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Rekha Dixit
Rekha Dixit


Number waltz

Manjul Bhargava is passionate about building orange pyramids and putting juice and respect into maths education

  • Most schools are rushing to complete the syllabus. Why, I myself hated maths classes and bunked them. Luckily for me, I got good grades.

It was the inaugural session of the 103rd Indian Science Conference at Mysore. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi arriving to inaugurate the event, security was tight. The Pathankot terror attack was on, so policemen were ultra cautious, keeping just two entrances open for the thousands of attendees.

At the supposed VIP gate, a surging throng was trying to squeeze in through a narrow opening. Special invitees burst out in anger at the shabby treatment. Far down in the queue patiently stood a bespectacled man in a coloured kurta and white flappy pajamas, a mop of unruly hair falling all around his eyes. Suddenly, someone recognised him and a whisper went up and down the line. The policemen shouted, “Nobel purush, Nobel purush, let him pass”. A few constables rushed to escort Manjul Bhargava up the queue and into the venue, as he looked around abashedly at being given preferential treatment.

Bhargava, 41, is a recipient of the prestigious Fields Medal, the equivalent of a Nobel in mathematics. Unlike the yearly Nobel, the Fields Medal is given only once in four years and the winner has to be below 40.

His sessions overflow beyond capacity, and the minute he finishes his talk, fans elbow each other to get an autograph, or if they are lucky, a selfie with him. Bhargava obliges, a habit that often causes distress among the organisers as things go out of control. Flower pots crash from the stage, mikes topple and Bhargava reaches the point of asphyxiation.

“How do you deal with all this?” I ask, having cornered him for an interview, after escaping a mob of eager students. “I don't. These people [the organisers] deal with it. Left to myself, I'd have been happy obliging each one of them,” comes the disarming answer.

Bhargava is an expert in a subject that is the nightmare of most school students. And, the uninitiated might easily conclude that it is his persona—the Princeton professor who looks like a nerdy student—that causes such adulation. One cannot be more wrong. Bhargava's star power is in his ability to make numbers dance before people as fun characters and not intimidating ones. English mathematician G.H. Hardy had once said of his renowned protege, Srinivasa Ramanujan, that every positive integer was Ramanujan's personal friend. Bhargava, however, ensures that these numeral friends become intimate with each one in the audience.

Whether addressing a group of academicians or school students, Bhargava commands their rapt attention within moments and ensures the audience is participatory. When one class with school students got over, they groaned in dismay and asked for extra time, but there were other scheduled sessions.

62-Bhargavanew The quest: Bhargava was consultant to the Hollywood film on Ramanujan | Getty Images

People often say his mathematician mother, Mira, a first-generation immigrant in the US, developed his love for mathematics. But, Bhargava says he cannot remember a time when he was not obsessed with numbers. A pet game during childhood was stacking oranges in pyramids, the way children usually play with building blocks. Except that Bhargava's curious mind was working ahead: how many oranges would he need in a stack with eight oranges on one side, he began wondering. Soon, he worked out a formula to predict the number of oranges. “The best thing about my mother was that she never told me an answer,” he says. “I discovered on my own. She was a good resource to have around.”

He says he loves playing the orange stacking game with students, as it helps them think of numbers spatially. “There is only one answer, but there are so many ways to get there—pictorially, algebraically, inductively,” he says. “Unfortunately, our education system makes children learn the subject through dreary formulae and by rote, developing in them a strong distaste for mathematics.” Is this a problem typical to India? “No, it is the same in most schools,” he says. “They are rushing to complete the syllabus. Why, I myself hated maths classes and bunked them. Luckily for me, I got good grades, though.”

He has strong views on revamping teaching, especially maths teaching. “We need to invest in education,” he says. “South Korea is doing a fantastic job. It could be a great model for India to replicate. We need to invest in redesigning the syllabus, in rewriting textbooks and in ensuring that the best people become teachers. For that, we have to give respect to the teaching profession, because now the best in mathematics rush to become engineers. India once had a great tradition of guru-shishya. The teacher was respected.”

About Bhargava, it is usually said that he is more Indian than people living in India. A tabla player who has trained with Ustad Zakir Hussain, he was recently in Chennai for Marghazi, the annual music festival. Taught Sanskrit by his grandfather, he is more well versed in the language than most Indians. At last year's science congress, a speaker at the controversial ancient Indian science session said had Bhargava been taught in the westernised system of India, he may never have become a Sanskrit scholar, and most certainly would not have acquired his mastery in mathematics, as many of his researches in number theory are based on Vedic mathematics which is not taught in schools in India.

Bhargava brushes such talk aside, and says that there are many Indian researchers who are respected abroad, but have little recognition in India. He mentions the AKS trio of IIT Kanpur—Manindra Aggarwal, Neeraj Kayal and Nitin Saxena—who, in 2002, presented a paper that explained how to decide whether a given number was prime. “We invite such researchers often to our universities. In India, they are yet to become known to the public,” he says.

Bringing to spotlight the contribution of Indian researchers is something he likes doing. He is also excited about the release of the Hollywood film on Ramanujan—The Man Who Knew Infinity. Bhargava was consultant to the project, ensuring that the maths was correct, as was the social and time context. The experience of being part of a Hollywood production has given him a huge kick. As usual, he is unmindful of his own star power.

He visited India eight times last year. With now a Padma Bhushan to add to his long list of merits and awards, Bhargava bashfully admits the public frenzy at his talks has increased. What heartens him though is that most of those who mob him have a good idea of his work and are not just blindly clamouring after a celebrity.

He is often stumped with the calibre of students in India. One student asked him the mathematical significance of 786, the number of Bismillah, revered in Islam. However, before Bhargava could respond, the organisers, mindful that they might have to answer questions about the direction the session was taking, moved to other questions.

In his Princeton lab, he remains busy in more fundamental work. The most important is the work on square free numbers. His challenge is to work out the probability of a randomly picked number in a sequence being square free. “I work on several projects at the same time,” he says. “That way, if I get stuck in one, I am not entirely disappointed, because I am making progress in some other. Most of these projects may fail, but I always aim high.”

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