Friday, November 29, 2013 0 reflections

Rediscovering Ramanujan

To say that Robert Kanigal's book “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is about the life and times of Indian Mathematician extraordinaire Srinivasa Ramanujan is actually a huge disservice not just to the author but also to the muse. Packed in the pages of this book is so much information on the times that prevailed before and after Ramanujan that the author needs to take a bow for the colossal amount of research he has conducted on every critical aspect of the man's life. Be it examining G.H.Hardy's life before he heard of Ramanujan, or be it the vessel S.S.Nevasa that took Ramanujan from India to England – the book is a treasure trove of information for anyone wanting to genuinely want to know more about the man behind the genius. In writing this bird's eye review of the book I find myself debating what to add and what not to given that almost every page of this fantastic biography is peppered with thousands of little details that go beyond the names of Ramanujan and Hardy.

But first things first – what this book does quite well is demystifies the man we in India (and abroad) have to come know only from the tilted face view of his photograph. As it turns out that photograph was taken during the worse times of his life in England as he prepared to make his journey back home after several months of ill health. Known to be a rather portly fellow Ramanujan fell victim to a bizarre case of TB from which he never fully recovered. Other photographs of him during his early days in England perhaps do more justice to the generous extremities he was actually known for. It is said he looked like a male version of his mother and that is quite a good way to put it.

But his journey into England and then his return to India to draw his final breathe is really the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more that I did not know about this man before reading this book. Like, for instance, the ineffective and almost merciless education system prevalent during those days which disallowed him from having a proper education given his natural affections only towards Mathematics. Or the extremely absurd yet rigid in its roots – the Tripos Mathematics examination – that every Cambridge scholar hoping to become a Wrangler had to take. Or the dozens of people – Indian and British alike – who moved heaven and earth to bypass regulations and rewrote rules to get Ramanujan to Cambridge, to Trinity. Hardy, obviously, played a big role in being the one person who came closest to perhaps knowing what Ramanujan was about (and there is abundant evidence in the book for the contrary) but so were people like EH Neville, a lecturer in Madras, Hanumantha Rao (a math professor at an engineering college), Narayan Iyer (Ramanujan's colleague) and many more such intellectuals who came together to find a way to prove to the West, and to the world really, that Ramanujan was no crank and his theories were no “products of a fake genius” but a talent so rare and powerful that it had to be nurtured, cared for and if at all possible, amplified for generations to come.

The book looks at Kumbakonam of that time (which surprisingly – and refreshingly – even after a century has still retained a lot of its old world charm) which became home for a young Ramanujan. We get to meet his formidable mother, a rather prominent force in his life, Komalatammal – a woman of a strong personality bordering on the irrational. We get to look at young Janaki's life who married Ramanujan at the tender age of thirteen but it would take her six more years to really get to know her husband who spent most of his remaining life in absentia. Her becoming a widow at the young age of twenty and then her struggle for survival in a society that had no mercy for widows makes for a compelling read. We also get a close up look at Hardy who steps out of the one dimensional image of being “that Brit with whom Ramanujan collaborated” and gets a background, a human face and soul and is layered with various levels of style, charisma, precision and elegance both as a mathematician and as an Englishman. A man who was forced to come out of his social shell to accommodate the rare talent in Ramanujan. As the author at one point states - “Hardy did not discover Ramanujan. It was Ramanujan who had discovered Hardy.” This rings true throughout their journey as two perfect contradictions in every imaginable way brought together for the love of numbers and the beauty of infinity.

The book is also loaded with a lot of interesting mathematics. It occurred to me while reading the book that had I been (and I speak for a lot of my generation) introduced to mathematics in a fun way which made the connections seem logical I would perhaps had a better appreciation (and who knows, even love!) for the subject. But the reason I feel maths is hated around the world as a popular opinion is the bizarre and unnecessarily complicated ways in which it is learnt and taught across the board. The book, through simple examples of theories like continued fractions or mock theta functions or the prime number series captures such fantastic patterns that for a brief fleeting moment I could not help but admire the fun aspect of mathematics.

The book also spends considerable time on the Brahminical roots that Ramanujan was woefully tied to. Given his orthodox ways in the religion and an absolute refusal to adapt to Western diets despite his falling health and consistent appeals from physicians it makes for a frustrating read in some parts as we watch a true gift, a miracle, wither away because of lessons he had picked up as part of his life before England. Much of his belief in God and the infinite nature of the universe stemmed from his love for mathematics. This is perhaps why his famous statement on equations and god's thought is so prominently heralded to this day. For him there was truth in all gods and yet his obstinate attitude towards anything alien, his gradual disconnection from the realms of reality, his slow descent into depression towards his final days in England – all point to a mentally fragile individual who had the nerves for mathematics but little else. His erratic eating habits, lack of exercise, reluctance in being part of a culture that was so different from his own – all add up eventually to bring to him the lethal disease.

The book ends, as expected, with Ramanujan's death at the age of thirty two resembling a “bag of bones” due to his abnormal weight loss. It then goes on to talk about the events that took place after that, leading up to the 1980s when a lot of his theories were found and examined by prominent mathematicians around the world. To this day a lot of his work remains a mystery as more talents try to figure out just how a semi-educated poor Brahmin from an almost nondescript town in Southern India had the vision to formulate such complex equations to begin with. I guess that will forever remain a fascinating story to tell indeed.

After several years of knowing about Ramanujan and having seen only glimpses of his work in passing I am finally happy that through Kanigel's book I finally got a front row seat to not only his life but also those whom he touched and inspired. His collaborations from 1914 until 1920 are perhaps one of the most significant ones in the history of world mathematics. I only hope that more people (and not just Indians – although I do feel this book should be compulsory reading in all Indian schools) get to know the man behind the genius to fully appreciate and acknowledge what a rare talent had been born in what was supposed to be an extremely poor, immensely diseased and unashamedly uneducated part of the world.

I can only hope that India continues to recognize and support millions of Ramanujans who, even as I write this, are struggling to get their ounce of recognition in a society that cares only for the shallow requirements of an equally shallow world outside.