The mathematician and musician
Few professors would be caught wearing jeans and a Hawaiian T-shirt. But Manjul Bhargava GS '98 of the math department isn't your typical professor.
At age 30, Bhargava has already finished graduate school, won numerous prestigious awards, been named as one of Popular Science magazine's "Brilliant 10," traveled the world on a Clay Fellowship, worked at the Institute for Advanced Study and received tenure. Today at Oxford University, he will be adding another accomplishment to that list: the Clay Research Award.
"At mathematics he's at the very top end," said Peter Sarnak, a colleague and a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study. "For a guy so young I can't remember anybody so decorated at his age. He certainly started out with a bang and has not let it get to his head, which is unusual. Of course he couldn't do what he does if he wasn't brilliant. It's his exceptional talent that's so striking."
Bhargava works in number theory, one of the oldest branches of math. But Bhargava has made discoveries in certain composition laws that have not been explored for two centuries.
"This work for which he's getting his prize was extremely original and unexpected, and that's partly why he's getting this prize. He was able to use them in [a] very masterful way and solve other longstanding unsolved problems," Sarnak said.
Though number theory has become more of an applied science in recent years, with uses in coding and cryptography, Bhargava enjoys its beauty and simplicity.
"If you're thinking about the application and trying to solve the problem, it hinders you, but if you're just following your nose, then you come upon math that is most likely to be viable," Bhargava said.
Music and math
Bhargava draws much of his mathematical inspiration from his love of music. An accomplished tabla player, he has studied with Zakir Hussain, a renowned maestro of the classical Indian instrument, and was instrumental in convincing Hussain to spend the semester at the University. The class on music appreciation is one of the most popular in the music department this fall.
In Bhargava's point of view, music and math are both forms of art, only in different languages.
"Music can be appreciated by a very large audience, but mathematics has language to it that takes some time to learn before you can start working in it. That's why it's sometimes harder to convey that beauty to those who haven't learned the language yet," Bhargava explained.
Though the connection between math and music may be hard to see, Bhargava likes to use the tabla as an example.
"A lot of math comes into the study of music and part of the study of rhythm. Certain rhythmic pieces for the tabla involve long and short strokes. A long stroke takes two beats of time and a short stroke takes one beat of time. If you have eight beats, how many different ways can you fill them with the strokes?"
The answer, Bhargava said, is the eighth number in the Fibonacci sequence, 34. In fact, the sequence had been known to Indian musicians as the Hemachandra numbers long before Fibonacci discovered it.
The student as professor
If Bhargava weren't the one at the front of the classroom giving the lecture, one might think he was a friendly, soft-spoken student.
"It's totally weird. In fact many times I don't feel like a professor because all my teachers are still around me," Bhargava said. "They always tell me that 'you're my colleague now,' but sometimes I forget that and call them 'professor.' That's been pretty hard to get used to."
Being tenured sets Bhargava apart from friends his age — few of whom have tenure — and it allows him to take more chances in his work.
"A lot of the time I have trouble collaborating with people who are the same age because they might not be willing to or can't work on riskier things," Bhargava said. "I've been in subjects where nobody was working and people thought there was nowhere to go anymore. If you do find something there, it has a big payoff, but the chance it's going to work is a little less. If you're at a point in life where you don't have tenure and people want you to produce things you're more likely to take the surer path."
Bhargava acknowledged that being youthful and a professor allows him to connect more easily with students; in fact, most of his friends are students rather than faculty.
"It helps a lot having been a student so recently," he said. "I remember the places where I got stuck and how to help, it's all in recent memory."
But Wei Ho, a second-year graduate student advised by Bhargava, believes what really sets him apart is not his age or his position, but how down-to-earth he is and his wide range of interests.
"He ends up being a very good role model because he has so many other interests," she said. "He plays tennis and goes to the U.S. Open every year; he plays video games and just does things that sound like fun. We talk about Harry Potter, about current events and pop culture ... You can really connect with him."
Bhargava is rumored to have met another one of his advisees in the graduate student lounge when they were watching the final episode of "Friends."
Ho also testified to Bhargava's skill as a lecturer. She chose to come to the University for graduate work after being taught by Bhargava while he was visiting for a semester at Harvard.
"The way he taught made me say, 'Wait a minute, I really like this stuff. I want to be a mathematician.' I understood why people care about the things he talked about and that really made a difference for me personally," Ho said.
Sarnak is not surprised by Bhargava's success with his students.
"He is very charming and not arrogant," Sarnak said. "I think he will find himself having a tremendous number of graduate students because he has kind of a magnetic personality."
Princeton vs. Harvard
Bhargava, who did his undergraduate work at Harvard and graduate work at the University, was coveted by both institutions when it came time for him to find a teaching post.
"The minute we set eyes on him and saw his work we made sure he didn't go anywhere else," Sarnak said. "It is one of our worries to make sure we keep him here. We had to play our cards carefully and we seem to have played them correctly."
Bhargava said he chose Princeton because of the opportunities to work with many of his closest advisers, increased flexibility offered by the University and the beautiful campus.
"My negotiation skills are not very good," Bhargava said. "I never thought I would be back here tenured in two years. I love what I do and would've been happy anywhere. Being at Princeton is just a big bonus."
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