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Researcher to study Indian scientific history

UC researcher and Rutherford Fellow to study Indian scientific history

November 20, 2012

Among the many exotic images India invokes, mathematics isn't usually one of them.

Yet India developed sophisticated and foundational mathematical concepts, including the place value base ten system and trigonometry functions that we use today.

Surprisingly little is known about the mathematics and related subjects of this rapidly growing international power. A University of Canterbury (UC) lecturer Dr Clemency Montelle yesterday received an $800,000 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship grant to look at the benefits of historical mathematics, astronomy and science in India. She will start her fellowship research early next year.

With an intellectual history spreading almost 3000 years, India has produced 30 million manuscripts over this period but very few of these have been identified and fewer still studied in any detail. For this and other reasons, India's intellectual contributions to science remain conspicuously absent from mainstream historical accounts.

``Given that this tradition is the direct scientific legacy of over a sixth of the world's population, rectifying this oversight is long overdue. I intend to remedy this.

``With expertise in ancient languages including Sanskrit and a broad mathematical background I will work with these ancient documents to make accessible their contents to researchers all over the world.

``This culture of inquiry produced mathematics in contrasting circumstances to the West which led to some distinctly different scientific priorities and insights. Recent scholars have dismissed these achievements because they don't resemble what they deem to be the exacting standards of western styles of proof and demonstration.

``However with the emergence of new fields of research in science, we are beginning to realise just how pertinent all of this material is.

``By careful study and collation of key manuscripts, translations and technical commentaries of the scientific content, and broad contextualisation of the ideas contained within, we will be in a better position to understand the key contributions of this culture to the flourishing of science.’’

As New Zealand seeks to strengthen its relations with the India, the ramifications of contributing to its heritage and efforts to preserve and make accessible its historic resources cannot be underestimated.

Sharing knowledge and expertise is a significant way to forge new and lasting relations between nations and enhances mutual understanding and cooperation in many spheres, Dr Montelle said.

``This is a unique opportunity for the University of Canterbury to assume a lead role in such research and I will forge new and important relationships with key Indian tertiary institutions such as IIT-Mumbai and the Chennai Mathematical Institute.’’

Her project is in the spirit of recent governmental strategies to enhance educational links with India. The new NZ-India Research Institute has been welcomed by Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce. The inaugural meeting of the India-New Zealand Education Council in Delhi recently discussed how to boost cooperation between the two nations.

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