Ramanujan: ‘the man who knew infinity’

I saw this movie a week or so ago.  I liked it a lot.  It is about the untutored Indian genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and how the famous British mathematician, G.H. Hardy, invited him to study with him at Cambridge University in England.

It begins with an epigraph quoting Bertrand Russell:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.

The movie shows the interesting and quirky characters of Ramanujan and Hardy as interesting and quirky characters, products of two very different cultures, and the backgrounds of life in Madras, India, in the early 1910s and in Cambridge during World War One.

The two men represented very different ways of knowing.  Ramanujan, the deeply religious Hindu, saw things holistically, as a kind of mystic vision.  The movie shows him in his job as clerk, writing in the sum of a column of numbers without adding them up, yet getting the correct figure.

G.H. Hardy was an atheist.  He didn’t believe in anything that couldn’t be proved.  Ramanujan didn’t want to bother with proofs.  He thought Hardy should just be able to see that his mathematical discoveries were right.

After all, his theorems appeared to work.  You can use the Pythagorean Theorum for estimating measurements without knowing Euclid’s proof.  Except, according to the movie, there was at least one occasion in which Ramanujan was wrong.

Mathematics is an example of a reality that is intangible, yet real.   For Ramanujan, the study of mathematics was a kind of spiritual discipline.

He made a great sacrifice for his love of mathematics.  As a high-caste Hindu, he was considered defiled for crossing the ocean.  He separated from his wife, whom he deeply loved.   He had a hard time sticking to his vegetarian diet, and he suffered from the damp, cold English winters.  Eventually he caught tuberculosis and nearly died.   In fact, he did die, at the age of 32, shortly after he returned to India.

One good thing about life today is that institutions such as Cambridge are sensitive to cultural differences.  A contemporary Ramanujan would be provided with food that he could eat.

Bertrand Russell is a minor character in the movie, and it is interesting to see him in the prime of life, with dark hair and a dark mustache, and not the elderly, white-haired image I hold in my mind.

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One Response to “Ramanujan: ‘the man who knew infinity’”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Really interesting.anne


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