R Ramachandran, in the latest issue of Frontline, profiles Sathamangalam Ranga Iyengar Srinivasa Varadhan, the recipient of the 2007 Abel prize, and in an accompanying piece puts the award in perspective by indicating that the prize is comparable to Nobel prize in terms of value and eligibility criterion.

The delightful profile, though sounds a bit parochial at times, not only traces the career of Prof. Varadan but also locates him amidst the mathematical talent of his generation:

It was a period when South India produced many students interested in research in mathematics, particularly from Presidency College (the only college where you could do an honours course in statistics at that time), Loyola College and Vivekananda College in Chennai and St. Joseph’s College in Tiruchi. V.S. Varadarajan and J. Sethuraman from Presidency, K.R. Parthasarathy and R. Ranga Rao from Vivekananda, names that became well known in mathematics in later years, were already at the ISI from the South. Varadhan easily became one with that group.

“There was a tradition possibly [in the South] of grooming students for research in mathematics,” says Parthasarathy, now Professor-Emeritus at the ISI in New Delhi. “This was mostly owing to individual teachers who themselves did not do any research but were enthusiastic about mathematics, like Father Racine at Loyola, Raghava Sastry at Vivekananda, Suryanarayana Iyer at St. Joseph’s. Father Levy in Calcutta [Kolkata] too was doing the same,” he adds. Besides, Varadhan’s father, Ranga Iyengar, was a schoolteacher who taught mathematics and, according to Parthasarathy, always wanted his son to do the ultimate possible and was very proud of his son’s achievements in college. Apparently, he used to taunt Varadarajan, three years senior to Varadhan in college, about how Varadhan had consistently outperformed him.

There is also some interesting mathematics history trivia:

For Varadhan’s thesis, the foreign examiner, as was customary those days, was the famous Kolmogorov. According to Varadarajan, Kolmogorov’s report was in Russian and he was one of the few at the ISI who was familiar with the language. “I still remember two sentences that stood out in that report. Kolmogorov wrote that this thesis was not that of a student but that of a mature master… [and] the thesis deserved the second degree in the Soviet Union.” The first degree in the former Soviet Union was called the candidate’s degree and is roughly equivalent to a Ph. D. elsewhere. The second degree, D. Sc., is given only for distinguished work, usually several years after the candidate’s degree. The apocryphal story, which is included even in Varadhan’s biography hosted on the Abel Prize’s website, of Kolmogorov sitting as a stranger at his thesis defence at the ISI and asking probing questions much to Varadhan’s surprise, does not seem to be true. It is, however, true that Kolmogorov did visit the ISI in February 1962 for a month on C.R. Rao’s invitation.

Then there is the nice Tamb(a)ram touch:

Apparently, he enjoys Carnatic music and likes listening to Thiruppavai, a collection of verses in Tamil written by Andal in praise of God.

The profile itself ends in a very moving note:

He has reportedly donated his Steele Prize money to a hospital in Tambaram, where his roots are. Currently he is on the governing council of the Chennai Mathematical Institute and visits Chennai regularly. Varadhan’s only regret at this hour of glory is perhaps that his eldest son Gopalakrishnan Varadhan is not there to share it with him. He died while at work in the September 11, 2001, attack on the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre.

A must-read piece on a mathematician about whom all of us can be proud of!

Update: Prof. V S Varadarajan profiles Prof. Varadhan and puts his work in perspective.