To infinity and beyond with the world's child prodigies

Brockie's view of maths prodigies.
BOB BROCKIE

Brockie's view of maths prodigies.

The movie The Man Who Knew Infinity is currently doing the rounds.

The film is about the astonishing child prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan who had no formal training in maths but taught himself to generate complex theorems by the age of 13. Invited to Cambridge University, its professors were flabbergasted to find the self-taught genius could run circles round them in many areas of the most abstruse maths.

Ramanujan is one of many famous mathematicians who must have been born with arithmetically wired brains.

At age 3, German Carl Gauss, perhaps the world's greatest mathematician, watched his father, a gardener, add up his accounts and corrected him. By 12, Britain's William Hamilton read Hebrew, Arabic, Parsi, Greek, Latin, Syriac and Sanskrit, and was well on the way to making fundamental discoveries in the maths of astronomy, optics and algebra.

American Promethia Pythitha started reading when only 1-year-old and learned college-level calculus by age 7. Jay Luo graduated from Boise State University in the United States with honours in maths at age 12, as did Ruth Lawrence from Oxford University at age 13.

Although some of these prodigies were born into wealthy or well-educated families, most of them were born to ordinary folk, as were many top-ranking world mathematicians.

Author of Principia Mathematica, Sir Isaac Newton had a father who was a farmer. Pierre Laplace's father was a cider trader, Jean Fourier's father was a tailor, maths logician George Boole's father was a shoemaker, Karl Weierstrass's a petty bureaucrat and Henri Lebergue's father a typesetter. Maths genius Karl Godel and computer inventor Alan Turing's parents were "of modest distinction". Ramanujan's father was a junior clerk.

New Zealand too had or has its juvenile maths braniacs.

Dunedin's Alexander Aitken (1895-1967) wrote that he did rather badly at school until the age of 15 when suddenly "I started doing mental calculations like a Brahmin yogi". Later, as a professor at Edinburgh University, Aitken could recite pi to 707 decimal places and multiply 987654321 by 123456789 in his head in 30 seconds. Aitken, an University of Otago alumnus, became one of the world's greatest mathematicians, extending the fields of statistics, canonical matrices, numeral theory and algebra.

Other Kiwi prodigies include Christchurch's Ray Hidayat who read complex science and maths literature at age seven and was into computer programming at 11. Borrowing 20 books at a time from the public library he developed an astonishing grasp on science, music and maths to become a double graduate of Lincoln College at age 17.

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Auckland's Tristan Pang - born 2001 - started doing high school maths at 2. At 9 he gained 97 per cent in the Cambridge Examinations. At 12 he set up a free online learning platform -"Tristan's Learning Hub" - and is currently studying maths and physics at the University of Auckland, with a special interest in the relationship of light and energy, quantum physics, and time travel.

He is named as one of 10 child prodigies who might change the world.

Ramanujan and these other geniuses mysteriously come from nowhere fully-fledged to master and enlarge the transcendent world of higher mathematics.

 - Stuff

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