A ‘genius’ abroad
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