The Man Who Knew Infinity

Knew Infinity

22nd December marks the 130th birth anniversary of Srinavasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan is one of India’s greatest mathematical geniuses. He has been the subject of many books and movies recently. In a short life of 32 years, he has managed to transform and reshape mathematics whose effects can still be seen in modern day mathematics. The work he has left in his notebooks is being used by physicists to explore the universe and understand it.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about him is that he was self-taught and received little formal education. He was mathematically gifted as a child. Many of the certificates he won as a child in school are put on display in his school in Kumbakonam. As he neglected some of his non-mathematical subjects, he was unable to get into college. There is a famous story which Prof. G. H. Hardy, his mentor and friend, narrated illustrating Ramanujan’s spontaneous brilliance. Prof. Hardy in one of his lectures says “I remember once going to see him when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”

Many have spoken about his deep ‘intuition’ and understanding of the subject. The computational methods to arrive at some of his theorems were not developed till the 1970’s and 80’s. Ramanujan attributed many of his theorems to being revelations by Goddess Namagiri. He is believed to have said, “While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing”. This can be seen in the reverence with which he approaches the subject where he said, “An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God”.

Perhaps the most tragic part of his life was his return to India. While the world was looking at him in awe, his fellow Indians chose to looked down upon him and illtreat him. Upon returning to India in 1919, Ramanujan was received with a very harsh welcome. The Brahmin orthodoxy branded him an outcast as he had crossed the sea. He and his wife were denied a house to live in. Excommunication from the community was a harsh act and brought with it a lot of hardships. His illness relapsed and he died in a few months. During those months, he continued to work on mathematics. These works were found much later and published as his ‘lost notebook’.

We must perhaps take this occasion to pause and think why such geniuses who were born in India chose to go abroad. Why is it that their work was recognized and valued outside rather than at home (post the fact, it was and always is)? Ramanujan was certainly not the first genius to have received such treatment. Nor will he be the last.
The second question revolves around having to find such geniuses and recognize their work? Prof. Hardy in one of his lectures while talking about Ramanujan’s inability to pursue his passion and economic pressures to find a job says “The years between eighteen and twenty-five are the critical years in a mathematician’s career, and the damage had been done. Ramanujan’s genius never had again its chance of full development”. As most of his work wasn’t being recognized in India, his friends encouraged him to write to Professors abroad which is how he met his to be mentor and friend Prof. G. H. Hardy.

These are two very important questions. In a country with over 1.2 billion people and diverse cultures and traditions, how do we ensure geniuses are found and their talents fully developed? Do we submit to fatalism or do we start creating ways and means to identify such talent very early on in their lives? How do create institutions where they can develop their talents and potential?

-Contributed by Bhargav Dhakappa

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