Magic and math ring in cheer for New Yorkers

Princeton University math Professor Manjul Bhargava was appointed as the first Distinguished Chair for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics at The National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Princeton University).

NEW YORK – It’s the month of festival magic, yuletide, when children await presents on Christmas, are on the lookout for a sighting of a merry old man flying on a sleigh. Snowflakes as soft and fragile as gossamer cover pine trees, resplendent bright lights bring cheer to houses. In the Big Apple, magic began early this year, though.

The brilliant Indian American mathematician Dr. Manjul Bhargava, a professor at Yale and Fields Medal winner, has been wowing audiences with a series of riveting lectures at the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) – the only museum dedicated to the subject in North America – as the inaugural Distinguished Chair for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics.

Bhargava, who specializes in number theory, also has been, since October, teaching mini-courses in his areas of expertise, and participated in various MoMath events and initiatives.

Bhargava, named one of Popular Science Magazine’s “Brilliant 10” in 2002, has been on an eight-week course, ‘Math and Magic’, appropriate for ages 13 and up, at MoMath, which comes to an end, on December 12. It’s scheduled to be an annual program at the museum.

The more than 40 state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits at the museum has fascinated and regaled more than 1.5 million New Yorkers and visitors from around the world, since its inception almost six years ago.

Bhargava discussed mathematical concepts such as number theory, coding theory, and cryptography, and how they reveal secrets behind some of the most puzzling and well-known magic tricks, during the program. He also discussed how recent discoveries in math have had important applications in areas beyond magic.

“The finest mathematicians often share their passion in academic and research settings, but their inspiration and excitement are largely inaccessible to the general public in the United States,” said Cindy Lawrence, Executive Director of MoMath, in a statement on the first Distinguished Chair for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics, at the museum. “We will employ that same rigorous level of math but present the subject in a way that has broad popular appeal and connects with math lovers of all ages and abilities.”

For those who missed out on Bhargava’s weaving of magic and math, they can head to another hugely popular exhibition on magic, ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic’, at the New York Historical Society, which will be on view through January 27, 2019.

A hit with fans of all age-groups, the exhibition captures the traditions of folklore and magic at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. It unveils century-old treasures, including rare books, manuscripts, and magical objects from the collections of the British Library and New York Historical Society—with original material from Harry Potter publisher Scholastic and J.K. Rowling’s own archives.

From medieval descriptions of dragons and griffins to the origins of the sorcerer’s stone, the exhibition explore the subjects studied at Hogwarts, with original drafts and drawings by J.K. Rowling, as well as Harry Potter illustrator Jim Kay. There are also costumes and set models from the award-winning play ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’.

The exhibition is accompanied by a special audio tour featuring the voice of actress Natalie Dormer—available to ticketholders as a free Audible download—providing in-depth content on the objects on view.

For fans of magic in India and mind boggling evolution over the centuries, an intriguing, fabulous book – albeit, one to be gone through with plenty of patience – is now on the stands: ‘Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic’ by John Zubrzycki (Oxford University Press; hardcover; 288 pages; $29.95).

India’s association with magicians is well-known with its mythologies and ancient texts replete with acts of gods and men that defy imagination and gravity. Conjurors and illusionists dazzled the courts of Hindu maharajas and Mughal emperors before the British colonized the subcontinent.

In ‘Empire of Enchantment’, Zubrzycki, who worked in India as a diplomat, consultant, tour guide, and correspondent for The Australian – and has to boot a doctorate in South Asian History – dissects how Indian magic developed from its basis in the gods to become part of daily life and popular entertainment across the globe.

Ancient religious texts, early travelers’ accounts, colonial records, modern visual sources, and magicians’ own testimony help build the elaborate picture in the book – which has illustrations too – of India’s magical traditions and recounts Indian magic’s epic journey from street to the stage.

Zubrzycki narrates dizzying display of power; how in the Rig Veda, “the warrior god Indra, the first great magician, employed ‘indrajal’— a net of magic — to ensnare the world, save it from demonic forces and give mankind a reason to live.”

Buddhist priests, the author notes from available records, had “mastered siddhis, or supernatural forces, could cause rain to fall, see far distances, fly through the air and generate living beings out of ashes.”

Zubrzycki writes about the exploits of the renowned Indian magician of the 19th century, Ramo Samee, who was popular in America and Europe, and of Lachee, the “Gum-elastic girl,” who “could thread a needle with her toes while blindfolded and her body contorted in the shape of a hoop.”

Then, there are the fantastical acts of wizards like Kuda Bux, who allowed his eyes to be tightly bandaged but could read any text placed before him; and the amazing P.C. Sorcar who astounded and confounded the world with his act of buzz-sawing a 17-year-old girl in half on British television.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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