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The History of Mathematics – Archana Sarat

The History of Mathematics – Archana Sarat

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The History of Mathematics – Archana Sarat

Shweta Kapoor

How did you develop a love and passion for mathematics? What would you say is your earliest memory of doing maths?

Sidney Hook, the great American Philosopher said that everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. For me, the first person that I remember when I think of mathematics is my Dimple ma’am.

My mother, who detested mathematics all her life, decided that her children must not take after her. She enrolled me and my brother in math tuition, for an hour, every day, right from when we were about five-years-old. I drifted through the subject till I was about ten. That was when I was put under the guidance of my neighbour, Dimple ma’am. She was seven years older than me and had just completed her schooling. With love, patience and enthusiasm, she opened my eyes to the wonders of the subject. Every evening, I looked forward to her class wondering what special mathematical challenge she would introduce me to that day!

My grades soared. Whenever you score well in a subject, you develop a passion for the subject. I continued doing math every day of my school years. My school teachers understood my love for the subject. When I was working on mathematics, my entire attention would be consumed by the problem before me. During my eleventh grade, after my mathematics examination, I was stunned to see that my classmate who was sitting behind me, was missing. When I asked my friends where he as, they gave me quizzical looks. It appears that he was found cheating in the exam by the examiner, was reprimanded loudly and marched off to the Principal’s office. I had no idea of the entire incident. I was happily lost inside my mathematics paper to notice anything that happened around me.

 

Your book is a series of really interesting stories filled with amazing quirky characters. Which character and story would you say are your favourite?

That is such a difficult choice! How do I choose between Ipiko and Akkad? Ipiko was the first fictional character I met while working on this book. He was a prehistoric man who was the first to start writing numbers because of necessity rather than fashion. I met Akkad towards the end of the book. He was this crazy pompous man from a faraway civilization sailing into our beloved Harappa expecting crude barbarians. Was he surprised! Aditi and her father’s character are modelled on my sons and their father. My husband takes tremendous efforts to make my sons interested in their subjects, just like Aditi’s father.

Apart from these fictional characters, while extensively researching for the book, I found a new love for the famous mathematicians of yester years—Hypatia, Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Hippasus, Aryabhata, Bhaskara, Brahmagupta. I came to understand their dedication, persistence, perseverance, unadulterated love for the subject and their passion to propagate their knowledge. I have tried through fictionalisation to convey the grandeur of their endeavours to my readers. 

 

Euclid’s story proves that Maths often requires diligence and dedication. Do you think that today, Maths has just become a subject of repetitive problem solving rather than a deep, detailed and enhanced learning of its workings? 

Mathematics has always evoked extreme passions. On one hand, you have students who love the subject and on the other, you have those who can’t bear it. I would blame our examination system for this. All sciences, including mathematics, are to be meant to be enjoyably learnt, in order to understand and appreciate the world around us. Sadly, we are more focussed on scoring marks and joining the rat race.

 

You mention that you love working with children and often conduct creative writing workshops for them. What is the best fan response that you have received from the kids so far?

Recently, I conducted a writing workshop at Billabong School in Mumbai. Just after concluding the workshop, a little girl walked up to me and told me that she had attended my workshop at Children’s Academy school a couple of months ago and loved it so much. She mentioned that she enrolled for the workshop that day and travelled all the way to Billabong School only because I would be conducting it. I was speechless! It was a proud and humbling moment that made me feel all my efforts were worthwhile.

 

Could you relate to us any one such interesting anecdote or story during your research visits to the two museums?

Apart from reading a dozen books to research about how mathematics evolved over the years, I had been scouring around museums trying to understand the visual evidences left behind by our ancestors. I am grateful and indebted to two museums for clarifying and crystallising my research. The first museum that added immense value to my research was the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya at Fort, Mumbai. They held a special exhibition called ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’; the story of Akkad and Shonapath were a direct result of that visit.

The second museum is the Science Museum in London. After spending more than a year researching about mathematics, zero and the Bakhshali Manuscript, I had wanted to see that delicate mathematical text that was written on birch bark. However, it was kept at the University of Oxford, which was not on my itinerary on account of bad weather; I was reconciled to not being able to see it. It was quite unexpected that the London Science Museum was running an exhibition, ‘Illuminating India: 5000 years of Science and Innovation’ when we were visiting, for which the Bakhshali Manuscript was brought to London. When I came across it unexpectedly, I broke down.

I hadn’t expected to see this document that was the first and only ancient proof that India had discovered zero and used it as a numeral in calculations. My tears brought the museum staff and other tourists rushing to help me. Between the tears and their gentle rubs, I told them all about my book, the research and my love for the subject. It wasn’t enough. They wanted to know more. They wanted to know about Aryabhata, Ramanujam and about the other contributions from India towards Mathematics.

For a few hours, I was the tour guide at the London museum. It was a moment that I will always cherish—explaining the greatness of Indian mathematics, to groups of enthusiastic and attentive foreigners. I am indebted to the London Science Museum for that wonderful opportunity.

 

What are some great, fun maths books that you would recommend our readers? Also, are you planning to write a series for your book? If so, when are the next books releasing?

As a child, I’ve enjoyed Shakuntala Devi’s math puzzle books. Now days, as a family, we enjoy Martin Gardner’s books on mathematical and logic puzzles. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any book that introduces the history of mathematics to children, especially India’s contribution to the same. This was the reason why I wrote my book.

It was only when I started researching on this subject that I realised it was too vast to be covered in a single book. This book will be a series and I will also explore the history and growth of other subjects and India’s contribution to them in the upcoming books. The next two books in the series will be released in 2020.

About the Interviewee:

Archana Sarat is an Author, Poet and Screenwriter for the last fifteen years. She shuttles between Chennai and Mumbai and loves both cities passionately. Her works have been published in various popular newspapers, magazines and anthologies like The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Free Press Journal (Sunday Literary Section), The SEBI and Corporate Laws Journal, The CA Newsletter, Me Magazine, the Science Reporter, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, Caesurae, and many more.

Her writing journey began with ‘Birds of Prey’, a psychological crime thriller, that has gathered acclaim for being a gripping and riveting read. Her second book, a collection of flash fiction stories called ‘Tit for Tat’, is available on Kindle as an ebook.

In her latest book, The History of Mathematics, which is a collection of 26 short stories about the evolution of mathematics, Archana combines her love for working with numbers with her love for working with children. She has conducted Creative Writing workshops for children at Children’s Academy, Podar International School, Billabong High International School, Nirmala College and many other educational institutions. You can connect with her at ww.archanasarat.com