. Prof. Berndt’s website can be found here.

The following are Prof. Berndt’s replies to our queries. The questions were set by Prof. Nayandeep Deka Baruah (Advisor, GonitSora), Pankaj J. Mahanta (Editor-in-Chief, GonitSora) and Manjil P. Saikia.

GonitSora (GS): How did you become fascinated by mathematics when you were young? Was there anyone in particular who motivated you towards math?

Prof. Berndt (BCB): As a youngster, I was mainly interested in sports, first in baseball, and then later in football and especially track. I wanted to become a sports writer. In high school, I had an excellent mathematics teacher named Mr. Free. In college, W. Keith Moore was my teacher in many mathematics classes, and it was he whom I wanted to emulate and become a mathematician.

GS: What type of math questions intrigued you most when you were in high school and why?

BCB: I did not have any particular subject or kinds of questions in high school that I liked more than others.

GS: What do you think is the role of mathematics in our everyday life?

BCB: This is a hard question to answer, because the answer will be different for different people.

GS: What are the skills and requirements needed to become a good mathematician? Please describe a typical day of work.

BCB: Of course, at the outset, one needs some skill in mathematics. However, the main requirement is the willingness to work. I have taught many gifted students, but the only ones who became successful mathematicians were those who worked hard. On the other hand, I have taught many whom I thought would not do particularly well, but who worked very hard and greatly exceeded my expectations.

GS: Do you ever get to see applications of your discoveries in other fields of study? If so, is there any specific application which is your favourite?

BCB: Some of Ramanujan’s work has had an impact in physics, in particular in statistical mechanics.

GS: What does your current research deal with?

BCB: As in the past several years, I have devoted almost all of my research efforts toward proving the entries in Ramanujan’s lost notebook. In particular, in the past few years, I have concentrated on entries in analysis and analytic number theory. I have also thought a lot about the partition-theoretic implications of many of Ramanujan’s q-series identities.

GS: What motivated you towards understanding and bringing out Ramanujan’s mathematics to the wider world? Was there any specific incident?

BCB: Working with Ramanujan’s mathematics for many years, it was natural for me to become interested in him as a person and the culture from which he came. This interest eventually led to two books with Robert Rankin that are part mathematical and part cultural. Because of this acquired background, I now have a vehicle to communicate mathematics to a wider populace.

GS: You have had numerous fruitful collaborations with many mathematicians from India, how far do you think collaborative math is better than trying to do it on your own?

BCB: I wrote over 30 papers before I had my first co-author, who was the famous Indian number theorist, S. Chowla. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is great-drawing on the wisdom, creativity, and insights of a great mathematician in writing a paper.” From then on, I have enjoyed the collaboration of several wonderful co-authors.

GS: What mathematical magazines or journals are good for someone in an undergraduate programme in math?

BCB: The best journal for undergraduates to read is the American Mathematical Monthly. Mathematics Magazine is at a slightly lower level and is also a very good journal for undergraduates to read.

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GS: How do you see the current Indian scene of math as compared to the rest of the world?

BCB: It is remarkable that in India considerable, excellent mathematics is being conducted under heavy teaching loads and without much access to current journals.

GS: You have been to India many times in the past, are there any particular incidents or anecdotes from these visits that you are fond of?

BCB: When I first visited the Government College in Kumbakonam in 1984, I was with R. Balasubramanian, now the Director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai. We had not contacted anyone at the College before our arrival. Upon meeting administrators and teachers at the college, I was asked to give a lecture on Ramanujan’s notebooks later in the day. Amazingly, when I reached the auditorium later that day to lecture, all the seats were taken, while other students were positioned at outside windows to hear my lecture. It was a very humbling experience. Visiting Ramanujan’s home was very inspiring. My two conversations with S. Janaki, Ramanujan’s widow, were highlights of my life. I learned much about her late husband from her.

GS: This is your first visit to this part of India. How has been the experience till now?

BCB: I had not realized that travel to and within this area would be so difficult, but the efforts have been very rewarding. I have stayed at several campus guest houses in India, but the nicest has been the one at Tezpur University. The food has been great. I could not ask for kinder, more generous hospitality.

GS: We have come to know that you like Indian food very much, especially sweets. How do you like the Assamese cuisine?

BCB: I unwittingly answered this question while answering the last question. I love paneer, and I have never experienced so many dishes featuring paneer. I wish that I had time to try all of them. Indeed, I also like Indian sweets; there is not one that I do not enjoy.

GS: What are your views about the intellectual atmosphere of Tezpur University?

BCB: I had not thought very much about Tezpur University before my arrival. The facilities are excellent, much better than I anticipated. I appreciate the quiet surroundings of the campus. It should be an excellent venue for doing one’s work.

GS: There is a problem getting recent issues of journals and books by the students in this part of the country. Is it in any way hindrance to a career as a mathematician?

BCB: Access to current research journals cannot be overemphasized. However, it is much easier than in the past to stay abreast of what is happening in mathematics, because the internet puts one in contact with the WebPages of mathematicians, meetings, and other aspects of our subject.

GS: In your spare time, what kind of hobbies do you have?

BCB: I enjoy listening to classical music, not only western classical music but traditional music from other countries such as India. I own several CD’s of Indian classical music, in particular, Karnatic music. I also follow sports, especially the football and basketball teams at the University of Illinois.

GS: If you weren't a mathematician, what else would you want to be?

BCB: When I entered college, I wanted to become a physicist. By the end of my first year, I decided that I liked mathematics more than physics, but I continued to take as many physics courses as I could fit into my schedule. I also thought that I might coach track while being a college mathematics teacher, but being a mathematics professor is too demanding to allow coaching track. I did coach my son’s soccer team for six years.

GS: Do you plan to come back to Assam again in the near future?

BCB: Well, I really do not have any further plans. Of course, it would be very enjoyable to return. thanks Prof. Berndt for his time and patience answering our questions. We hope he unravels further mysteries of Ramanujan’s works and lead a long and fruitful life.

[Introduction by Manjil P. Saikia.]


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