Who We Are
Meet Viraj Mehta
Former Jeopardy! contestant reflects on the dark sides of fame and his launch into adulthood.
By Melinda Sacks
Viraj Mehta remembers the “wheelbarrows full of books” his mother brought him from the library while he was growing up in a tiny town in West Virginia. “She thought it was a good thing to expose us to literature and I took to it,” says Mehta, ’18, MS ’18. “That’s how I got all the trivia. I just burned through the books.”
At Stanford, Mehta grew especially fond of mathematics, machine learning and robotics. He also co-founded Airlock Capital, a cryptocurrency hedge fund, with his friend Gabriel Bianconi, ’17. Still, he retained his interest in trivia.
Last year, a dream of his came true when he won a spot on college Jeopardy! His third-place finish came with a check for $25,000. (He botched a question about Richard III in the final round.) But the hoopla that arose after his TV debut gained far more attention than his prize. While demonstrating a math concept called curvature, he inadvertently raised his middle finger, which was caught on camera and frozen into a still photo that went viral. Online trolls raged that Mehta, a good-natured ex-football player from the Heartland, was “flipping off America.”
Mehta graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in computer science. He sat down with STANFORD to discuss the challenges of internet fame and his transition from “practicing” adulthood to full-on life after Stanford.
“My parents wanted me to go to med school. I was really into biology and chemistry in school, but I just didn’t get around to it. Sorry, Mom . . . I fell even more in love with math at Stanford because I was exposed to the beauty of proof-based mathematics and the whole enterprise of axiomatic reasoning. The general logical patterns of deduction, induction and composition are useful in structuring your thinking about everything. I probably won’t go into [a career in] pure math, but I am so glad to have been exposed to it and to have had that background to do machine learning.
‘When I got the call from Jeopardy!, I had just turned 20. It is an extremely hard thing to study for. They don’t give you any advice or anything like that. I had seen Shakespeare and the Bible show up a lot and I didn’t know those things very well, so I studied them. And I flipped through the almanac a lot. Then I watched the show. I was trying to figure out when the fastest people hit the buzzer and trying to get that timing in my head.’
“I can completely explain what happened and where that photo of me with my hands up [appearing to lift the middle finger] came from. I was trying to show a concept in geometry called Gaussian curvature. Somebody told me afterwards that I did this. [He holds up his third finger.] I didn’t think about it until it showed up online. I thought it was funny at first. I had no idea how big a deal it was going to turn into. Some of the online quotes said Donald Trump was going to send me back to Pakistan, which is not where I’m from. I was born in Ohio.
“Internet notoriety is a double-edged sword. I understand how explicitly threatened some people would be by a brown person doing well on TV, but I never expected the backlash. It made me really sad. There is a real dark side to [fame]. I wrote about it in my blog, that [since Trump was elected] it has once again gotten easier to see America as a nation of white people with interloping people of color.
“There was good that came out of it. A high school teacher in Wisconsin sent me an email a few months later; he had watched the episode and read my blog. He took out the swear words [that people had written in online comments] and is using it to teach what the world is like today. Honestly that is one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever gotten. I am glad there was some positive outcome.
“After graduation, my little sister and I are taking a road trip to drive home [to Austin, Texas]. Maybe a month after that I’ll move to New York. Then there are two options. A friend and I have been sort of casually starting a cryptocurrency trading company. Or I have been accepted at Carnegie Mellon to get a PhD in robotics.
“Right now, our company is just two people. Pretty quickly we’ll have to get an office and talk to people so we can set up a life and a business there. I have lived with my parents my whole life or [at Stanford]. I have lived in houses off campus in the summer and practiced being an adult, but it will be pretty interesting to do it for real. I’m hoping when I am home, my mom can teach me Indian cooking.” •
Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer for STANFORD.