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Maths prodigy at 13 reflects the Tamil way with numbers

IT WAS when a five-year-old boy piped up from the back seat of the car, 'If you take one, add half to it, and then a quarter, and an eighth, and so on forever, you will never quite get to two,' that a Surbiton couple suddenly realised they had a prodigy on their hands.

On Friday, Ganesh, 13-year- old son of Arjuna Sittampalam, a Tamil, and his wife Nela, a Sinhalese, both originally from Sri Lanka, was awarded a BSc mathematics degree with first-class honours at Surrey University. He is Britain's youngest graduate for several hundred years, seven months younger than Ruth Lawrence when she graduated from Oxford in 1986.

Ganesh is not the first Tamil mathematical genius. In 1887, Srinivasa Ramanujan was born to a poor family of Tamil Nadu Brahmins. After failing his university examinations, he became a clerk in Madras. Having confided reams of highly original research to his private notebooks, he eventually wrote a letter introducing himself to Godfrey Harold Hardy, a mathematics don at Trinity College, Cambridge. This included 10 pages of wildly original formulae.

Hardy brought the self-taught phenomenon to Cambridge in 1914. He became a Fellow of Trinity and of the Royal Society before dying of tuberculosis at 32. He is still famous for his work on the theory of numbers; some of his calculations in a recently found notebook contributed to one of the most revolutionary ideas in theoretical physics: the superstring theory in cosmology.

Mathematical ability is prized in Indian culture; there is a long tradition of creativity with numbers in southern India and among Tamils in Sri Lanka. George Gheverghese Joseph, a senior lecturer in econometrics and social statistics at Manchester University, notes in his study of the history of the non-European roots of mathematics, The Crest of the Peacock (Penguin), that, to the embarrassment of some of his admirers, Ramanujan tended to credit his discoveries to the intervention of the family goddess, Namagiri.

Mr Gheverghese Joseph explains that mathematics and numbers have 'a special significance within the Brahminical tradition as extra-rational instruments for controlling fate and nature'. 'There is,' he said, 'a very strong numerate culture within that part of the world. The ability to work with numbers arouses admiration. Astrologers sit on the streets doing very complicated sums as part of their predictions.

'In India, astrology, astronomy and mathematics are very much part of the numerate work tradition. In trying to find the positions of planets and stars it is necessary to use mathematical calculations. There are not very many English homes where the ability to compute with numbers would have that much fascination. There seems to be a sort of intuitive understanding . . . a feel for numbers.'

Ian Stewart, editor of The Mathematical Review and a professor of mathematics at Warwick University, agrees that numbers are an important part of Tamil culture. 'They like to classify things in neat numerical and tabular forms. A kind of mathematical way of thinking about the world is built into their culture. There does seem to be a very strong mathematical ability among Tamils as a result.'

Penny Andrews, the administrator of the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company in London, which specialises in interpretations of Bharatha Natyam, an ancient form of south Indian classical dance, says that Shobana Jeyasingh, the company's founder and a Tamil choreographer, recognises that the creative excitement of mathematics is highly prized in Tamil culture. Such is her respect for Ramanujan's talents that last year the company performed Correspondences: The Work and Imagination of Mathematician S Ramanujan.

Although unable to replicate the equations precisely, she sought to give an idea of the complexity of his work. Two dances celebrated his greatest achievement: the Mock Theta-Functions in which part of the libretto runs: 'Phi Q equals one plus Q over one plus squared/ plus Q to the fourth over one plus Q squared one/plus Q to the fourth and so on.' Such was the excitement among British mathematicians that 20 members of The Mathematical Society of Great Britain attended one performance.

Who knows, one day Shobana Jeyasingh may dedicate a dance opera to Ganesh Sittampalam.

(Photograph omitted)