Jan 23rd, 2007

My younger brother’s daughter shares her birthday today, 23rd Jan, with David Hilbert who was born in 1862. Hilbert compiled a list of 23 unsolved problems in mathematics in 1900. “This is generally reckoned the most successful and deeply considered compilation of open problems ever to be produced by an individual mathematician.” Hmm. Born 23rd Jan; compiled 23 problems. Coincidence? I think not. 🙂

Isn’t it curious that geniuses are connected through a web of relationships. Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, et al are mentioned in connection with Hilbert. It is hard to avoid Hilbert while studying the mathematical basis of computer science. Incidentally, I first became aware of von Neumann’s work while studying computer sciences and again while studying economics because of his seminal work in game theory. It is fun learning stuff and getting to know of great minds.

Which brings me to an entirely different connection. I think learning stuff is one of the greatest joys in life. I have a conjecture why I feel this way. It has something to do with being born in a Bengali family. From a very early age, we are told that we worship Ma Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and Knowledge. We are told that her worship essentially consists of learning and gaining knowledge. It is therefore unsurprising that we value learning and we literally worship books, as books represent Saraswati. Today, 23rd January, is Saraswati Puja, the day we put our books on the alter and bow our heads in reverence. Paradoxically, we are not expected to study on the day of Saraswati Puja.

Saraswati is also associated with music. In India, music is anyway considered a form of worship but more specifically it is the worship of Mother Saraswati. This point was made very forcefully by Zakir Hussain, the tabla maestro, in a performance at the Savai Gandharv festival with the great sarangi exponent Ustad Sultan Khan. In the middle of the performance, Zakir abruptly stopped and addressed a bunch of photographers who were repeatedly popping up to take flash photographs. Sultan Khan’s sarangi fell silent.

Zakir started off with (I am paraphrasing what he said in Hindi): “I have a simple request for the photographers. I think that you taken a lot of pictures. Besides, we are not really dressed up to be photographed. Perhaps you could use Photoshop on what you have taken already and improve on those images.” He paused for a while and then continued very patiently. “You know we are here engaged in the worship of Mother Saraswati. Music is our worship and that is what we are gathered here for. We are not here to put on a show. We are not here for photos. We are here to meditate through Saraswati’s gift–music. It would be very good of you to let us get on with our puja without interruption. Thank you.” The audience burst out in applause in agreement. The music resumed.

Back to the birthday theme. I may have mentioned this before but pardon the possible repetition. I share my birthday, Nov 3rd, with Amartya Sen. So the first time I met him in Berkeley, I told him that. (BTW, I pretty much disagree with Sen on most substantial matters, even though he is a respected elder with more brains than five of me combined.) Anyway, a couple of years later I saw him again. I went up to him to discuss some points he had made in the lecture. Suddenly he says, “Oh, I thought you would be thrilled to know that Tibor Scitovsky was also born on Nov 3rd. We are in good company!” Yes, I was thrilled to bits because Scitovsky is a big hero of mine. Scitovsky’s popular book, “The Joyless Economy” should be read by anyone who is interested in understanding more comprehensively concepts such as joy, happiness, comfort, satiation, and other such basic abstractions which motivate humans and therefore have a bearing on matters economic.

That’s it for now. With a deep bow to Saraswati, I am out of here.

Postscript: Pranav (see his comment) reminded me that Jan 23rd is also Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s birthday as well.

2 thoughts on “Jan 23rd, 2007

  1. captainjohann, BANGALORE, INDIA Tuesday January 23, 2007 / 5:25 pm

    My grand mother who was a drawing teacher used to teach me mathematics, a subject i never liked because i have to memorise the tables and repeat it to her.When i reached 12th table, she gently coaxed me to go upto 16.I demurred.then she told me the story of goddess Saraswathi.
    There was this brahmin who could recite all the vedas, upanishads and all the written texts available at that time.He became proud and asked his teachers and rishies what else he could learn?They advised him to do THAPAS and invoke goddess of learning Saraswathi who could give him guidance.The brahmin did intense tapas and goddess Saraswathi appeared before him.the brahmin put the same question to her.the goddess took the brahmin to a sea shore and took a handful of sand and told the brahmin that though she is goddess of learning she has learnt only the handful and She herself is still learning which is the vast sheashore of sand.She admonished the brahmin that he has only read the vedas by rote and not learnt anything. the first step of learning is the HUMILITY WHICH COMES WITH LEARNING. As a 5 year old christian boy, i was not allowed to worship Her but i instantly fell in love with the Goddess who advised students not to MUG!!!!
    Later my friends mother used to show the paintings of raja ravi verma and i used to like goddess Saraswathi in her white dress with her veena more than goddess lakshmi in her red dress.She also used to say one can regain goddess lakshmi once you have goddess Saraswathi with you.


  2. Pranav Wednesday January 24, 2007 / 4:44 am

    By the way, Netaji was born on Jan 23rd 🙂


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