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Manil Suri: ‘Mathematics can trigger an emotional response’

Published : Dec 01, 2022 10:25 IST

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Manil Suri: ‘Mathematics can trigger an emotional response’

Manil Suri: “Maths is a game in which you start with a bunch of rules and then deduce away to see where you can get.”

Manil Suri: “Maths is a game in which you start with a bunch of rules and then deduce away to see where you can get.” | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In conversation with the mathematician and author of ‘ The Big Bang of Numbers’.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that “pure mathematics is in its way the poetry of logical ideas”. Echoing the Einstein maxim in his latest book is the author and mathematician Manil Suri, who introduces  The Big Bang of Numbers: How to Build the Universe Using Only Maths with a seemingly radical statement: “What would maths look like if delinked from this calculation-driven motivation? What, if anything, would remain of the subject?” Suri adds: “The answer is ideas.”

A distinguished mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, US, and the author of three novels, Suri speaks to  Frontline on the book, maths, and more. Excerpts:

This is your fourth book; the previous three were novels. What prompted this shift from fiction to non-fiction and that too one on mathematics?

Actually, I first wrote this one as fiction too—a novel called  The Godfather of Numbers, where the numbers were characters and infinity was their shadowy, mafia-like godfather. Mathematician test readers loved it, but my editor (who is sadly not a mathematician) didn’t and suggested rewriting it as non-fiction if I wanted a wider audience. I managed to sneak some fictional elements past her red pen, though—the numbers still have personalities, and there’s an entire short story on infinity folded into the narrative.

I felt that since I had some name recognition among writers, artists, and other non-mathematicians, this would be a good way to do sorely needed outreach for the subject. Plus, after explaining India in three internationally released books to many readers who didn’t know much about the country, I was ready to take on an even bigger challenge—explaining mathematics to a general audience!

But why should we “love” or “learn” maths beyond basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication? What is the attraction in going beyond that?

This is like asking whether one should learn about art or music or literature, none of which is strictly “needed”. Such subjects, however, enrich our lives, give an added dimension to our intellectual and emotional development. Mathematics is similar. Many people who have not pursued maths after the minimum basics might harbour a lingering curiosity about it—a personal desire to know more about what is surely a pinnacle of human endeavour. Books like mine offer a user-friendly means for such exploration.

QUEEN OF SCIENCES

On that cue, maths is a much-misunderstood discipline. If so, who is to blame? We know there is no Nobel Prize for maths, as Alfred Nobel did not feel mathematics was a worthy science, we are told. And instead of Nobel, maths has an Abel Prize.

It might indeed be true that Nobel, when he decreed that his prize only rewards advances that most benefited mankind, did not deem maths to be worthy enough. But he died in 1896, when the blockbuster invention of calculus was less than a century old and had not yet begun to fully demonstrate just how powerfully it would alter science. Other maths discoveries would result in equally profound applications. For example, the abstract “curved” geometries formulated in the 19th century that were so essential for Einstein when he posited that our spacetime is curved. Maths has been called the queen of sciences, but she’s a queen who likes to work behind the scenes, rather than flaunting her own achievements. The fact that most mathematicians are equally blasé about PR, preferring to toil away in their own mathematical universes, rather than assertively seeking recognition, only contributes to the misunderstanding.

In your opinion, what is the most interesting and intriguing characteristics of mathematics, from a layman’s point of view and a mathematician’s point of view?

I think laypersons are most surprised when they realise mathematics can trigger an emotional response. The “aha” moment that comes when a math idea finally clicks in your mind is like a runner’s high—it’s especially amazing the first time you experience it. For mathematicians, I suspect the most appealing characteristic of the subject is its playfulness. Maths is a game in which you start with a bunch of rules and then deduce away to see where you can get. You can play it anywhere—in the shower, on the bus, while eating lunch—all you need is your mind.

“The task of creating the universe using only numbers” sounds audacious, but at the same time does it run the risk of diluting the subject for “dramatic effect” and simplification?

It might sound audacious, but the purpose is to open readers to an idea many might not realise: how deeply ingrained maths is in our universe. Inside my book, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find “dilution”—rather, I give you a carefully designed thought experiment that’s both rigorous and reasoned. Be prepared to have fun—all through activating your mental muscles!

Your prose is humorous, though not loudly so (“The pope’s going to ring for his secretary and ask just why this book was put on his reading list”). Do you read/write/enjoy humour?

