By Aditya Nayak
Since 2002, the entire nation has known about the brilliant mathematician from Bihar, Anand Kumar, who started the Super-30 coaching program to help underprivileged students crack the IIT entrance exams. His efforts garnered widespread recognition and made him a household name in India. However, long before Anand Kumar and Super-30, there was another exceptional mathematician and social activist who quietly transformed the lives of disadvantaged students. This unsung hero is none other than Professor Swadheenanda Pattnayak, affectionately known as Swadheen Pattnayak in Odisha.
Professor Pattnayak’s journey began when he returned to Odisha in 1973 after completing his PhD. While teaching at Sambalpur University, he noticed tribal children playing near his quarters. Inspired by a desire to make a difference, he started teaching them in the evenings. Soon, he enlisted the help of his students, providing them with funds to teach these underprivileged children. His dedication led to the establishment of a small school, and he appealed to the government for support. While the government initially appointed a teacher, they failed to accommodate the students’ schedules, resulting in a decrease in attendance.
At the Department of Mathematics, Sambalpur University, Professor Pattnayak faced the challenge of motivating students with less-than-impressive academic credentials to excel. “Remarkably, many of these students, inspired and trained by me, went on to secure faculty positions in prestigious institutes both in India and abroad,” he says.
When asked about his motivation for pursuing a career in mathematics, Professor Pattnayak shared his fascination with science and scientific experiments. “I realized the broad applications of mathematics during my studies in physics and chemistry. My journey took me to the University of Stony Brook in the USA, where I conducted doctoral research under the guidance of the legendary mathematician Ronald G. Douglas, contributing to Douglas’s famous book on ‘Branch Algebra Techniques in Operator Theory'”, enlightens Prof. Pattnayak.
Reflecting on his time as a student abroad, Professor Pattnayak recounted how he quickly rose to the top, despite initially feeling behind his peers. “Indians are indeed talented and can excel when given the opportunity to learn and apply themselves,” he emphasizes.
One of his most notable contributions to mathematics was the introduction of ‘Pattnayak’s Test,’ based on his 26-page PhD thesis. This theory found applications in the functioning of space vehicles and gained recognition as a significant mathematical concept.
In 1999, Professor Pattnayak became the Director of the Institute of Mathematics and Applications (IMA), which became a prominent institution for mathematics students and researchers in India. During his tenure, he transformed IMA into a hub of mathematical learning, with one of the best libraries in the country. “I continued my experiments in nurturing the academic potential of underprivileged students, instilling in them a love for mathematics,” he shares.
When asked about his most significant achievement, Professor Pattnayak modestly pointed to the success of his student, Gadadhar Mishra, who received the prestigious Bhatnagar Award for his contributions to mathematical sciences and served as the former director of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Bangalore.
Even in retirement, after dedicating over five decades to teaching and research, Professor Swadheenanda Pattnayak remains unwavering in his belief in the ability of young minds to achieve excellence despite challenging social and economic circumstances. His legacy as an unsung hero in mathematics and education continues to inspire generations.
Edited by: Debamitra Mishra