Sunday, January 18, 2009

In Search Of Sarah Flannery

digital world

Those days I was still harbouring a desire to become a mathematician. The discipline and dedication required to become one was sorely lacking. That was when I read the book In Code: A Mathematical Journey by Sarah Flannery. I then wished I had read this book 10 years ago.

In Code is an autobiography of a 16 year old girl who went on to win The European Young Scientist Of The Year award in 1999 for her work on cryptography using what is called the Cayley-Purser algorithm. The autobiography is her mathematical journey to fame. Very well written and reads like a novel with an unexpected twist at the end (the algorithm was broken after all.)

In my experience such people shine for a while before disappearing among the unknown millions. I tucked away "follow Sarah Flannery" in my mental checklist. This was some 8 years ago. My children grew up. I gave them the book to read. They obviously liked it because even though my elder son, Arunabh, has read this book some time ago, he made a mention about In Code the other day.

Time to tick off the mental checklist.

So I googled for Sarah Flannery. Took about half an hour to sort out the details.

Turns out that she is now working as Chief Scientist in a company called Tirnua. Before this she worked as software engineer for Electronics Art. If you are a computer games fanatic, you must have heard of Need For Speed, The Sims - the most successful game of all times. Well, both these are EA products. Before that she worked for Wolfram Research, which is not surprising. Sarah loves, or used to love, working on Mathematica.

So she turned out to be a software engineer after all.

I hope this is not seen as passing judgment, but some part of me is a little disappointed. Reason: I dislike the trend in India that all engineers and scientists are ending up as software engineers. I think this is a tragedy for India. Long term growth of any country suffers when basic science and mathematics is neglected.

In any case, I am sure Sarah still loves doing mathematics and is involved in some mathematical pursuit. At least I hope so.
If you are a friend of Sarah or you are Sarah Flannery herself, please do drop a note confirming my hunch.

Sarah, here's wishing you lots of success in future.

The picture used here belongs to jaylopez (see gallery)

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Anonymous said...

yup , pretty disappointing but when u consider it in detail then hardly surprising coz :-

1.) Cayley Purser Algorithm was not her invention it was this guy purser's invention which was brilliantly modified or so .

2.) Her dad was a mathematician and he had motivated her a lot to do this stuff , else she was a regular intelligent teenager who would grow up to be a professional , and a good and intelligent one at that (in this case be a software engineer.)

By the way i also harbored the desire to be a mathematician/physicist ,often however hobbies don't come to life.

People in India go to IT coz of easy money + growth.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure what Sarah Flannery your talking about but that's my name also. lol No I am not a mathematician far from it. I am a mother of 5, a grand mother, a writer, & a disabled wife. I am someone that gives all I can to someone in need. But as for being disappointed in someone you should never feel this way. First to be a woman is the hardest thing in a field dominated by men science the begin of time. Second For her to want to be a mathematician is amazing for a female that was raised by a male mathematician. They alone don't condone women in that field. So as a fellow woman I applaud her for never giving up on her dreams as a software engineer or as a mathematician.

Anjana said...

Ok, this post raised several emotions, as far as I am concerned. I have so many things to say on aspiring Mathematicians, sofware engineers, gender issues, both Sarah Flannerys, autobiographys etc. But for want of time, space and patience, I am going to focus on what is closest to my heart. I also wanted to be a Mathematician once (for a brief while). I was very good at Math and more importantly, enjoyed it thoroughly.I totally agree with Sarah (the mother of five) when she talks about how difficult it is for a woman to be taken seriously in a field that is such a male domain. This actually refreshed a lot of childhood memories for me, when all the boys in my class never understood how I did well in Math. I remember enrolling for the Indian Maths Olympiad and a few of my classmates (all boys, of course) telling me that it is 'no girly business, requires application and not mere skill'. Application, of course, is the excusive preserve of the male species. I remember wanting to be a mathematician to prove a point to them, but I guess I was never as good, as I thought. But I truly feel sorry for Sarah (the mathematician, this time). When you are as young and impressionable as a 16 year old, do you even know what you want to do? I cannot imagine the kind of 'pressure to perform' she must have lived her life under. the fact that she wrote an autobiography at 16 only reiterates that for me. Who would thing of writing an autobiography at an age like that, when your life has just begun. Also, I think as a nation, we are all getting increasingly obsessed with achievement and I see a real danger there.

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