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Kaavya Jayram, 12 years of age, Stanford student, number theory mathematician
Kaavya Jayram is perfectly at home here, chatting up hoary gentlemen in tweeds about the unsolved mysteries of number theory. It doesn’t seem to matter, to them or to her, that they have had careers in mathematics many times the years to her age.
The girl in the Berkeley Mathematics T-shirt, with keen eyes and a confident stride, who turned 12 last month, is a delegate at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) 2010 and certainly among the most awe-inspiring.
At the International Congress of Women Mathematicians, a satellite conference that preceded the ICM, Kaavya was the youngest to present a paper on her results in the area of integer partitioning — expressing numbers as the sum of other numbers. This will be published by the International Journal of Number Theory.
“She is really good and she is way ahead of her age. She is interested in problem solving and research, taking great courses at Stanford. She was at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in December when I gave a talk. We’ve been in touch,” says Parimala Raman, an invited speaker at ICM and one of India’s most well-known experts in algebra who is now the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics at Emory University, US.
At an age when most children struggle to commit multiplication tables to memory, Kaavya took a fancy to number theory after attending a definitive lecture on the subject at IIT Kanpur by Professor Manindra Agrawal who heads the institute’s computer science department.
“He stayed up till 3 am explaining it to me. I loved it,” she says.
All of eight — she finished high school at seven — she decided she would be a mathematician and began taking courses at the San Jose State University and Stanford University, the latter at the invitation of noted number theorist Kannan Soundararajan.
“What I like about number theory is there are so many unsolved problems which seem simple but have stumped mathematicians for years,” she says, accompanied at the congress by her mother Subadra Jayram, who home-schooled her from a very young age after her school found she had galloped way ahead of her class.
Arguments with teachers —”I tried to say dolphins are not fish”— and refusing to go through the dreary motions of colouring inside circles and squares or reading Where the Wild Things Are made her a “problem child”.
Counsellors advised Kaavya’s parents to pull her out of school, which was too restrictive for her level of learning. At five, she had grade VI students for classmates and, not surprisingly, few friends.
“The first thing she did after coming home from school was not play or eat, but sit down to read a pile of advanced books, which she was deprived of at school. Home-schooling allowed her to blossom —there was no pressure, no assessment and she could choose her subjects and the level and pace at which to study them. I never really taught her, just facilitated learning,” says Subadra, who now writes a blog for families of what she calls profoundly gifted children, but admits she was apprehensive of the necessary deviation from traditional education to begin with. It worked out fine, so much so that she chose to home-school her younger child, Nishanth, now 10.
Already in university — he goes to Foothill College in California —he is as much of a prodigy as Kaavya, with a proclivity to astrophysics and graphic design. “He loves to give talks and his Flash presentations are often used by lecturers to illustrate their own talks. He has a keen eye for detail —just by looking at a book, he can tell what font it’s in,” Kaavya says. She herself is dogged about numbers. “I don’t know why students find mathematics difficult. It’s a nice, logical subject,” she says.
The family, based in California’s Bay Area, is in India for a year, after which Kaavya will go to university full time, perhaps to Berkeley or Stanford, she says.
This isn’t exactly a sabbatical—she will take courses at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, and continue to spend her days solving problems, taking breaks in between to “bike around”, swim and read Jane Austen and Sophie’s World. Much to her mother’s bafflement, abstractions interest Kaavya, which is why she is partial to pure math, philosophy and psychology, besides languages.
She can read and write Tamil, her mother tongue, though she can’t speak it fluently. She has passed Latin 2B and will take on Latin 3A—university level. What next?
Perhaps she will prove an intractable conjecture in number theory, or sample Indian music to compare it with the Western classical music she has been playing as lead violinist for the California Youth Symphony. Now how many achievements will that make? You do the math.
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