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.