Srinivasa Ramanujan

  • A mathematician par excellence, a scholar from an unexpected place, and a magician to the past, present and future mathematicians – the name is Srinivasa Ramanujan. His notes and calculations that were written a century ago still continue to haunt world-class mathematicians.

  • You can understand chemistry by mixing substances and observing the changes and reactions. You can learn physics by the consequences of a movement and by studying machines. But the huge difference between such sciences and mathematics is ‘Tangibility’. Unlike chemicals and machines, numbers, variables and constants are not tangible. To understand one theorem, you need to come up with another theorem. It is maybe possible for someone like ‘Lucy’ whose brain functions at 100% capacity or for those who drown in mathematics, giving up all else. So which category does Ramanujan belong to? This may surprise you, but the answer is, he belongs to both the categories. That is why his IQ has been an area of studies for many researchers, much like the study of Einstein’s IQ.

  • It’s a pity that the person who gave mathematicians so much food for thought, had to struggle for food. He was born in 1877, in Erode. His father held a normal clerical job and his mother sang at temples occasionally. Even with their joint earnings, Ramanujan would go to bed with an empty stomach for at least a third of a month. That did not worry him, for he had his companion, mathematics to keep him occupied. There was a time when he couldn’t even buy papers to write. Scrapping every penny he could scrap, he got himself a slate to learn mathematics. He had to treasure this slate for long, for he couldn’t afford paper anymore. So to keep the slate from thinning, he erased the slate with his elbow instead of using a cloth. In this dire thirst to keep it going as long as it can, Ramanujan’s elbows suffered several scars that tainted his elbow.

  • So no one helped Ramanujan? Sadly, the answer is no. While most great people had at least their circle of friends to encourage them in their climb to greatness, Ramanujan was pursuing mathematics, a field understood only by a handful. So his journey was all the more lonelier. Moreover there was not much practical use for such high level mathematics in India. Thus India failed a mathematical genius. When an extraordinary brain is born in a humble seeing, it finds itself shackled by the activities that others find normal, and tries its best to escape the shackles. Despite all these pressures and unfavorable conditions, the brain that strives for greatness gives its all to take mankind a step forward. But what can a person do when he doesn’t have the means or the opportunities to prove itself. Ramanujan was one such great person who was pushed by the society to conform to the ordinary stereotype.

  • Ramanujan saw the first ray of hope when G H Hardy, a mathematician from England saw Ramanujan’s prowess. From the moment G H Hardy started corresponding with Ramanujan, G H Hardy became Ramanujan’s friend, philosopher, and guide. It appears that Ramanujan wrote his letter to Hardy in 1911, but sent it in 1913 only. The letter goes, “Dear Sir,
    I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum…” It’s hard to finish reading the letter without tearing up. With the letter, Ramanujan sent 12 pages of various calculations. The start ‘1+2+3+4+5+6+… = -1/12’ was dismissed by Hardy as ordinary. But as the letter progressed to ‘π( 1/2 – 1/√1+√3 + 1/√3+√5 – 1/√5+√7 &c = 1/1√1 – 1/3√3 + 1/5√5 – &c’, Hardy was startled by the depths of Ramanujan’s prowess. Hardy immediately arranged for Ramanujan to come to England. Ramanujan came to England in 1914. Then Ramanujan and Hardy collaborated for 3 years. During this period, Ramanujan published 21 papers, of which 5 were the results of Hardy’s and Ramanujan’s collaboration.

  • 1919 saw the death of this prodigy, who was just 32 years old at that time. After his death, 4 notebooks were found from his residence and workplace. In one of these notebooks, one contained calculations under the title ‘The Lost Notebook’. Roughly 4000 theorems and calculations were contained in these notebooks. These were published this composition of his works, under the title ‘Collected Works of Srinivasa Ramanujan’, by the Cambridge University. The worth of this book is known only to mathematicians. In the words of Bruce C Berndt, an American mathematician, “As nearly all of Ramanujan’s conjectures have been proven, there had been greater appreciation of Ramanujan’s work and brilliance, and that Ramanujan’s work is now pervading many areas of modern mathematics and physics.” Berndt is one mathematician who spent most of his career unravelling the knots and twists of the mathematical legacy Ramanujan left behind for the world. A video of his titled ‘Living with Ramanujan for 40 years’ is something all mathematicians would cherish forever.

  • Which is Ramanujan’s greatest contribution to Mathematics? Many say that his most significant work is the ‘Infinite series for Pi”. But how can we say for sure until all his works are deciphered? Many of his works are still under research and are yet to be understood by the mathematical world. A fair answer to that topic rests in the future, after all his works have been understood.

  • Ramanujan’s letters were read by Hardy and another great mathematician by the name of Littlewood. Littlewood asks,”Do these seem believable to you?” Hardy said that they must be real, because they were too wild to root from imagination. Littlewood agreed with Hardy. After a few years, Hardy releases a list of mathematicians and his scores for those mathematicians. In this list, Hardy gives himself a score of 25. Littlewood scored 30, David Hilbert – 80. Guess Ramanujan’s score? It was 100! Imagine the respect Hardy must have had for Ramanujan!

  • Ramanujan’s biography, titled ‘The Man who knew Infinity’, was released in 1991. American biographer Robert Kanigen took up the challenging task of narrating this genius’s life. Later, this book was made into a film with the same title, and released in 2015. In Tamil, Director Gnana Rajasekaran directed a film by the name ‘Ramanujan’. This movie was released in 2014

  • More often than not, the world skimps on recognising a man’s talent while he’s alive. But after the person’s death, the world suddenly realises how big a loss it is and then honours the achievements of the departed. It’s no different with Ramanujan. The Indian Government announced the celebration of his birthday, December 22, as the National Day of Mathematics. The year  2012 was declared as the National Mathematics Year, by the Indian Government. Then, his birthday was announced as ‘State IT Day’, by the Government of Tamil Nadu. Next, he was honoured by naming an IT park after him. This IT park is the Ramanujan IT park in Chennai. Chennai also houses a museum that showcases Ramanujan’s life and work. ICTP (International Centre for Theoretical Physics) honours young mathematicians every year, in his name, as a token of respect to the mathematician that the world lost too soon.

  • To Ramanujan, mathematics was not just a science; it was something beyond science, It was spirituality. “An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God”- these words of Ramanujan are enough to show the regard he had for Mathematics!