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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1554

Ramanujan @125 – mathematical genius who caught glimpses of heaven

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

ramanujan.jpgGoogle, being true to its recent tradition, marked the 125th birth anniversary of Srnivasa Ramanujan, the South Indian mathematician, with a doodle depicting his unique invaluable contributions to the field of mathematics on Saturday. The move resurrected the extraordinary story of a young man who effortlessly defied a catalogue of 20th century obstacles to leave his indelible footprints along the beach of time.

Srinivasa Ramanujan was born on December 22, 1887 in the village of Kumbakonam in South India, about 250km south of Madras. He was a Brahmin and born into abject poverty, to be brought up by an illiterate, but infectiously-devout mother, who inadvertently made the early vital contribution to the amazing progress of Ramanujan, from a humble village boy to a Cambridge-educated mathematician.

I, completely by accident, came across the book, ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigel, about 12 years ago while visiting the bookshop inside the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. The man, indeed, was Ramanujan and the author had brilliantly spelt out the awe-inspiring story in vivid detail which, at times, makes a fiercely-independent reader wonder whether the works should be classified under the category of fables, instead of mathematics or sciences.

Mr Kanigel, who had spent months in collecting important information about the mathematical prodigy in his home town in South India, finally produced the book in 1991. Having understood the fact that the phenomenon of Ramanujan cannot be studied – or analysed - on a platform of mathematics in isolation, Mr Kanigel had made the brave – not very orthodox or popular – decision to highlight how Ramanujan’s ingenuity was inextricably linked to the religion he belonged to and the gods and goddesses that the latter believed in.

The meeting between Ramanujan, then a low-paid office clerk with no formal education, in South India and G H Hardy, the renowned mathematician at Cambridge University in England, was an interesting story itself. The working relationship that grew between Dr Hardy, an atheist and Ramanujan, a devout Hindu, did have all the ingredients of a sort of romance, as the glow of mathematics efficiently erased the shadows of 20th century prejudice, cultural misunderstandings and multitude of other negative factors that got in the way between the two.

It all started with a simple letter sent by Ramanujan to Dr Hardy; by then, the former had made the same move to two other English mathematicians, but to no avail:” I have had no university education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a university course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as 'startling'.”

Unlike other mathematicians, not only did Dr Hardy study the investigations attached to the letter by Ramanujan, but also showed the courtesy by responding to it - and in an encouraging way. By then, Dr Hardy had been mathematically smitten by how Ramanujan arrived at his conclusions, by methods of his own – which even Dr Hardy didn’t know at that time.

Ramanujan could not hide his delight at the receipt of the letter from Dr Hardy:” I have found a friend in you who views my labours sympathetically. ... I am already a half starving man. To preserve my brains I want food and this is my first consideration. Any sympathetic letter from you will be helpful to me here to get a scholarship either from the university of from the government.”

According to Mr Kanigel, Dr Hardy moved heaven and earth to bring Ramanujan to Cambridge in the early 20th century: an orthodox Brahmin – a vegetarian – for a life in England which most of the time was cold, wet and damp even within the impressive walls of the Trinity College. Ramanujan came to England in 1919 against all odds.

Despite the initial setbacks, it was the beginning of an extraordinary collaboration which made an immense contribution to the field of mathematics. Ramanujan was instrumental in adding almost 4000 significant results – independently arrived at - to the field of mathematics while working with Dr Hardy during his short earthly-life.

Even a century later, conventional mathematicians have been baffled by his discoveries and the way he derived them in his own ways. Ramanujan’s prime, Ramanujan’s theta function, Ramanujan’s sum, Ramanujan’s conjecture stand out among his most notable contributions.

Ramanujan’s method of working even intrigued his Cambridge mentor, Dr Hardy, because the former used to highlight the spiritual factor in his discoveries that the latter, an atheist, could neither accept nor completely reject as pure ‘nonsense’. Dr Hardy, instead, quite happily let that aspect of the discoveries slip into the history of ‘unexplained’.

There were times, however, even Dr Hardy was forced to turn inwards when Ramanujan once famously said, “an equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” Before coming to England, Ramanujan used to tell his Indian friends that goddess Namagiri, his family goddess, used to whisper the mathematical secrets into his ears even during his childhood, when asked to explain his brilliance at dealing with numbers.

Dr Hardy was convinced that Ramanujan was using a faculty other than human intelligence in producing wonders in the field of mathematics. Of course, Dr Hardy could not embrace the Hindu factor for obvious reasons; so, he was fairly comfortable in associating Ramanuja’s gift with intuition, having experienced one aspect of the gift in unusual circumstances which had some comical tone to it:” 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 unfavourable omen. "No," Ramanujan replied, "it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways!” And, indeed, it is the case – 1729 = 13 + 123 = 93 + 103 .

As most child prodigies, if not all, Ramanujan did not live long after making a unique contribution to mankind. He died at the age of 33 on April 20, 1920, after making his trip back to India; so, he became the Mozart of mathematics, as the two had quite a few similarities.

Ramanujan had left volumes of notebooks which are still being analysed by mathematicians all over the world while knowing very well they will never find out how he got them. We all, however, owe him a great deal as we collectively benefit from them on daily basis in the fields, ranging from computing to medical science.

- Asian Tribune -

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