Picking out the patterns

Mathematician and storyteller, Rohit Gupta, on the infectious method of seeing math come alive in everyday life, insect life cycles and your favourite song

Rohit Gupta goes by the penname The Compasswallah.

That’s 18-19th century slang for British surveyors in colonial India. The real treasure trove they held was instruments like telescopes, theodolites, sextants, plumb lines, and naturally…a magnetic compass.

The best thing we’ve managed in this century is the #selfie and that’s no #humblebrag

For the simple-minded, uninitiated and mathematically-challenged (this writer included), Gupta is difficult to keep up with. The fact that he isn’t opposed to explaining concepts if you are open to exploring ideas with an open mind is helpful.

A few years ago, Gupta took on a curious project — making match, science and astronomy concepts easy and approachable to the common man through stories. Earlier, scientists were writing for the commoners but that hasn’t been the case for a while, he says.

Uncertainly, we asked for three fascinating ways in which mathematics permeates our daily lives.

Rohit Gupta aka Compasswallah

Here’s what he had to say: Think of nature as an “optimisation” engine; it is the art of finding the maximum or minimum value of something. How do bees store the maximum honey in minimal wax? How does a hawk spiral down to its prey in the fastest time? How does a flower fit maximum seeds inside itself? How do fireflies start flashing in total synchronization? How does a grocer stack the maximum number of oranges on his cart? Why are most living organisms symmetrical? Why is the Sun the most perfect sphere in Nature? Why does light travel from one point to another in the shortest possible time?

Human beings need calculus to find these answers, but Nature has used evolution…. Scary, isn’t it?

He adds, “All of our electronic gadgets and electronic commerce – credit cards, passwords — use the mathematics of cryptography. We owe this knowledge to 4000 years of algebra and number theory (prime numbers, mainly).” Even the cicadas use prime numbers cycles to avoid extinction by predator species, while we use them to avoid becoming bankrupt due to hackers.

Think about why music and rhythm affects human beings in such a profound way, he says. This one really makes us think.

“In terms of evolution, I think this is the greatest hint that somehow our minds are deeply tuned to the mathematics in nature. A lot of musical styles are in fact based on the Euclidean algorithm. Outside of percussion, it is quite fascinating that the human ear performs a mechanical Fourier transform (through the cochlear muscles) apparently,” says Gupta.
Be fairly warned, there is a side-effect to speaking with the Compasswallah or attending his talks — you’re bound to seek out more such fascinating patterns.

And it’s everywhere.

Even in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night if we are to believe math artist/teacher Natalya St. Clair. In a recent animated video filmed with the help of Avi Ofer, they explain how  ​Van Gogh captured “the deep mystery of movement, fluid and light”​ called turbulence. (hyperlink) This is particularly ​impressive because it is a phenomenon that most physicists and mathematicians label elusive.

Fascinating story or random trivia? Well, we will certainly be using it in dinner conversation.

And then it dawns — is this perhaps the idea that Gupta hopes to elucidate? An effort to make math and science commonplace dinner conversation?

For now, he has his hands full fighting math haters and antiquated stereotypes. “Mathematicians aren’t human calculators nor do they love numbers,” explains Gupta.

There’s one number however, that has made a difference to his priorities, he admits. For math haters won’t get his time of day.

“I’m almost 40, my time is running out. I just want to build and learn the things on my own life’s list,” he says.

Excerpts from an interview;

Math and stories; how did you come up with this idea?

As I stumbled from one book to another — history of primes, history of calculus, history of astronomy or the history of imaginary numbers – my brain totally exploded with possibilities. I found that colonial India was a very good setting to start telling these stories of astronomy, geology, magnetism, navigation and mapping. That was when I found the colonial slang Compasswallah and the name stuck.

Who is the audience for your workshops?

As a storyteller of science and mathematics, I’ve enjoyed interacting with people from diverse fields — artistes, educators, software engineers, media professionals, chefs, businessmen, shopkeepers, taxi drivers…it doesn’t matter, as long as I learned something new.

In general, my audience in India has been very limited. Even in the metros, it is hard to draw people away from their daily lives. So my strategy is now evolving from workshops towards documentaries, feature films and technology. Pedagogy as a form of education is also dying quickly. In fact, I don’t even want to educate anymore. I just want to build and learn the things on my own life’s list. I’m almost 40, my time is running out.

The audience is not my priority anymore. I just want to live out some of my dreams.

You mention how mathematicians used to be able to talk comprehensibly to the layman. When and why, according to you did this change?
Mathematicians will probably never be able to do that beyond a certain level. But I remember saying this in the context of 17th-19th century scientists because they came before the atomic age. In classical physics most things at that time were tangible and a part of the human experience. Go out and look at any children’s playing ground — it is essentially a laboratory of classical physics.

The see-saw shows you the law of the lever, the swing shows you simple harmonic motion, the slide shows you gravity and friction. After 1900, it became impossible to communicate science so directly. Try explaining the Higgs’ boson to a kid or even to a college graduate – it’s nearly impossible.

ZetaTrek is a citizen science initiative; how equipped are regular citizens at tackling such a hypotheses they were working on?
Regular citizens are as equipped for solving the Riemann Hypothesis as a grasshopper is for crossing the Atlantic ocean.

People who join Zetatrek are what I call — autonomous autodidacts. They are willing to look beyond the travails of their daily job and family obligations towards something much more audacious.

In a sense, they are a group of adventurers who have chosen, for whatever bizarre reason  —  to put their faith in a madman (that would be yours truly). Even if this is only because there is no one else insane enough to do this.

What is the latest idea/hypothesis/equation to keep you up at night?

As usual, there are too many ideas colliding, spawning, multiplying and fading away in my head. Moments of clarity for me are far and few between long tempests of confusion and conundrum.

But lately I’m toying with something called the Farey Sequence. Apart from the Riemann Hypothesis (the central goal of Zetatrek) this sequence happens to be related to fascinating areas such as  – fractals, chaos theory, textile design, mechanical gear design, planetary motion, coupled oscillators, the logistic map, decimal approximations, history of logarithms, Japanese temple puzzles (sangaku) , image processing in computer science, the Brahmagupta-Pell equation, Euclidean algorithm, continued fractions, Fibonacci numbers, Pick’s Theorem and even cosmology.

So basically, I don’t even know where to begin.

Want to get in touch with Rohit? He doesn’t bite, usually.


Photo courtesy: Van Gogh Gallery

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