My dear friends and listeners, here's another story I believe you will find thoroughly entertaining. A mathematician is faced with an impenetrable mathematical problem. With only a few hours to crack it, there is little hope that she will solve it. Will she succeed in her attempts? Let's find out. Listen to the twenty-sixth episode of my podcast OBSCURUS featuring MATH WIZARD PART 1. You can also read the transcript of the episode on this page ... enjoy
Welcome to OBSCURUS, your weekly dose of paranormal fiction. Every Wednesday OBSCURUS features new short stories and serialized novels written by novelist, screenwriter, and voice-over artist Biswajit Banerjee. The realm of the paranormal stretches far beyond the usual horror story. So, while you will get to listen to lots of ghost stories on this podcast, there will also be many tales of lesser-known paranormal themes. To get us started, here's your host Biswajit Banerjee.
HOST TALK 00:00:47
Hello and welcome to OBSCURUS. I am Biswajit Banerjee, your host for the show. This episode will feature part 1 of a story about a mathematician faced with a baffling mathematical problem. I hope you find this episode thoroughly entertaining.
Before starting the tale, I would request my esteemed readers and listeners all over the world to visit my website biswajitbanerjee.com for information on my books, movies, this podcast, and other creatives. All the OBSCURUS episodes and their transcripts are also available on the website.
The regular followers of this podcast know that I also have another website obscurus.buzzsprout.com, which is totally devoted to OBSCURUS. You will find all the OBSCURUS episodes, their transcripts, and chapter markers on this website.
OBSCURUS wishes all its readers and listeners a happy Ram Navami. May joy and prosperity fill your lives.
And now, it’s time for the story. A mathematician is faced with an impenetrable mathematical problem. With only a few hours to crack it, there is little hope that she will solve it. Come, let’s jump into the story to find out whether or not she succeeds.
MATH WIZARD PART 1 00:02:34
Written and performed by Biswajit Banerjee
Mathematics ran in her blood. Pratibha was the daughter of one of the leading Indian mathematicians. The papers written by her late father had enriched the academic world with brilliant ideas and insights into differential geometry and tensors. Sadly, Pratibha never had the chance to learn the subject directly from her father. About a month after her sixth birthday, Professor Pratyush Khurana died in a terrorist attack in Central London. The genius and his illustrious colleagues fell prey to certain religious bigots.
The sparks of genius showed up in Pratibha's mathematical abilities. And she continued the good work of her father. Even before the Banaras Hindu University conferred the doctorate degree upon Pratibha for her brilliant thesis on two-dimensional flows of inviscid fluids, her papers on the subject had taken the international mathematical forums by a storm. The revolutionary ideas challenged the existing concepts and forced the best minds to rethink and re-analyze theories that many in the scientific community had reckoned as inviolable.
In a couple of months, she would join the Banaras Hindu University as an Associate Professor of Mathematics. A brilliant academic career lay ahead of her. Like her father, she also wished to write creative non-fiction books on Mathematics and its wonders other than being a great teacher in the University. The kind of international recognition she enjoyed for her scholarly works was rare at her age. Well, genes do matter, don't they?
Pratibha had written several of her famed academic papers sitting in a small cafeteria in Bengali Tola, an area in Banaras spread along river Ganga. A large window close to where she sat in the café allowed Pratibha to get a good view of Hindu pilgrims walking towards the bathing ghats for taking dips in the sacred river or returning from the ghats after the religious ablutions. Sometimes, colorful processions marking important dates in the Hindu calendar added zing to the religious fervor of the place.
Somehow, the little outlet on the top floor of an old building made the perfect spot for her deliberations on Advanced Mathematics. The café attendants and the regular visitors were used to her presence at the table next to the window. With a bunch of papers and thick books on the table, Pratibha spent hours deliberating on complex mathematical ideas and problems. The attendants would bring her sugarless coffee every two hours. They knew those cups of coffee fueled the sparks of her genius. And they didn't charge her for many of those coffees. Sometimes, the café would only charge her for two cups instead of the four they supplied. They were that friendly! That loving!
