- What is your name? Where are you from? Give us a little background story.
My name is Akshay Thakur. I am from a hilly state called Himachal Pradesh in India. I completed my Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from a federal college, NIT Hamirpur. I have worked on various projects related to Fluid Mechanics, both numerical and experimental. Although I always had some interest in Mathematics, it was through Fluid Mechanics that my interest was particularly piqued, and it’s how I began to enjoy Mathematics as well.
- Out of all the subjects, why Mathematics?
Well, firstly, if you think about it, then Math is the basis and a quintessential element for all physical and applied Sciences, and by all, I literally mean every field of Science that you can imagine. For example, Physics depends on Math. If you look at Chemistry, then you will realize that it is based on Physics, which itself is dependent on Math, and then when you move on to Biology, you come to see that it depends on Chemistry, which in turn is based fundamentally on Math. And as everyone knows that every other field in Applied Science has its basis in the above mentioned three fields and sometimes directly on Math, so it’s safe to say that Math is the mother of all Sciences. Secondly, it’s the sheer power it provides with minimal resources. Essentially, what do you need to do Math? You only need a pen, a piece of paper, and your brain, and if you are a next-level genius like Stephen Hawking or Srinivasa Ramanujan, then you don’t even need the first two. You don’t need fancy labs. You just think and write your ideas down.
- Towards what part of mathematics do you feel more attracted to and why?
I am not working in a purely Mathematical field and mostly work with applied Math. Therefore, if you were to ask me whether I am more interested in Game Theory or Number Theory, then I would say both. But the thing is I do not have a deep knowledge of either and am no expert. I love to learn every interesting proof and theorem that comes my way. However, I do like Linear Algebra a lot, as I use it on a day to day basis.
- What is your opinion about all the stigma against mathematics? Where do you think it starts and how does it affect today’s generation decision regarding a career in math?
I know that the stigma against mathematics that it’s very hard should not have been there, but I feel its no fault of the people who believe this. First of all, in some cases, it is really hard and this is further bolstered by the fact that the most intelligent people on this planet are pursuing Maths as a research stream. But let me ask you a question – If a thing is difficult, does it mean it’s not enjoyable? Certainly not. Life, itself, is quite difficult but isn’t that what makes it all the more enjoyable. What I mean by that is when you look at the difficulties you overcame, in hindsight, they feel very good. Secondly, however, even when we talk about areas that are relatively easier, the stigma still persists. I feel that this is because of the way in which mathematics is taught. Teachers throw some numbers, theorems, and algorithms towards their students and ask them to get on with it. But that is not how math should be taught. There is a huge role of imagination and visualization as well, which is skipped altogether. This is part of the reason that Math has come to have an image of a very dry and lackluster field. Take this for an example, when students are taught about linear transformations in Linear Algebra, most of the teachers just tell you the algorithm to multiply the linear transformation matrix with the given matrix. They don’t tell you what it is doing exactly to space where your initial vectors were in and to the vectors themselves. That I think is wrong, and if the young students have made up their mind to not pursue Math because of this, then how can we blame. There is a pressing need to change these teaching methods, and nowadays, there are lots of resources on the internet to learn math in a fun way. So, maybe, things will change. I am optimistic about it.
- You have mentioned that “Teachers throw some numbers, theorems, and algorithms towards their students and ask them to get on with it.” Did you have a negative experience at school during a math class? Did you find the beauty of mathematics through self study?
Yes, I had plenty of negative experiences at school during math class. Math was always tought as a set of rules that have to be followed, and intuition or visualization was always in the back seat and sometimes completely non-existent. Most of the mathematics that I have learned was through various Moocs, various youtube channels, and books. One book that I have particularly enjoyed was “How not to be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg. One good thing about this book is that it is for the general audience and someone with not so much of mathematical understanding could also understand it and benefit from it.
- How would you counteract the negative stigma math has in our younger generation?
Well, as I said earlier, things will change when the teachers who teach Math will change their ways. First of all, I think there is a need for specialized training in teaching methods for Math. Secondly, much more use of Interactive simulations in classrooms will help in alleviating the issue at hand. Thirdly, students should be told the anecdotal as well as some other cool stuff about Math like, maybe, how a particular card trick works or how a coffee cup is the same as a doughnut (no offense intended for “donut”), topologically speaking. Finally, I believe that the change has already started; these days, the students, who don’t have access to good teaching, can visit some online resources such as the Youtube channel, 3Blue1Brown, or the website, Brilliant.org, and learn some Math in an interactive way. Well, of course, you cannot forget Life Through a Mathematicians Eye. I personally feel that you have some great and interesting content on the history of Math. I, for one, really enjoy it.
- You mentioned the YouTube channel 3Blue1Brown, do you have any other recommendations?
Apart from 3Blue1brown, there is Numberphile, PBS Infinite Series, Singing Banana, Standup Maths, VIhart, and Khan Academy, which as everyone knows has grown out of youtube into this massive and amazing organization.
- What is your final destination career-wise?
I am planning to pursue a Ph.D. in Fluid Mechanics, and then do some good research on the same. Also, I wish to become an effective communicator and teacher of Science and Math. I am already trying to do the latter part with The Cove of Nerds blog. I think that is the ultimate aim that I have in mind.
- Do you have a favourite mathematician (role model)?
My favorite mathematicians are Srinivasa Ramanujan, Alan Turing, and David Hilbert.
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Lots of love and don’t forget that maths is everywhere! Enjoy!