A ‘ge­nius’ abroad

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A FORMER child maths prodigy who be­came the youngest stu­dent at Cam­bridge Univer­sity in 200 years was in North Cyprus this week to de­liver a talk — and is eye­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of work­ing in the coun­try.

Ar­ran Fer­nan­dez has been var­i­ously hailed as a “ge­nius” and “the next GH Hardy” — in ref­er­ence to the Oxbridge aca­demic best known for his 1940 es­say on the “aes­thet­ics” of math­e­mat­ics, A Math­e­ma­ti­cian’s Apol­ogy.

Now 22, the Glas­gow-born Cam­bridge PhD stu­dent was just five years old when he be­came the youngest per­son to pass a GCSE maths exam – 11 years ear­lier than most can­di­dates.

An only child ed­u­cated en­tirely at home, he went on to ob­tain top-grade A-Lev­els in maths, fur­ther maths and physics, and three more GCSEs be­fore be­ing ac­cepted at Fitzwilliam Col­lege to read maths — the youngest Cam­bridge stu­dent since prime min­is­ter-tobe Wil­liam Pitt the Younger was of­fered a place as a 14-year-old in 1773.

His record-set­ting aca­demic tra­jec­tory saw him ap­pear on Ger­man and Bri­tish TV, in­clud­ing an ap­pear­ance with Terry Wo­gan and Gaby Roslin in 2003, dur­ing which he beat Johnny

Ball in a live men­tal arith­metic con­test.

But talk­ing to Cyprus

To­day this week, a mod­est Mr Fer­nan­dez in­sisted there was “noth­ing spe­cial about me”.

He spoke of hav­ing been “sur­prised and de­lighted” to be in­vited to speak at Gaz­i­mağusa’s East­ern Mediter­ranean Univer­sity (EMU), af­ter be­ing ad­vised by a friend and re­search col­lab­o­ra­tor to get in touch with Pro­fes­sor Mehmet Ali Özarslan, the Dean of the univer­sity’s Fac­ulty of Arts and Sciences.

The pair have even dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of Mr Fer­nan­dez, cur­rently in the last months of his PhD re­search on frac­tional cal­cu­lus, com­ing to work at EMU, of which Mr Fer­nan­dez said: “Could be, yes . . . I’m go­ing to have to make some big de­ci­sions at this point in my ca­reer, about where to go af­ter fin­ish­ing my PhD, and I’m not even sure yet what all the pos­si­bil­i­ties will be.”

His cur­rent work is fo­cused on find­ing a so­lu­tion to the “Rie­mann hy­poth­e­sis” — the un­solved the­ory about the pat­terns of prime num­bers that has baf­fled math­e­ma­ti­cians for 150 years — while in his spare time he en­joys read­ing fan­tasy nov­els and bird­watch­ing.

When he speaks of his sub­ject — fully aware of the dif­fi­culty in try­ing to ex­plain his stud­ies, the­o­ries and for­mu­lae to this lay­man — his eyes glow with pas­sion.

“Lots of people are daunted by maths,” he said.

“They think it’s this big, scary thing that is hard to get their heads around. Some­times this is be­cause it is not taught well, or taught in terms of scary con­cepts. But in essence, the ideas be­hind maths are quite sim­ple, so you can learn all sorts of things just by play­ing with ap­ples. If it’s taught in the right way it’s in­tu­itive and it’s fun!”

He stressed that his own achieve­ments in the field were all down to “mak­ing use of op­por­tu­nity”.

“It’s noth­ing to do with me and my abil­i­ties — it’s a mat­ter of good op­por­tu­ni­ties and good ed­u­ca­tion,” he said.

“I didn’t go to school. I was ed­u­cated at home which en­abled me to work to my own time scale. I didn’t have to take ex­ams like ev­ery­one else, which is how I was able to start univer­sity early.

“So when you ask, ‘What is the se­cret?’, per­haps that is home ed­u­ca­tion.”

“That ed­u­ca­tion in­volved no pri­vate tu­tors; just my­self and my par­ents. Some things I learned from them, some things from text books to­gether. Some­times they were learn­ing as much as I was.”

De­spite the Ca­reer of a Ge­nius ti­tle to his EMU talk, Mr Fer­nan­dez brushed off the “ge­nius” la­bel, com­ment­ing, “Is there such a thing?” and call­ing him­self “just a maths PhD stu­dent”.

“Of course some people achieve great things but of­ten this is just due to be­ing in the right place at the right time . . . or hav­ing the right op­por­tu­ni­ties, know­ing the right people. You can see it all the time in the his­tory of science and maths . . .

“Some­times new con­nec­tions in science are dis­cov­ered just by two people meet­ing each other, when one says ‘oh, I am work­ing on this’ and the other says ‘oh, that’s what I’m also work­ing on’.”

In his own case, he said: “I had par­ents

who were very keen on train­ing me . . . That was the op­por­tu­nity.”

Af­ter his very youth­ful start in academia, he ad­mit­ted to be­ing “kind of em­bar­rassed when people treat me dif­fer­ently some­times ”, and com­mented wryly of the Pitt the Younger com­parny ison: “I don’t have any as­pi­ra­tions to be­come the prime min­nis­ter.”

He re­flected: “On the whole I’ve had a sur­pris­ingly nor­mal time at uni­verd sity given my age and cir­cum­stances. I man­age to fit in sur­pris­ingly well [and] since en­ter­ing Cam­bridge I’ve had more of a nor­mal time scale, [work­ing through] my Bach­e­lor’s, Mas­ter’s and PhD.”

He added: “One of the things I like about Cam­bridge is how in­ter­na­tional it is and how I can meet dif­fer­ent people from all over the world. If it was only Bri­tish people there I def­i­nitely would not be as happy as I am to­day . . .

“At five years of age I said I wanted to be a math­e­ma­ti­cian or an astro­naut con­tent or a lorry with driver. where I am.” So I’m rea­son­ably

Pro­fes­sor Dr Mehmet Ali Özarslan, fourth from left, with Ar­ran Fer­nan­dez and EMU stu­dents

Ar­ran Fer­nan­dez at five hold­ing his maths GCSE re­sults. Ar­ran Fer­nan­dez at seven.

Photo: Kerem Hasan

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