As World War I heated up and Cambridge grew cold, Srinivasa Ramanujan huddled under his bedspread with an overcoat on (and a shawl for good measure).
Cambridge in 1914 was a place where you never knew which doyen of what subject you would meet in a chance encounter. Another student from India, who would go on to found the Indian Statistical Institute, made a friendship with Ramanujan. After many meetings, he found that the prodigy mathematician from South India had yet to figure out the way blankets are laid in British beds – tucked underneath a duvet.
Ramanujan (1887-1920) was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, but he needed to be tucked into bed on occasion. His health was poor, and England worsened it. He was believed to have caught tuberculosis – a condition that would kill him just a year after his long-awaited return to India, at the age of 32. It was later diagnosed as Amoebiasis – treatable even at the time.
More than a century after his birth, his life began to inspire the silver screen – and thereafter, millions. It’s rare for a mathematician to have inspired so much art: books have been written of him, poems penned, songs composed, plays performed and films and documentaries shot. After all, the material was rich – a rags to (intellectual) riches story of a young man from Erode, Madras Presidency, who without any formal training, shook the word of advanced mathematics in one of its academic centres at Cambridge.
He started life as the sole surviving child of a temple singer in Kumbakonam, on the banks of the river Cauvery. A family of Iyengar Brahmins, they were deeply religious, and Ramanujan never stopped seeing God in his life. He would famously remark:
An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.
Galileo called Mathematics the language in which God wrote the universe. As science and understanding of math progressed, the idea of it as a rationalist’s pursuit began to grow. Ramanujan shook this belief – to its core. His theorems, elaborate and detailed even for the brightest minds of his age, often lacked accompanying proofs. It was as if he had stumbled upon his answers before their methods. Decades since their release, the method behind how he got to his 3542 theorems is still debated.
As the only person to have proved each one of them, Professor Bruce C. Berndt did not feel that Ramanujan received any insights “in a flash”; but that he wrote on slates for a want of paper, and had no space for proofs. The recent film on his life, ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity” takes its name from the 1991 biography by Robert Kanigel. The film enhances the mystical, showing Ramanujan as capable of receiving flashes of insight in the midst of fever-induced deliriums.
Ramanujan was indeed spiritual and saw God in everything. The Cambridge professor who brought him to Britain, Thomas Hardy, was himself a devout atheist. The dynamic between the two was not affected by this clash of ideology – at least, not in the recollections recorded by the latter.
Though Hardy was Ramanujan’s greatest ally in Europe, he did not manage to pierce through the young man’s façade, according to biographer Kanigel. He could not save Ramanujan from the “profound loneliness that he felt in England.”
***Ramanujan missed his wife, Janaki, who he had married when she was just eleven years old. He missed the sights and smells of India. And in his sickness, he knew he was going to die soon (Kanigel also writes that Ramanujan could read palms, and knew early on that he would die before 35).
In 1917, his ‘tuberculosis’ saw him interned in a sanatorium in Derbyshire. The strict rules and the inevitability of pain saw him have nightmares where he imagined his pain on some geometric plane – “x=1” for intense pain, “x=-1” for half that.
The math he did was theoretical, and perhaps incomprehensively distanced from the real world to the average science student. But today, its applications have been found everywhere from string theory to the science of black holes.
Perhaps its greatest contribution is creating the realization within academia that genius can spring from anywhere. Ramanujan had mailed several universities with his work, but it was Hardy who took him up and raised him from obscurity. Today, a prize in Ramanujan’s name exists exclusively for such finds from the developing world.
Was Ramanujan the missing link between God and maths? With some of his theorems still receiving new practical applications, you never know.
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