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Ramanujan (redux)

Posted by Arjendu on November 7, 2015

At one point in the past, I used to write for an Indian-American print magazine, which later found my ramblings to be ‘not the right fit’ and I haven’t done that for a while. But while I was writing for that magazine, I would occasionally produce longer pieces on things of interest to that community. I frankly don’t remember if this piece on Ramanujan was ever published. It is somewhat dated, but still I thought it worth sharing (or at least, like a good stingy academic, worth not throwing away).

All of a sudden there is what feels like a Ramanujan celebration going on. There is very recently released historical fiction book about him and his mentor G.H. Hardy, called ‘The Indian Clerk’ (despite the title, mostly about Hardy) by the popular and renowned writer David Leavitt that has received glowing reviews in the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Weekly among other places. I should note that Margaret Wertheim’s review in the LA Weekly is a work of art in itself, and still easily accessible online.

The release of this book follows on the heels of an off-off-Broadway production of the play ‘First Class Man’ by David Freeman, which has Ramanujan as one of the primary characters, again considering his relationship with Hardy. More recently, the play ‘A Disappearing Number’ where Ramanujan’s character has a prominent part, was a sold-out production in October 2007 at the Barbican in London. As of this date, there are in the works two films on Ramanujan’s life, one co-directed by Stephen Fry and Dev Benegal. It’s clear that Ramanujan’s life is of relevance to the present, and in an era where the Minneapolis Star Tribune sees fit to run the Los Angeles Times review of Bollywood pop releases, it makes sense that this interest in one of India’s intellectual greats is not confined to India. But this isn’t a particularly special anniversary nor are there particularly wonderful new mathematical developments based on his work. Then what, apart from Ramanujan’s sheer brilliance makes his life such a compelling story today?

Srinivas Ramanujan Iyengar was born a hundred and twenty years ago in Erode, Tamil Nadu. This was a special time in subcontinental scientific history: Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman, Satyendra Nath Bose, and Meghnad Saha are of the same era. All of those scientists produced work of the absolutely highest quality, which depended on their access to the best education possible. Ramanujan stands out in this respect — unlike the others, he was not from a particularly technologically inclined or distinguished family. His father was a clerk in a sari shop in Kumbakonam, as was his paternal grandfather. His mother was descended from a slightly more educated family, but at the time of Ramanujan’s birth, was a manager for a temple complex. He showed an early aptitude for mathematical thinking, and was acknowledged by teachers and friends as being ‘off-scale’: smart at a level not seen before by them. He did not manage to go through the standard march of academic success despite this, failing his non-mathematics courses and losing his college scholarship. He landed up as a clerk in a colonial accounts office, indulging his passion for mathematics on his own time.

During this time, however, as an impoverished, somewhat ailing young man outside the academic mainstream, Ramanujan produced some results in the abstract area of mathematics known as number theory. All those who saw glimpses of his work knew they were seeing something special, and in keeping with the standard practice, encouraged him to find a mentor in Britain. He sent some of his results to a few mathematicians there, but did not get a truly useful response until he wrote to G.H. Hardy. Hardy looked at the nine pages of results he was sent, and was quick to recognize the brilliance of the work, but was initially certain that these could not possibly those of an ‘untrained’ person. He soon got past this — he is said to have commented that these “[theorems] defeated me completely; I had never seen anything in the least like them before …[but they] must be true, because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.” He then managed to persuade Ramanujan to get over his Brahmanical constraint against traveling overseas and come to Cambridge for five years, where he collaborated extremely fruitfully with Hardy and Littlewood. In his time in England, he earned the equivalent of a Ph.D., was elected to the London Mathematical Society, and became one of the youngest Fellows in the entire history of the Royal Society. Ramanujan was never the healthiest of men, and living in cold, damp Blighty, with not the greatest access to comfortable and familiar food or living conditions was not very good for him. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and sent to a sanatorium for a while before returning home and dying at the tragically young age of 32.

