A Fulbright passage to India

John Meakin (seated in the second row from the bottom, flanked by K.S.S. Nambooripad and A.R. Rajan) with faculty and graduate students at the University of Kerala, January 2, 2014.

Early in his career as a mathematician, John Meakin submitted a paper on the structure of a class of algebraic objects known as inverse semigroups, hoping to have his research published. The journal editor was impressed, but ultimately, Meakin had been “blown out of the water,” as he put it, by a brilliant mathematician in the southern state of Kerala in India.

Instead of starting over, Meakin reached out to this mathematician who shared his research interests half a world away, and they embarked on a decades-long, albeit sporadic, collaborative working relationship. In the fall semester of 2014, with support from a Fulbright-Nehru teaching/research fellowship to India, Meakin was able to renew that collaborative working relationship.

“I’ve had a long-standing connection with people in that region,” Meakin said. “I spent one year there early in my career engaged in collaborative research, so professionally, it made a lot of sense to go there. It is a place of particular research interest to me.”

His Indian colleague, K.S.S. Nambooripad, founded an internationally acclaimed school devoted to the theory of von Neumann regular semigroups and their connections with other areas of mathematics. Von Neumann regular semigroups arise very naturally in mathematics, for example, when studying algebraic properties of matrix multiplication, or more generally in the modern theory of operator algebras.

The Kerala School of semigroup theory that Nambooripad established is one of the acclaimed contemporary research schools in this field, world-wide. It continues a rich tradition of outstanding contributions to mathematics in Kerala, dating back at least to the 14th century with original contributions of Mahavan and his followers, who developed infinite series expansions for trigonometric functions for example, predating some of the work of Gregory, Newton and Leibnitz some three centuries later.

Meakin was based in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, during his five-month visit to India. He conducted joint research with Nambooripad and others in the Kerala School, taught a graduate course in semigroup theory, organized workshops and mini-courses for students in Kochi and Kolkata, co-organized two international research conferences, and gave invited lectures at several other conferences, research centers and universities around India during his visit.

“It was an intense, fascinating and enriching experience,” Meakin said. “I had the opportunity to interact with many established mathematicians and a large number of students from all parts of India. India is a riot for the senses in all ways, with a rich and ancient culture, a diverse and dynamic society. It is hard to assess what impact a visit like this can have, but I felt that my interactions with students and faculty members were incredibly positive.”

Meakin is preparing an article about the Kerala School of semigroups and is in the early stages of writing a research level book about regular and inverse semigroups, informed in part by his experiences in Kerala.