International Day of Mathematics: Meet India's Fastest ‘Human Calculator’

International Day of Mathematics: Meet India's Fastest ‘Human Calculator’

Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash is India's first "World's Fastest Human Calculator" and he shared his thoughts on maths, a subject feared by many.

Simple VishwakarmaUpdated: Thursday, March 14, 2024, 09:24 AM IST
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Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash | Special Arrangement

Worldwide, Mar 14 is the International Day of Mathematics, also known as Pi Day (as the mathematical sign 𝜫 equals 3.14). While mathematics has a lot of interesting facets, it also is a cause of stress and fear among many students. Many grapple with maths anxiety, so The Free Press Journal (FPJ) interacted with the “World’s Fastest Human Calculator”, Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash, and sought insights on making mathematics engaging and combating fear in students.

According to the BBC, Prakash ‘is to math what Usain Bolt is to running’. While speaking with the FPJ, the 24-year-old Prakash explained the captivating world of numbers. The conversation further delved into his thoughts on the Vedic system for mental maths, the importance of mental maths skills, and the mathematical maestro who inspired him.

FPJ: Many struggle with maths anxiety. What are your thoughts on making maths more engaging and ending the fear around it?

Prakash: Math can be made engaging and enjoyable for students if it is made relatable. Children will never be excited to learn a certain math topic if it is taught to learn the definition, mug up the formula, and then solve questions. A child does not have an affinity towards the topic anymore.

Instead, the topic should be introduced by intertwining it with a problem statement that the child can understand. That way you easily grasp the child’s attention.

Once a student is convinced of the importance of any concept, he or she will be more willing to learn it. Introducing more fun ways of using math by bringing out gamified concepts, storytelling and puzzles will interest the students to stay motivated and keep them engaged. 

FPJ: What is your opinion about the Vedic system for mental math calculation?

Prakash: I believe that the journey of solving a problem itself should be celebrated rather than the final answer. Traditional speed math classes just focus on arriving at the correct answer and that’s how children are also incentivised. Many Vedic math techniques rely heavily on memorising patterns, formulas, and special cases, which I believe is not an ideal way to learn speed math. 

FPJ: Some people might think that calculators make mental math obsolete. How do you respond to that? Looking beyond basic calculations, how do you see math skills as important for the average person?

Prakash: This is a common misconception among us that calculators make mental math obsolete. The objective of mental math is not just to find the correct answers. Mathematics is not just about monotonous numbers and calculations. Many of us tend to believe that there is nothing beyond this.

However, we need to realise how our daily tasks are carried out. By gaining mathematical skills, the average person fosters and develops cognitive skills crucial for self-development and needed in day-to-day tasks. Mathematical exercises act as a mental gym for the mind, just like how one goes to stay healthy. Our brain is like a muscle and honing mathematical skills leads to all-round cognitive development. Being comfortable with speed maths will foster a sense of confidence among students and even adults.

FPJ: With the rise of AI and calculators, what do you see as the future of mental math and its importance in a technology-driven world?

Prakash: In today’s technology-driven world, the uses of AI and calculators have assisted us to work faster, but believe me we can be better than any machine because our brains are capable of marvellous tasks that can surprise us. We can use technology as a tool that can make practising mental math engaging and interactive, potentially leading to a renewed interest in developing these skills. While technology might change how we perform calculations, strong mental math skills are likely to remain valuable for building a solid foundation in mathematics, enhancing cognitive abilities, and navigating a world where numbers are still omnipresent.

FPJ: Beyond the incredible speed, can you describe the thought process behind your calculations? Is it like visualising an abacus, or something else entirely?

Prakash: Calculating quickly is not just about methods or being able to do something quickly, it’s about finding optimised patterns to get to a solution. It’s like continuous problem-solving and understanding how you can optimise the process even further. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and optimise them further. I think that’s what makes mental calculation fun.

FPJ: International Day of Mathematics is also known as Pi Day. Beyond its basic definition, is there anything about Pi that particularly fascinates you mathematically?

Prakash: Absolutely, Pi is really special for math lovers. What’s fascinating about it is how it’s full of surprises and how it shows us that some numbers just don’t follow the usual rules—they go on forever without repeating. Pi makes us rethink how we understand numbers and measurement. Additionally, it’s super important in all kinds of science and engineering problems, showing us that even something as abstract as Pi is key to unlocking the secrets of the universe. 

FPJ: Being the first “World’s Fastest Human Calculator” from India, you’re an inspiration to many. Who are your mathematical role models, and what mathematicians throughout history do you find most impressive?

Prakash: My two role models are Srinivasa Ramanujan and Shakuntala Devi, not only because of their achievements in the field of math but also made our country proud and inspired future generations. Ramanujan had lived a short life but he has reached the International Math Society. His groundbreaking work in number theory and infinite series continues to astonish mathematicians even today.

Shakuntala Devi inspired women to take up maths and went all around the world doing math shows at a time when science was often dominated by men. She had shattered stereotypes. She proved that women too can excel in these fields.

FPJ: What advice would you give to students who are considering pursuing a career in a math-related field?

Prakash: Ensure a solid understanding of core mathematical principles, as they are crucial for problem-solving and advanced study in any math-related field. Having a strong foundation will help you explore math careers better. Mathematics is a versatile discipline that plays a crucial role in numerous fields such as engineering, finance, computer science, physics, and more. Explore different areas where mathematics is applied to discover what interests you the most. A good way to explore different fields is through relevant internships.

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