Ramanujan’s mathematical results have continued to astonish and challenge mathematicians since, and his work has since found unexpected applications in cancer research, string theory, and crystallography, to give some random examples. There have been several interesting biographies on him, of which I would particularly recommend ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigel, apart from the above which, you might have noticed, are increasingly about fictional explorations of Ramanujan — his life and his work. As with Einstein, and more recently as with the relationship between quantum physicists Bohr and Heisenberg explored so brilliantly by Michael Fraym in the play `Copenhagen’, Ramanujan has become part of the popular culture, part of the mythology of humanity. Here elements to his life that point to why this is true.

For instance, I don’t know if you’ve every thought about something mathematicians wonder about: Are mathematical truths ‘out there’, like a mountain or a planet, and are all the methods and training used by mathematicians just tools to help us get to these new intellectual places? Or are mathematical truths ‘constructed’ from the tools and training imparted to mathematicians? Ramanujan’s astonishing life is actually used often as anecdotal evidence in this debate on whether mathematics is ‘discovered’ or ‘invented’. It is argued that the fact that he ‘saw’ so many of these amazing truths with such little training, which far more trained people had to struggle to see, is evidence that mathematics must be an absolute truth, to be discovered. The counter argument, a little thinner and harder to justify, is that this is sheer prejudice against people who do not grow up in the intellectual mainstream — that Ramanujan was simply able to ‘invent’ with a few tools what others needed a whole workshop to do.

Or consider why it was that it was Hardy that mentored and collaborated with Ramanujan so successfully. Hardy, a tremendous mathematician, was a member of Cambridge Apostles, a secret society that included Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, G.E. Moore, and Lytton Strachey among the members, and had many closeted gay members. More to the point, Hardy was gay himself. An easy enough hypothesis therefore is that was that it was because as an ‘outsider’ himself, he was more inclined to be sympathetic to outsiders, in some respects. Hardy had a strange perspective on India, gleaned from pageants and passing images from when he was a child. As a result he had a almost filmic notion of what it was like to be Indian, that was ridiculously off-base: Leavitt’s book has him talking about “the vision he has conjured up, in spite of himself, of Ramanujan: a young Gurkha, brandishing a sword.” He couldn’t have chosen an image further from that of Ramanujan’s reality if scripted by a comedian. And what’s interesting is that the New York Times Review of Leavitt’s book seems not to recognize that this is not just a romantic image, it is utterly absurd, so perhaps things haven’t changed much in the hundred years since. The thrill of mentoring an amazing mind like this was an intense experience for Hardy, and he called his association with Ramanujan “the one romantic incident in my life”. It included a struggle between Hardy’s belief that religion of course had nothing to do with Mathematics, and Ramanujan’s contention that his theorems came to him from the goddess Namagiri, for example. This was certainly an intense and complicated partnership.

Perhaps some of you have encountered the equivalent of this. When I was in graduate school in Austin, for example, my social world, as opposed to my intellectual world, included many well outside the mainstream. They helped me negotiate the cultural transition in a way that mainstream Americans never quite managed. It brought a different appreciation to me of the way societies include and disinclude people as those whose words and actions are automatically given respect. It was equally interesting, raised to be intellectually secular, and culturally — well, typical of many in my generation, I did all the rituals my mother asked me to do without thinking about their meaning — to see orthodox Jews, for example, in the Physics and Mathematics community working hard to intellectually reconcile their science and their faith. This tension between faith and science, and between being an outsider and attempting to assimilate will remain true, I reckon, for a long time in the West for desis.

Even beyond that, Ramanujan’s life is echoed in the lives of so many in the United States in particular, and across the West in general. Sheer technical ability is throwing up into prominent and well-rewarded roles desis who are not necessarily from families with a lot of education themselves. And these smart young men and women continue to struggle with many of the same issues: The weather, the cuisine, and the cultural isolation, for example. A good mentor is invaluable in these situations, and how many times does such a person surface?

All good stories — whether real or fictional — have emotional resonances beyond the sheer importance of their actors actions. The tragically short arc of Ramanujan’s life, the improbability of his work, the strangeness of his ‘discovery’ by Hardy, the sense of a repeated immigrant experience, and the first spark of desi technical brilliance visible to the West, ensures that this story is one that will live on for a long time.


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