Aged 20 and the fastest human calculator in the world

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Neelakantha Bhanu PrakashImage source, Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash / Getty Images

You could say Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash is to maths what Usain Bolt is to running.

At the age of 20 he's won India's first ever gold in the mental calculation world championships.

He says maths is a "big mental sport" and his ultimate mission is to "eradicate maths phobia."

Bhanu - as he's known - "thinks about numbers all the time" and is now the fastest human calculator in the world.

He compares mental maths to sprinting, saying nobody questions people who run fast, but there's always questions around the point of mental maths.

"We celebrate someone like Usain Bolt when he does a 100 metre sprint in 9.8 seconds," he tells BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat, "but we don't say what's the point of running quickly in a world with cars and planes."

"It's about inspiring people that your body can do something unimaginable - and it's the same with calculations and maths."

'It keeps your brain engaged'

You might think he was born a maths genius, but that's not the case for Bhanu.

It was an accident when he was five which left him bedridden with a head injury for a year that sparked his amazing maths journey.

"My parents were told I might be cognitively impaired.

"So I picked up mental maths calculations for survival, to keep my brain engaged."

Image source, Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash
Image caption,
Bhanu has been helping people in rural India connect with maths during lockdown

He says coming from a middle-class family in India, the aim is usually to settle for a good job or open a business, and not go into a niche field like maths.

But given his flair for numbers, Bhanu is about to complete his degree in Mathematics.

'A big mental sport'

Like most elite level competitors, Bhanu puts his success down to his preparation.

It's not as simple as sitting at a desk and studying, instead, he sees it as a "big mental sport".

"I've prepared myself to not just be a quick mathematician but a quick thinker."

At a younger age, Bhanu would practise for six to seven hours a day outside of school.

But since winning championships and records, he doesn't "formally practise" as much each day.

Instead, he relies on "unstructured practise where I keep thinking about numbers all the time".

"I practice with loud music on, talking to people, catching and playing cricket, because this is when your brain is being trained to do multiple things at the same time."

He demonstrates this by reciting the 48 times table in the middle of this interview.

"I will just add every taxi number which passes by me. If I'm talking to someone I'm just going to count how many times they blink - creepy as it may sound - it keeps your brain functioning."

'It's about inspiring people'

For Bhanu, his aim is not just to keep breaking records - though he likes doing that too.

"The records and calculations are just a metaphor for saying that the world needs mathematicians. And math has to be fun for us to say that this is a subject we love."

His ultimate mission is to "eradicate maths phobia", as he says lots of people are afraid of numbers.

"Being scared influences the careers they follow and means they don't follow maths."

He says mathematicians are known for being "geeky and nerdy", but competing on an international stage means he has a duty to promote maths as something enjoyable.

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With four world records and multiple other achievements, Bhanu's family are "obviously really proud" of him.

He credits his family for encouraging him and keeping him grounded.

"After I won my first international championship, my uncle suggested I try and be quicker than anyone who had ever lived.

"Never did I ever imagine I'd become the fastest human calculator."

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