Inside India #27: Ramanujan – The Man Who Dreamed of Infinity

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

In 2016, a film entitled The Man Who Knew Infinity was released, to considerable critical acclaim. Starring Indian actor Dev Patel, it chronicled the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematical genius whose work has been hailed as revolutionary by modern science, yet whose life had long remained shrouded in myth and mystery.

Even now, Ramanujan’s legacy remains a perfect blend of Indian spirituality and western modernity.

Picture attribution: Konrad Jacobs Creative Commons 2.0

Born in 1887 in Madras during British rule, Ramanujan initially did well in school, but later dropped out of college. A second stint at university also failed, due to Ramanujan’s penchant for focusing on mathematics to the detriment of all other subjects. 

Undaunted, he carried on pursuing his passion, making extensive scribblings in a series of now-famous notebooks, discovering numerous formulae, some already known to the mathematical world, some startlingly original.

Following the publication of an article in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society, Ramanujan began to correspond with renowned Cambridge University mathematician, G.H. Hardy.

So impressed was Hardy with Ramanujan’s unorthodox but brilliant work that he invited him to Cambridge.

Hardy, like many, was initially perturbed by Ramanujan’s habit of not providing proofs for his results. Unlike many others, however, he was willing to give the Indian the benefit of the doubt, saying, of Ramanujan’s results: “I had never seen anything in the least like them before. A single look at them is enough to show that they could only be written by a mathematician of the highest class. They must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”

Ramanujan himself claimed that many of his results came to him in sleep, during dreams, given to him via the Hindu goddess Namagiri. He famously said, “An equation has no meaning for me unless it expresses a thought of God.”

During his years at Cambridge, Ramanujan forged an abiding friendship with Hardy, though Hardy, an atheist, never really came to terms with the Indian’s insistence that spirituality played a part in his genius. Ramanujan’s intuitive mathematical ability continued to astound the Englishman. One of the most famous anecdotes of their interaction comes from Hardy himself, a story of a visit he made to see Ramanujan in hospital. “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 unfavourable 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.”

(This is, of course correct. (1729 = 13 + 123 and also 93 + 103.) 1729 is now known as Ramanujan’s number.)

Never physically robust, Ramanujan was forced to return to India in 1919 due to protracted ill health – he died a year later at the age of 32. 

His mathematical legacy has grown with the passing years. During his short life, he independently compiled nearly four thousand results, many of them highly original; astonishingly, nearly all have subsequently been proven correct. His body of work has inspired many new areas of mathematical research, and his notebooks—containing summaries of his published and unpublished results – have been mined as a source of new mathematical ideas.

In 1976, Ramanujan’s so-called ‘lost notebook’ was discovered in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge.  More a collection of papers rather than an actual notebook, the sheets nevertheless contained some six hundred mathematical formulae discovered during the last year of Ramanujan’s life. The discovery was one of the most significant in the world of mathematics for decades. Some of the formulae have been found to be useful for calculating the entropy of black holes.

Among his many accolades, Ramanujan was the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College.

One can only conjecture how many more contributions to the field he would have made had he lived longer.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

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