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February 16, 2008

Face in the Crowd: Krishna Athreya

Athreya Krishna B. Athreya is now a respected mathematician at Iowa State University, but when he was 11 he was nearly flunking math in the small town of Pattamadai, India. "My mother was despairing of me," he recalled the other night. She brought him to a teacher she knew named K. Venkatarama Iyer. "He showed me mathematics was like a ladder, one thing builds on another." Athreya managed to turn his academic career around--and received his PhD at Stanford in 1967. These days the theorist splits his time between Iowa and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Teaching students "gives me great joy," he says.

But it's not just university students that Athreya tries to excite. He regularly speaks to school groups in India; in July of last year he returned to Ramaseshier High School in his hometown, where he was greeted like royalty. "It was very cute to see him being mobbed by the female students," said his wife, whose first name is also Krishna. She was attending the meeting as part of a panel on scientists with disabilities.

Mr. Athreya's teaching technique is simple: try to inspire students with his own story and focus on the basics. "I want to address this fear of mathematics in many children," he says. He mentioned Mr. Iyer in the acknowledgments of a recently published book called Measure Theory and Probability Theory and plans to continue his outreach with youth. "If I can do something similar to just one other student I would be happy."

--Eli Kintisch