Tathagat Avatar Tulsi, who teaches at IIT, Mumbai, has received offers from abroad but says he would rather work for the Indian government or an Indian company Image Credit: Supplied

Twenty-three-year-old Dr Tathagat Avatar Tulsi is an assistant professor who teaches physics to students his own age at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai.

But that is not what he had his heart set on. Dr Tulsi's childhood ambition was to win the Nobel prize. However he said his latest ambition was to serve society through his scientific work.

And judging by his track record, it's only a matter of time before he achieves his dream.

Dr Tulsi said it was great being at the Indian Institute of Technology.

"This was a dream career option for me and I am very happy to be a part of it," he said.

"Thanks to the massive media coverage, most of the students recognised me and respect me as a teacher.

"I don't think my age makes any difference to them and I, too, do not let it hinder the teacher-student relationship."

A child prodigy, Dr Tulsi became India's youngest PhD holder at the age of 21, graduating from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. Tathagat claimed that his PhD thesis of 33 pages was the shortest in India.

With this PhD, Dr Tulsi joined an elite international group.

Dr John Forbes Nash, the American mathematician, was 21 when he completed his PhD at Princeton University.

Dr Stephen Wolfram, the British physicist and software developer, got his doctorate at the age of 20 from the California Institute of Technology, and Dr Chan Yaoban, a mathematics student, completed his PhD at the age of 21 at Melbourne University.

The title of Dr Tulsi's thesis was Generalisations of the Quantum Search Algorithm. "In quantum computing, scientists are trying to harness the peculiar counter-intuitive quantum mechanical laws of nature for faster, smaller and more powerful computers," he said.

"Present-day computers are classical. The fastest one today is a car compared to the jet aeroplane that a quantum computer is. Quantum computing is useful for a group of challenges called optimisation problems — helping businesses to maximise profits with minimum investment," he said.

Dr Tulsi was born on September 9, 1987, in Patna, the capital of India's Bihar state, to lawyer Tulsi Narayan Prasad and teacher Chanchal Devi. His early school years were spent in the city of his birth. "I skipped the kindergarten level and started from Class 3," he said.

The scientist said his passion for quantum physics began on his sixth birthday when his father presented him with A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. The whiz-kid finished the book in three days.

"Even at the age of six, I had the ability to solve complex mathematical problems and would do calculations without using a paper and pen," he said.

"Because of this, I became popular in Bihar as the ‘Computer Brain'. Around that time, I took the decision to become a scientist and started working hard to achieve this goal."

But Dr Tulsi said he felt threatened by his classmates who said they wanted to see what was inside his head. He soon left school to study at home. "My parents were very understanding and supportive and decided to move to Delhi in 1994 for my sake," he said.

The journey from Bihar to Delhi turned out to be a success. Tathagat joined Class 6 and completed a year's study in three months. He spent the remaining nine studying for Class 10 and decided to sit for the Class 10 examinations, skipping the three levels in between.

But it wasn't easy. "My parents gave a green signal but the Central Board of Secondary Education thought otherwise," Dr Tulsi said. "I had to move the Delhi High Court and only then was I allowed to sit for the examination."

Dr Tulsi set a world record in 1997 by clearing Class 10 at the age of nine years and five months, scoring 65 per cent.

The earlier record was held by Lord Kelvin, known for the Kelvin scale of temperature measurement, who in 1834 had cleared Class 10 when he was 10 years and four months.

The young physicist's intense desire to earn degrees at such a young age made him a target of envy among his older peers. But there was no stopping him.

He became the youngest graduate by earning his bachelor's degree in physics at the age of 10 and a masters degree at 12. With this, he made an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the "Youngest Masters Graduate".

These achievements earned him several awards and honours, and worldwide recognition. But all along, his brothers Pita Maheshwar and Vishwa Purush have remained his best friends, the scientist said.

As a child, he didn't play with toys and enjoyed spending time with books. Dr Tulsi said he loved discussing mathematics and physics, which people found intriguing for a boy of his age.

Only his parents understood their child. Neither of them imposed their will on him, or forced him to play or do anything he didn't wish to do. Tathagat was clear about his priorities in life then, as now.

The physicist said he had received a lucrative offer from Waterloo University in Ontario to join them as a research fellow and also from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal, which had offered him a permanent position as assistant professor. But not one to be easily lured, Dr Tulsi said: "I want to complete my research in India and I will be happy to work with the Indian government or any Indian company."


Feathers in Tathagat's cap

  • The Government of India's National Child Award for exceptional achievement in the field of education in 1999.
  • Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's Junior Research Fellowship in physics in 2002.
  • Research Fellowship at Bell Laboratories in the United States in 2005.
  • Invited to dinner with Al Gore in Milano, Italy, in 2007.

Short road to professorship

  • Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash became a professor at 21 at Princeton University.
  • Stephen Wolfram, a child prodigy, became a professor at the age of 21 at Caltech. He founded the Mathematica company.
  • Martin Harvey Friedman became a Stanford University professor at 19.
  • At present, 19-year-old Alia Sabur is the world's youngest professor at Southern University, New Orleans.

- Nilima Pathak is a freelance writer in New Delhi.