A Legendary Creative Math Genius: Srinivasa Ramanujan
A review of the film The Man Who Knew Infinity, directed by Matt Brown.
Posted Feb 02, 2018
Professor Gerald Lambeau: You ever heard of Ramanujan?
Dr. Sean Maguire: ... no.
Lambeau: … lived over 100 years ago. He was Indian, dot (pointing to forehead).
Maguire: Not feathers, yeah.
Lambeau: He lived in this tiny hut somewhere in India. He had no formal education … no access to any scientific work ... he came across this old math book, and … he was able to extrapolate theories that had baffled mathematicians for years…. This Ramanujan, his genius was unparalleled Sean.” (Good Will Hunting, Director: Gus Van Sant)
Srinivasa Ramanujan (12/22/1887—4/26/1920) is a legendary mathematician, but as Shattuck (April 2016) noted he “isn’t exactly a household word.” Thanks to some books, newspapers articles, and the films Good Will Hunting (1997) and The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015), an interest in him as a person and his life circumstances appeared. The latter film brings his brief but brilliant career to life almost nine decades after his death at age 32.
Brought up in poverty with little formal schooling, Ramanujan had an exceptional ability to see patterns in numbers that helped him detect many intriguing results. Even at a young age, without many resources of other peoples’ work or feedback from scholars, he believed that his work was groundbreaking, and he did not want his work to die with him.
A letter to the famed mathematician G. H. Hardy earned him a much deserved mentorship at Trinity College that changed the course of his life as much as it did Hardy’s. Their relationship is well depicted in the film and in Kanigel’s (1991) book. The mentor and mentee had one thing in common—their first love was mathematics.
A Clash of Approaches
Hardy, a well-schooled Englishman, had a worldwide reputation. Shy by nature, he avoided forming close friendships. Ramanujan, an orthodox Brahmin, diligently adhered to his own familiar ways. Being self-taught, he was set in his ways of thinking about and doing mathematics. He enjoyed coming up with theorems, but provided no proofs because it was obvious to him he was 100% right; he did not want to waste his time finding proofs. One thing he definitely wanted was recognition of his cutting-edge work.
Hardy had a plan for mentoring when Ramanujan arrived at Trinity College: Attend lectures, learn Western approaches to mathematics, and most importantly, to work on proofs to make his work credible. Ramanujan did oblige but felt frustrated because his natural inclination was to work intuitively and to provide astounding final results.
An early unfortunate encounter with Professor Howard (Professor Arthur Berry’s in Kanigel’s book and not as dramatically presented, see pp. 201-202) left him flustered as to how he should behave in classes. Howard confronted Ramanajun inquiring if he was following his lecture, Ramanujan smilingly responded, “most excitedly.” However, Howard was not persuaded because he saw he did not take any notes; therefore, he handed him a chalk piece and challenged him to show if he had anything to contribute. When Ramanujan completed the proofs on the blackboard, Howard asked “… I hadn’t completed that proof—how did you know?” The baffled Ramanujan answered: “I don’t know, I just do it.” The professor unconvinced, called him a “little wog ... you don’t belong here, you don’t pull a stunt like that in my class … tell your Master Hardy I said as much, now get out.”
“I don’t know” and “I just do it” as to how he came up with his ideas were responses that did not sit well with Hardy who demanded proofs. In a conversation with Ramanujan, Hardy justified his staunch atheism on the basis that there is no proof that God exists as an example of the importance of finding proofs. However, Ramanajun remained true to his beliefs. Later in the film, as he declares his intention to go back to India, he volunteers to explain the source of his ideas: “My God[ess] Namagiri, she speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep. Sometimes when I pray.” He truly believed in Namagiri as a source of his ideas and urged Hardy to believe what he is saying.
Although Ramanajan and Hardy admired each other and spent hours working together, many episodes suggest something was missing in the relationship. Mathematics defined their relationship, not friendship.
Ramanajun avoided sharing any personal difficulties with Hardy even when he had physical and mental health problems. In an early scene, Ramanujan, a vegetarian, storms out of the dining hall when it was revealed that the potatoes served were cooked in lard. Hardy sensing a problem walked out to inquire if he had a good dinner; Ramanujan nodded in response, and when Hardy said—they make good mutton—Ramanujan responded, “yes sir delicious.” Hardy, then inquired if his room was satisfactory, again he nodded. In another episode, where Hardy inquired about his health as he stepped out of a temporary medical tent set up for those wounded in war, Ramanujan as usual minimized: “nothing serious.” When he was diagnosed with signs of tuberculosis, he requested his fellow Indian student Mahalanobis (who later became a famed applied statistician) that “Hardy should never know.”
Ironically, in one episode Ramanajun, who kept his personal problems to himself breaks down and confronts Hardy for not knowing him as a person and for failing to notice his bruised face when he showed up at his office after being beaten up by a young British soldier, who called him a “wog” and “blackie” and told him to remember that this was their home.
It is not clear what made Ramanujan avoid opening up to Hardy with his personal issues even when he inquired and finally confronted Hardy in the manner he did. After all, this is the same Ramanujan who insisted on his approach to mathematics asserting that it is a waste of time to come up with proofs. At one point he also demanded to know why his work has not been published. Perhaps he felt grateful to Hardy and did not want this great man to be concerned about his daily personal issues.
Hardy did not know until much later that Ramanajun was married. Lying in the hospital bed, Ramanujan apologized to a worried Hardy for causing him trouble and shared that his wife has forgotten him and that he had no one. Surprised Hardy responded gently “… you should have told me, I could have helped.”
Characteristically, Hardy did not engage in small talk and seemed to have generally operated on the belief that if there were problems, Ramanujan would let him know. Towards the end of the film, Hardy in all his decency apologizes to Ramanujan for not having been a “better friend in the traditional sense. I was never good at these sorts of things, never have been, life for me has always been mathematics.”
Hardy was well aware of the prejudicial, condescending, and hostile treatment of Ramanujan by some of his colleagues at Trinity College. Yet Hardy never gave up on his efforts to obtain recognition for Ramanujan as a living legend. The film brilliantly brings out the humanity and inhumanity in the most educated of us and in those of us who sit at high places with the noblest of intentions to make this a better world. The film stirs strong emotions—you want things to go right for Ramanujan and that he will be given the opportunity to express his creativity in his own way. Indeed, Bertrand Russell once told Hardy that he might be “stifling” the young lad to conform to a certain way of thinking and suggested he should let him ”run” on his own.
Hardy’s courage took him beyond his society’s prejudicial norms to recognize the brilliance of an individual from a culture that was considered inferior by its colonizers. Hardy excelled as a courageous man by mentoring a young man whose contributions exceeded his own and delighted at it. Thanks to those in India who did not understand his work, but believed in him and helped him find Hardy. To Ramanajun’s credit, he taught mathematics to himself, took risks prohibited by his caste, and persisted in the face of adversities in India and abroad.
The film also highlights how people who control the social and educational systems may advertently or inadvertently suppress creativity in those who could potentially make the most remarkable contributions. Other recent films such as The Imitation Game (2014) and Hidden Figures (2016) address similar issues. According to Kanigel (1991),
How many Ramanujans, his life begs us to ask, dwell in India today, unknown, and unrecognized? And how many in America and Britain, locked away in racial or economic ghettos, scarcely aware of worlds outside their own?”
Kanigel, R. (1991). The man who knew infinity. A life of the Genius Ramanujan. NY: Washington Square Press.