SINGAPORE: It was a Math Olympiad puzzle for 14-year-olds here that went viral in 2015: The question about “Cheryl’s birthday”, which stumped grown-ups and made headlines round the world.
Aarushi Maheshwari solved it at the age of nine.
“I got really excited because it was a perfect mix of logic and maths,” said Aarushi, now 11.
That flush of excitement over such problems, however, comes only occasionally to her – the downside of being a maths marvel. She added matter-of-factly: “In maths, I find myself often bored.”
This, noted her mother Sulata, is “always a challenge” to deal with, for any school.
When Aarushi was two and a half years old, she could “fluently” go through Oxford Reading Tree books for four- to five-year-olds, Mrs Maheshwari told the programme On The Red Dot in its series on Wonder Kids. (Watch the episode here.)
At four or five, Aarushi started showing interest in maths, testing two grades higher than children her age in preschool. Since then, she has been on a constant search for one challenge after another.
It’s like I’m an explorer in a dark house. I’m slowly illuminating the candles, and everything is slowly coming to light.
“There are endless rooms in this house, and I can just keep on going and figuring out tons of new things. And I can never stop," she said.
The child in her said: “When I found out that I was a lot better than other kids my age, I was partly surprised and partly feeling, ‘Oh, this is pretty cool.’”
She is not stopping at maths either. At the age of seven, she became a chess champion. And she is now testing herself by playing blindfold chess.
TURNING TO OLYMPIAD FOR A CHALLENGE
While her mother “didn’t think too much” of her early reading ability, thinking instead that it was “normal”, the family took notice of her academic giftedness after she was drawn to maths.
Her father Shyam said: “She started commenting on topics which were much higher-level than what she should have been able to comprehend.”
Her older brother Arunav, who at 13 is also gifted in mathematics and logic, recognised that she was able to “grasp concepts” quickly. “She started contributing to conversations, listening and giving new ideas and insights,” he said.
Her parents did not want her to skip grades, however. Said Mrs Maheshwari: “We wanted her to have a normal childhood with children her age.”
WATCH: Dealing with the pressure of her gift (4:48)
So to push her limits, Aarushi decided herself to “take up the challenge of the Math Olympiad”. The Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiad is one of Asia’s largest maths contests, with more than 20,000 participants from 19 countries.
It was in this competition that she came across the puzzle about when “Cheryl’s birthday” was. In 2015, she won an Olympiad gold award and was ranked second in Singapore among her peers.
When she was 10 years old, she took the American Mathematics Contest for grade eight students (13-year-olds).
Her parents are happy to see her holding her own in such events, though her mother stressed that gold medals and trophies are far from their minds when it comes to their children.
Mrs Maheshwari said: “Our primary objective was: Will they receive more of a challenge, and how do they think they can fare in a competition that is beyond their own school?”
Aarushi can also count on her brother to set her challenges.
Take, for example, the question of how to traverse all the bridges connecting Marina East, the Singapore Flyer, Gardens by the Bay and the National Stadium, crossing each bridge only once, with the same starting and ending point.
This is like the Konigsberg bridge problem, which is usually taught at university and which mathematician Leonhard Euler resolved in 1736, laying the foundation for graph theory.
“The fact that my sister was able to solve a problem very similar to this one is quite incredible,” said Arunav.
SIBLING ACT, INDIVIDUAL IDENTITIES
Both siblings show and profess an admiration for each other, while also stressing their individual identity. Said Arunav: “Certainly we’re wired differently, in terms of thinking about things around us and how we think about them in numbers.”
For her part, Aarushi is inspired by “the way he thinks”, and usually joins his chess training sessions, especially close to competitions, to develop her play. But she does not like to compare herself to him, she said.
I just want to be the best mathematician and the best chess player that I can be.
Having two gifted children, their father said the challenge was “to keep them motivated” despite the limitations on their parental ability to help.
Nonetheless, the couple are no slouches themselves. Mrs Maheshwari said: “My husband and I graduated from one of the top schools in India, the Indian Institute of Management. Probably that says there’s some genetic influence on what their outcomes are.”
Still, both parents agree on the importance of nurture, if their children are to achieve their full potential.
Said Mr Maheshwari: “Without encouragement, they won’t realise what they’re good at. For children, the gift will take them only this far, unless they have that ability to work hard and on a continual basis.”
So, for example, knowing that his children are impressed by the way World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen can play chess blindfolded, he challenged them to do the same.
In blindfold chess, players cannot see or touch the pieces, forcing them to keep a mental image of their positions – the kind of challenge Aarushi likes. She said: “Because I’ve to remember where the pieces are, it stretches my mind.”
Four years ago, she was already a champion when she won the Hong Kong Inter-School Team Chess Championship in the seven-to-eight age category for girls.
A year later, at the annual National Day Celebrations Chess Challenge of the Chess Academy (Singapore), she was the overall champion among boys and girls.
She compares chess to a “mathematical poem”: “The pieces resemble shapes, and they show their beauty through the geometry of the chessboard and the logic of the rules of play.”
CHERYL'S BIRTHDAY PROBLEM PART 2
In February, she took part in the Hong Bao Rapid Chess Tournament, and the lead-up to that competition showcased two sides of her: A player striving to get better and better - and the child who wants to break free sometimes.
The day before was her birthday, which she spent with family and friends. “The mind wanted me to move on to chess, but the heart wanted me to have fun and just relax for a bit,” she said.
“I felt a tiny bit guilty in the back of my mind, like did I practise enough?”
At the tournament, Aarushi won third place in her category, for which she was “grateful” and “surprised”. “But I think that I definitely could’ve done better,” she said.
And it showed as she tried to muster a smile during the award ceremony, and afterwards.
While peer pressure does not affect her daughter, said Mrs Maheshwari, the girl does “set standards for herself” and tries to meet them. Aarushi also shared:
Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, where everyone’s like, ‘Oh, how come Aarushi didn’t get this?’ As if they’re expecting something of me, and I’ve to live up to that reputation.
As she was feeling downcast after the chess competition, her mother got her to meet mathematics educator Joseph Yeo, who helps to set the Math Olympiad questions and who has been Aarushi’s hero since the puzzle about “Cheryl’s birthday”.
This time, he challenged her to solve part two of the problem: Finding out Cheryl’s age. She said: “The problem had a tremendous amount of logic and a modest amount of mathematics for 16-year-olds.”
And when he praised her for solving this, she replied softly, “thank you”, with a slightly shy smile. His message to her – follow her passion for maths – is one she takes to heart.
Citing the pioneering Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, who died last year, Aarushi said: “Maths is like that eureka moment when you solve a problem; it’s like when you climb a hill and have a clear view of everything.
“But the hike you took to get there is the most important part. There are many obstacles on the way; there’s no path in sight, there’s no trail, no directions. You’re just free to go wherever you want … The possibilities are endless.”
On The Red Dot profiles four gifted children, exploring the sacrifices they and their families make and the challenge of pursuing their potential without losing their childhood. Watch the series here.