00:06:27 One Wednesday morning, she was back in the café, this time with her laptop. Before joining the University as an Associate Professor, she wanted to start her first creative non-fiction book on Mathematics. Plenty of mathematical mysteries have challenged the human mind since time immemorial. A book on mathematical puzzles, solved and unsolved, and how they shaped human civilizations could be the perfect start to her writing career.
An attendant called Bittoo placed a cup of coffee on her table.
"Thank you so much."
"What a beautiful laptop! Is this yours?"
"Yes, I am about to start writing a book."
"Wow! A mathematics book!"
"Right! But not an ordinary mathematics book with numbers and complicated formulations."
"Well, it will describe the fun side of mathematics and how the subject helped humans become wiser and self-dependent."
"Okay, when will the book be out, Ma'am?"
"Maybe in a year."
"But I don't read English well. How will I understand the book?"
"Don't worry, Bittoo, I will explain everything to you."
As she started plotting the book, the mobile phone lying next to the laptop rang. The screen flashed the name of Professor Rishabh Awasthi, her Ph.D. guide.
"Pratibha, I need to meet you right now."
"Right now, Sir?"
"Is everything all right?"
"Professor Greene from London has sent me a problem on differential geometry. This is a gruesome problem. I have been hitting my head against it. The solution appears to be far out of my reach. Please, Pratibha, you must help me with this.
"Sure, Sir, but can we meet later?"
"No, we need to meet now. Professor Greene wants the solution by tomorrow morning. They will be making a presentation before a group of mathematicians and physicists around 5.30 pm GMT."
"Don't worry, our contributions will be duly acknowledged by Professor Greene."
"Oh, no, that's not of much concern to me, Sir."
"Oh, come on, Pratibha. That must be of primary concern to you. Never compromise on credits that are due to you. The world of academicians is not pretty. Lots of wolves are moving around to claim your hard work and discoveries as their own. Come over now, will you?"
"Okay, Sir, but where do I come?"
"To my University chamber, where else?"
"Fine, I will be there in fifteen minutes."
00:09:29 "What do you make of it?" Professor Awasthi asked as an attendant placed two cups of green tea and French chips on his chamber table.
"This looks like a difficult problem."
"You call it difficult! For years, I haven't seen a problem like this. Imagine — close to two dozen best mathematical minds from all over the world tried solving it. Everyone failed. When Professor Greene called me up to help him out with this problem, I couldn't believe my ears. That man is exceptionally brilliant with differential geometry. For him, not being able to solve a problem is unbelievable."
"Who are the people to whom Professor Greene is going to make the presentation, and what has this problem got to do with the presentation?"
"They will present before a group of top mathematicians from Europe. This group had circulated a set of gruesome mathematical problems to various universities requesting them to provide solutions. The solutions to some of these mathematical problems, the scientific community believes, would be crucial to further research in mathematics and theoretical physics. Experts solved all the problems except for this one. Scientists across the world believe that the solution to this problem will give deep insights into the modern perception of spacetime curvature. The group has pinned its hopes on Professor Greene and his team consisting of internationally renowned mathematicians, which includes me."
"What will happen if Professor Greene and his international colleagues such as yourself fail to give the solution?"
"In that case, a major scientific experiment scheduled to be conducted by top physicists and mathematicians of the world in September this year will have to be deferred. A lot of money and resources will be wasted."
"Okay, so the solution to the problem is that important!"
"Absolutely, Pratibha. Right now, the scientific community recognizes you for some of your brilliant papers the world over. But if you solve this problem, you will be an international celebrity overnight and remembered as one of the best mathematical brains of all times. Go ahead, Pratibha, the world of mathematics needs your services."
