17-year-old Agnijo Banerjee becomes the author of a new maths book

By Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

The Guide chats with the bonafide genius about his life, talent, and future plans

David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee

There is a certain species of the cicada insect that has a life cycle of 17 years. Seventeen, of course, is a prime number. But why does an individual of this species remain in the larvae phase for exactly 17 years, before a whole mass of them burst into adulthood, ready to mate? One theory is that a predator once lurked the earth that had a shorter life span. The adults of this predator would thus perish before the next group of cicadas was ready to lay eggs. Any other mathematical equation and every few batches of cicadas would end up as a massive cyclical feast for the predator. So, the prime number of 17 was nothing but an in-built survival mechanism.

This and other equally fascinating nuggets form the subject matter of Weird Maths (HarperCollins). But possibly the weirdest, or rather most astonishing, mathematical fact about the book is the age of its co-author Agnijo Banerjee, who wrote it in collaboration with David Darling, his tutor for five years. Banerjee is 17. He has an IQ of 162. That’s equal to Albert Einstein’s, as certified by Mensa. He was acing higher maths exams in his first year of secondary school in Dundee — having moved there from Kolkata as an infant — while also breezing through international maths Olympiads. And he’s now readying to join Cambridge to study the subject further, after completing Weirder Maths, a sequel to the first book. Clearly, he is a genius, without stretching the word one bit.

We caught up with him and Darling over email. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Is there a particular moment when you recognised your level of aptitude? What pulled you into the world of maths?
My passion for numbers started really young, as early as when I two or three, when my dad used to do mental maths with me whenever I got bored, to apparently calm me down. My teachers in school noticed that I was far ahead of my peers and started encouraging me to do harder maths. Though I was good in all subjects and am also fond of physics, chemistry, history, philosophy, etc, there was always something about maths that I found special. I really enjoy solving mathematical problems and pushing myself to my limits. I love to read maths books [both serious and recreational] and have been reading and collecting them from an early age. Hard work and discipline has contributed to my success, though the more I learn the more I realise how much there is left to explore in the world of maths.

What direction do you see your life and career heading in after Cambridge?
I haven’t given it great thought but I don’t envisage myself as doing anything else other than research in pure mathematics. It would be great if I can become a professor of maths in any world-renowned university like Cambridge. Coding and artificial intelligence will remain my hobbies. I might even write a few more books as I found the whole experience of writing Weird intense, but exciting and enriching.

What are your feelings for Scotland, and Dundee, the city of your education?
I came to Scotland when I was about two years old. But having lived and grown here for nearly 15 years, I now consider myself Scottish-Indian — I hope that in the future, I will be able to make both countries proud. I love Dundee and will always consider it to be my home city.

What sort of connect do you have with Kolkata?
I love visiting my family, especially my grandparents and cousins, every year. The bond is very strong and on every visit, I am enveloped with love and warmth. The food of Kolkata is second to none and my parents make it a point to take me to all the eateries I haven’t visited yet. I still don’t enjoy the heat or the mad traffic and the lack of cleanliness in public spaces, but that’s part of Kolkata and hopefully, things are changing for the better. A few years ago, I visited during Durga Puja and was fascinated by the artistic creativity of the pandals and idol makers. Very few in the western world will comprehend the amount of effort that goes into creating this beauty that is so ephemeral.

The teacher’s darling: His tutor on Agnijo

What do you remember about the day you met Agnijo for the first time?
He was 13 when I first met him, in his second year of high school. I ran through the usual type of questions in mental maths that I’d normally ask students of his age and he was answering them with ease. Then we went on to harder problems, eventually including multiplying three-digit numbers, which he managed to do in his head very quickly (I was checking on a calculator!). I realised from the start that Agnijo isn’t interested in idle conversation. And I was also pleased to find that he was not at all boastful about his ability, even though he was well aware that he had a special talent.

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