Two alumni of the IITs have been given the ‘Genius Grant’ this year. The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation has announced the names of its ‘Class of 2016’ which consist of twenty-three exceptionally creative people.
This fellowship entitles the awardees to a grant of $625,000 over a period of five years and is given to outstandingly creative personalities in various fields such as art, science, mathematics, civil rights etc.
Among the recipients of the fellowship — dubbed the “genius grant” — are Subhash Khot, now at New York University and Manu Prakash, now at Stanford University. Both are former students of the IITs, with Dr. Khot having studied in IIT Bombay and Dr. Prakash, in IIT Kanpur.
Dr. Khot, who won the Nevanlinna Prize in 2014, works in theoretical computer science. In particular, his prizewinning contribution — the Unique Games Conjecture — to the field of computational complexity theory stands out. If this conjecture is proved to be true, it would imply that even obtaining approximate solutions to a host of other, very diverse, problems is too hard.
In the process of trying to prove this conjecture, mathematicians have come up with important results in Fourier Analysis, Geometry and even the stability of various election models.
Manu Prakash is a physical biologist and inventor. Most interestingly, he has invented several devices that support frugal science. One of this is the ‘Foldscope’, a microscope made by folding paper like in origami and sporting a glass bead lens. The foldscope costs less than seventy rupees and can view things in the submicron range. This has been adopted by schools, medical experts and citizen scientists.
Another invention is a sticker-like microfluid chip that can be used to collect thousands of nanolitre sized droplets of saliva from mosquito bites, in order to test for pathogens. This is another low-cost device, which can help in monitoring outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases, so crucial at present.
Dr. Prakash recently demonstrated a novel diagnostic tool, a “water computer,” which involves building a computer out of tiny air bubbles travelling in a microfluidic channel. Earlier, fellows include Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie and mathematician Yitang Zhang, who made a breakthrough in the Twin Primes Conjecture.