Yes, very much! My first novel,  The Death of Vishnu, had sections that were laugh-out-loud funny; the reason I put them there was to make the serious underlying ideas easier to absorb. It’s a technique I followed in my other novels as well, especially  The City of Devi, where the central character, Jaz, views the world with complete, comic irreverence. Maths has such a reputation for being dense and difficult that I figured humour would be the perfect way to make the reader relax.

INDIA’S CONTRIBUTION

India has made rich contributions to the discipline of mathematics. Do you think mathematics is still considered to be an elite affair in India?

Culturally, I feel India is much more open to mathematics than the West. For instance,  The Big Bang of Numbers was picked by some major newspapers as their “Read of the Week”, which would be unthinkable in the US for a maths book. However, cutting-edge maths has changed dramatically in the last few decades, with traditional paper-and-pencil methods giving way to more computer-dependent computational research. It’s hard to compete with the investments Western countries—or, for that matter, China—make towards training and resources.

This is where India will have to spend more in order to be equally competitive.

As a mathematician and a novelist, how do you look at religion and how it plays out in society influencing even how science is perceived and received by the people?

Religion has been a source of inspiration for both scientists and mathematicians in the past—many of whom believed that in pursuing their discoveries, they were doing the work of god. Some might be surprised to know that the Big Bang theory for the universe’s creation was originally proposed by a Catholic priest (Georges Lemaître)!

The problem arises when people start rejecting science because it conflicts with their religious beliefs and superstitions. Science can bring us all together because it is based so strictly on logic and experiments. Let not religion ruin the equation.

‘WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION’

As a mathematician and a novelist, how do you look at the way artificial intelligence (AI) is progressing today? Several mathematicians and data scientists (Cathy O’Neil is one we read recently) have called out the wrong way in which maths, calculations, and so on, are used by many to power algorithms that increase inequality, create biases and shame in society, and stymie inclusion.

Cathy O’Neil’s book is one I regularly refer to in a course on mathematics for non-mathematicians, which I teach frequently. Pattern recognition, on which a lot of AI is based, can be tremendously useful, but it is also one of the most insidious viruses ever unleashed on humans. In my course, we cover the basic probability and statistics from which pattern recognition schemes arise so that students can better understand how algorithms on correlation and facial matching (for instance) work. Understanding is the first step, but one needs constant vigilance to not fall victim to such “weapons of math destruction” as O’Neil calls them.

You are saying that writing a book, much like designing a universe, is an iterative procedure. What is your writing like? How do you write?

Warning: I write in the worst way possible, so please don’t try to emulate me! For each segment along the way, whether a sentence, a paragraph, a section, or a chapter, I iterate endlessly until I have it exactly the way I want it. I think this comes from my training as a mathematician, where you are constantly trying to make sure that you are building up your proof correctly, and no mistakes are slipping in. This is a most inefficient method since each time there’s a change down the road, I have to go back and rewrite many tracts of text, then perfect them again.

You end the book calling mathematics a “force that forever enthralls, not just through the answers it gives but also through the new mysteries it poses”. Is this how you had planned to summarise it when you started the book?

I think it was a matter of evolution. As I finished successive topics, I expected that the book would end once I wrote the chapter on infinity, that this would be the final frontier. But once there, I realised it was just another summit—from which many more were now visible ahead. Despite having explained so much with the maths I’d developed, there were endless questions left, which I could keep exploring.

WRITING INFLUENCES

Who are your writing influences? Childhood and later.

I remember reading a book called  Gods, Demons and Others by R.K. Narayan in high school, about Indian mythology—this was definitely a big influence in terms of the trilogy of novels I ended up writing (with titles, respectively, containing Vishnu, Siva, and Devi). Other than that, I think I’ve picked up a lot of the economy that comes from reading and writing a lot of mathematics, where brevity is always valued. The humour and irreverence? Blame my mother.

Besides The Big Bang of Numbers, what other books would you recommend on the same subject?

One of the things I’ve done in my book is to imbed mathematical topics in a single narrative so that you can see how they logically follow from each other. I don’t believe that’s been done before since popular books in maths usually follow a historical chronology—where discoveries do not emerge in any neat order. The best such historical account remains Simon Singh’s immensely readable  Fermat’s Last Theorem. Completely different, but also a math-related book I love, is  The Man Who Knew Infinity, Robert Kanigel’s biography of Ramanujan.

What are you working on now?

A memoir based on a treasure trove of over 3,000 letters that I wrote to my mother between 1979, when I left for the US, and 2013, when she passed away. She preserved all of them, and it even appears in the  Limca Book of World Records as a record correspondence from son to mother. Reading them has been like reliving my life, and I can understand now what factors made me who I am. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the emotion packed in the letters, but the challenge (as it is for any book) is to uncover the narrative within.

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