"But Sir, there's hardly any time left for me to work on the problem. The best of mathematical minds could not solve it despite spending months. How can I work out the solution in a few hours?"
"At least give it a try. Sometimes miracles happen!"
"Well...okay, Sir, I will do my best."
"Would you like to work in my chamber?"
"Sir, I would rather be in my pet spot."
"You mean the café in Bengali Tola?"
"Yes, Sir," she replied with a smile.
00:12:39 After switching on the laptop and arranging her notes on the table of the small café, Pratibha pulled the chair and sat.
"Good to see you back, Ma'am," Bittoo said as he placed a cup of coffee on the table.
"Till what time is the café open, Bittoo?"
"At least till 1 am. When too many customers are here, we work even beyond one."
"So, I have around eleven hours to work," Pratibha said, looking at her wristwatch.
"Are you going to sit that late?"
"Yes, this work is important."
"Okay, I will bring you coffee and snacks every two hours."
Pratibha laughed. "Sounds wonderful. Thank you so much, Bittoo."
Then she picked up the mobile and dialed her mother's number.
"Hi Mom, I am at the café, will be late."
"Could be midnight."
"What! Don't be crazy."
"Please understand, what I am doing is very important."
"But the roads aren't safe, dear. You must be back by nine."
"Mom, first hear me out. After I am done with the work, Professor Awasthi will pick me up from here and drop me home."
"In the company of that crazy man, you are also losing your mind."
"Oh, come on, Mom, he is one of the leading mathematicians of the country."
When her mother didn't reply, Pratibha could make what might be hovering in her mind.
"Relax, Mom, I know you are thinking about Dad now."
"The word mathematician always brings his images to my mind."
"Please don't cry, Mom. I am sure he is happy in his abode."
After she hung up the phone, the images of her sixth birthday floated through her mind.
"Oh, look at you, my beautiful princess," her father said as he placed a toy train on her little palms, "happy birthday, dear."
As Pratibha's vision got blurred with tears forming in her eyes, Bittoo came over with a plate full of pakodas.
"Is anything wrong, Ma'am?"
"No, Bittoo," she said, wiping her tears.
"But you are ..."
"Nothing is wrong, don't worry. Oh, these look like delicious pakodas. I love them, thanks, Bittoo."
Pratibha spent the next two hours trying to understand the problem. A common approach to problem-solving would do no good. There was something about it that made it different from other problems in differential geometry. More time ticked by as she tried some new and unconventional problem-solving approaches. Well, those didn't work. Now she tried something very different, a methodology not commonly used in the area of mathematics. That too didn't work.
The café owner sitting behind the billing desk said, "You seem to be working on some gruesome problem, Madam."
"Would you like some more coffee?"
"No, Bittoo served coffee a while back."
"Ma'am," Bittoo said while cleaning a table, "you had your last cup of coffee several hours back."
She looked at her wristwatch. It was close to nine in the evening. Intense focus on the problem had made her lose track of time. Even after spending about seven hours, Pratibha had made no headway. But giving up was not in her genes. Her mathematical arsenal harbored several other techniques.
"Okay, give me another cup of coffee," she said.
"What about dinner, Madam?" The owner asked.
"No, only coffee will do; you may give a packet of biscuits as well."
For a long time, she had been sitting in the same posture. So, she stood up and stretched her body as she sipped tea and munched biscuits. The evening life of Bengali Tola visible through the window was still vibrant. Pilgrims were buying materials required for worshiping the deities in the nearby temples from shops that only sold such stuff. Vegetable and fruit sellers and owners of small tin shops selling beetle leaves and cigarettes were doing brisk business. The traffic on the narrow road separating the sidewalks from which the vendors operated was quite heavy.
After finishing the tea and snacks, Pratibha got back to business.
More approaches, more failures — oh, there seemed to be no way the problem could be solved. But the never-to-give-up motto in life kept her trying one method after the other. Nothing worked.
