MUMBAI: It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that you have a professional hiker by your side.
But when the gentleman you walk with - along the unending stretches at IIT Bombay, Powai - tells you that he arrives at the best solutions to complex mathematical theories while hiking, it makes you pause and wonder.
At 33, Manjul Bhargava is a whiz at maths, music and hiking. And he’s the youngest professor at Princeton University, US. When most people are still learning to navigate the rough and tumble of the workplace, Bhargava had hotfooted it to where he is now.
He did his PhD in number theory at Princeton - he cracked a 200-year-old problem - under his mentor, Andrew Viles. And was named professor at the tender age of 28. “It was weird. I started teaching when I was an undergraduate. And when I went into it full time, I was suddenly flooded with offers from different colleges for various posts.”
Why Princeton? “They had the best offer,” he grins.
But - er - math? A subject that intimidates so many of us mere mortals? To become a reasearcher in that subject, teach it, win prizes and be in love with it is, well, no less than a feat. “Maths is fun. It is a creative process. I always knew I had an inclination for maths. So going into research in the subject was natural for me.”
He believes in the huge potential for the subject in India, and will be teaching at IIT Powai and TIFR in Mumbai for about a month each year.
Bhargava is in India in connection with a string theory conference at TIFR. He also gave a lecture at IIT-B and is working on starting a music programme here. He is an adjunct professor at Princeton and IIT-B, and tries to visit once or twice a year.
“Maths is all about creativity. It’s an art... There is something about Indians that makes them good at maths. It’s either cultural or genetic.” Genetic, maybe. But cultural? “For generations, we have produced great mathematicians. Maybe it’s because of that,” he believes. And, of course, the obsessive importance attached to engineering in the country. “When you’re good at maths, you are immediately pushed towards engineering for economic reasons. Because for a long time, engineers were the ones who grabbed the good jobs.”
However, he feels, things are changing now in favour of pure sciences. “There are a lot more research jobs available. With so many institutes starting up, all the new IITs, they are going to need a lot more faculty.”
But most students dread the M word. That is one exam they will gladly pass up the chance to write. “That is true,” he says. “Sadly, in India, we tend to teach maths according to a structure. Students learn formulae by rote. Teachers should teach maths just like other subjects. Explain a theory, ask students to try and find answers and then guide them in the right direction,” he says.
Another problem, he points out, is that if you are good at any of the sciences, you are expected to choose engineering. “But that’s not the way it works. Someone who excels in maths need not be that good at chemistry or physics. Everyone has a knack for some subject. He or she should be encouraged to concentrate on that subject.”
The levels of teaching the subject here are way ahead of those in the US, he says. “As a child, I used to come down to India for months together. I used to look at textbooks here and wonder. Because the level of maths taught here is way above what their American contemporaries learn at that age.”
Bhargava counts number theory and tabla sessions among his passions. Just like the problems he solves on hikes. He seems pretty much at home walking these roads and talking about his life. Does he do it often? “Oh yes, I do. There are times when I am stuck on a theory and all I need is a long walk in the woods to arrive at a solution. I even take my students on hikes sometimes to explain or work out a theory.”
Maths is, of course, in his blood. His mother too is a mathematics professor. But his horizons have always been broader. “I always knew I was inclined towards maths. At graduation, I took a lot of classes. Even though my core subject was maths, I took credits in Sanksrit, paleontology and economics. Then I started taking classes during my undergrad years and things just kind of fell into place,” he says.
Would he consider moving to India, to share his love for maths? And where would he pitch tent? The answer’s simple. “Mumbai, definitely. It’s where maths and music come together for me,” he says.