MEET THE WRITER

Meet Agnijo Banerjee, the 17-year-old prodigy determined to make mathematics cool with his book

At 12, Agnijo Banerjee’s IQ in a Mensa test was the same as Albert Einstein’s and Stephen Hawking’s. At 17, he’s published his first book, ‘Weird Maths’.

If Apeksha Sahay learnt anything about maths from her classmate Amar in the film Nil Battey Sannata it’s that the answer to a mathematical problem is always hidden in the problem itself. To understand the problem is half the battle won. Seventeen-year old prodigy Agnijo Banerjee – his family is from India – who recently co-authored his first book Weird Maths with science writer David Darling, doesn’t think differently.

Weird Maths lovingly takes its reader through complicated maths problems using real life examples. If a toast is knocked off a table, why does it hit the floor buttered-side down more often than not? After a cataract surgery, if the French painter Claude Monet could see colours in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum, which is outside the normal human experience, then can some of us see into the fourth dimension? What is the shape of the universe – flat or round? Teleportation is great in theory but will there come a time when it will actually be possible for humans? Would aliens understand our music if they were to listen to it?

Shy, humble, and wielding a wry sense of humour, Banerjee is obsessed with mathematics. At the age of 12, his IQ in a Mensa Test was 162 – the same as Albert Einstein’s and Stephen Hawking’s. Raised in the UK, the teenager hates playing sports, is an anti-bullying ambassador and a crusader for LGBTQI rights. Already on his way to Trinity College Cambridge to study pure mathematics, Banerjee says discipline comes naturally to him and once something has his attention, it’s hard to take his focus off it. A recent interaction with French mathematician and politician Cédric Villani encouraged him to further pursue his dreams and career in the subject, and he hopes to solve the biggest mathematical problems of the world. Banerjee spoke to Scroll.in in Kolkata to discuss his debut book. Excerpts from the interview:

Give us an insight into the title of the book. What do you think makes maths “weird”?
The title Weird Maths came about partly because this is the kind of maths that you wouldn’t be taught in school. And some of it, in fact, is rare to find even in popular level maths books. For example, there’s a chapter on infinity that I am yet to see in a popular level maths book. Maths is weird in some respects because what you get in it can be counterintuitive a lot of the times.

You have used very interesting analogies and real-life examples through the book to explain complicated mathematical problems. What was the process like?
Sometimes it seems like the analogy was very natural to explain, but certainly what we tried to do was make it accessible for the intelligent layperson so someone who doesn’t necessarily have a background in maths – we had to make it accessible for them. In the first draft of some of the chapters, they were far too technical and they had to be made a lot easier to understand.

Take us through the process of writing the book with David Darling. What was your approach? Which parts were his and which ones were left to you?
I basically met David once a week. During the week I’d write my part and he would write his. For the most part, I would write the mathematical core of the content and then David would expand it to make it more easily understandable. There were some chapters that were entirely David’s work like the one on the maths of music. The one on prime numbers were mostly mine. My two favourite chapters were the ones on infinity and large numbers.

You’ve said you don’t want to be compared to Einstein or Hawking because you believe you haven’t contributed to the field. How would you like to contribute?
The Clay mathematics Institute has a list of seven problems and these are considered to be the greatest unsolved problems of mathematics, although one of them has been solved since then. Anyone who solves them will win $1 million. Even though one has been solved, nobody has won the prize because the person who solved it refused the prize. I’d like to solve the remaining six. To be honest, a few of them are so complex that it would be hard to explain the problem itself, and I don’t fully understand them yet. I also definitely want to win the Fields Medal although I know it’s very hard.

Tell us about your relationship with David. How did it start and what is it like now?
I met him about five years ago. Schoolwork wasn’t challenging enough for me and that’s when I started going to David for extra tuition. He started tutoring me through advanced topics that were far beyond school level but then eventually we decided to write the book together. We have written our second book Weirder Maths, which is in the editing phase, and the third, Weirdest Maths, is still in the process of being written.
How different has your life been from the average 17-year old?
It’s probably been very different – at the age of 17 to have written a book is a pretty big deal, and a lot of maths authors are saying it’s a very good book. I’m also a part of the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), which is a huge thing. Every year all these countries send six people to the IMO, and this year I was one of the six from the UK and I scored a perfect score. I will also be mentoring kids from next year at the IMO.

You don’t use social media at all. What is your idea of “chilling”?
I have several hobbies like playing chess and programming. I also practise taekwondo. I’m a red belt, that’s two below black. I’ve been doing it for 5-6 years now.

Who are your readers? Do you think it would make sense to include the book in school as academic text for reference?
The book is for the intelligent layperson and anyone who has an interest in maths obviously, but is not necessarily a mathematician. They don’t have to have much mathematical knowledge or background, just high school level should be good. It’s not supposed to be a textbook so it’s not an actual academic text in that respect and it doesn’t really cover school maths. The main aim was to inspire people into liking maths and continue to do more maths.

What would you like to tell kids who hate and are scared of maths?
Firstly, I think it’s not seen as cool to be good at maths in school because then people are going to call you a nerd, and then people learn from others that maths is this really horrible, scary thing. David believes that he’s never tutored anyone who can’t be good at maths if they try hard enough. Everyone he’s tutored, even if they’re very afraid of maths...can still be very good in maths if they try. David trains students to take a step back and try and understand the problem first and not immediately reach for the calculator. Also, I think it’s much more acceptable to have a fear of maths as opposed to other subjects.

How does a mathematician such as you, who looks at everything from a logical and perhaps calculated way approach something as strange and unsolvable as romantic love?
Nobody has been able to crack it, but you could make some sort of AI that’s capable of experiencing love, then it would be interesting to see what happens.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.