By the time it was eleven, her eyes had got heavy with sleep.
"Where do I place this variable ... here ... no, it doesn't belong here. But how will this variable help ... this is not going to take me anywhere close ... to the solution," Pratibha murmured as she fought her fatigue.
And then all seemed to go dark.
00:18:30 The ring of the mobile phone brought her out of slumber.
"Hello, Mom," Pratibha said after hurriedly accepting the call.
"Look at the time; it is nearing one. When will you be back, Pratibha?"
"Don't worry, Mom; I will call Professor Awasthi to pick me up."
"Oh, my goodness, you are yet to call him!"
"It won't take much time, Mom, relax. I will soon be back."
After disconnecting the line, she looked to her side. No other customer was in sight. Even Bittoo wasn't visible.
The owner behind the billing desk was the only soul other than her in the café. After passing a dull smile, he said, "You had fallen asleep. So, we didn't disturb you. But I was about to wake you up. We must close now."
"Where is Bittoo?"
"He left a while back."
"Can you give me a little more time? I will call up my professor to pick me up from here."
"No problem, Madam, I will wait."
Before dialing Professor Awasthi's mobile number, Pratibha's eyes fell on the notebook in which she was working. For a moment, she thought it was a dream. The solution to the problem was staring at Pratibha's face, written neatly over two open pages of her notebook.
"Who did this?"
"Who solved the problem in my notebook?"
"Madam, no one wrote anything in your notebook. Very few customers came to the café today."
"Are you sure nobody wrote anything in my notebook?"
"One Hundred percent sure. And how would someone write in the notebook over which you slept without your knowledge?"
Indeed, the shop owner was right! There was no way someone could have solved the problem standing close to her without her getting any hint of it. But how did the problem get solved? For sure, Pratibha did not solve the problem; she was sleeping after all. Before she fell asleep, she was far away from the solution.
"Hello," She said on the phone after dialing Professor Awasthi's number.
"Hello, Pratibha. Are you still working on the problem?"
"Sir, I am still at the café,"
"I will come to pick you up. You tried hard; I understand that. Even I tried hard. This appears to be an unsolvable problem. Maybe I should inform Professor Greene that we couldn't solve the problem."
"But Sir, I have the solution."
"What! Repeat what you said."
"Sir, I have the solution."
"Pratibha, I can't believe this! I will be on my way."
00:21:40 Pratibha's wristwatch showed 3 am when they entered the building complex in which she lived in a small apartment with her mother. Till that moment, Professor Awasthi had not checked the solution.
"Show me your notebook now."
"Right now, isn't it too late."
"I need to see the solution. If it is correct, I will begin to regard you as the greatest mathematical mind I have ever worked with. I will rate you over Professor Greene."
Pratibha took the notebook out of her laptop bag and gave it to Professor Awasthi. After putting on the light close to the rear-view mirror, he went through the solution.
"Miracle. This is unbelievable!" 00:22:31
My dear friends and listeners, that brings us to the end of this episode. You might be wondering as to who solved the problem in Pratibha’s notebook. Did Pratibha solve it herself? But she was sleeping, wasn’t she? How could she have solved it if she was asleep? What are we to conclude? Someone else solved it? Well, that sounds unlikely, if not impossible. The café owner made it clear that no one wrote a word in Pratibha’s notebook while she was sleeping. Then who was it? Could the problem have solved itself? Imagine a mathematical problem solving itself. Sounds weird to you? Don’t forget the world is full of mysteries, and most of what happens in the universe are beyond human intellect. Next week when we meet again for the second and concluding part of this story, you will know the answer. And I promise the concluding part will be exciting. See you then.
Thanks for listening to OBSCURUS. If you like what you heard, please subscribe and visit biswajitbanerjee.com for more information about Biswajit's books, movies, documentaries, and other creative pursuits. We shall see you next Wednesday with another episode of OBSCURUS. Till then, take care!