I am reading ‘The man who knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigel. It is about the life of the mathematical genius Ramanujan. Those of us in Tamilnadu are already familiar with some details of his life, but the author has undertaken painstaking research on Ramanujan’s early life, people who had an impact on him, his religious views, his life in England and how Hardy took stupendous efforts to take Ramanujan to Cambridge. In the Prologue the author raises a pertinent question: 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?
It is amazing that Ramanujan seems to have arrived at splendid mathematical theories almost out of the blue though he credited his insights to his family deity Namagiri. He arrived at some stunning discoveries on his own and once when he found that they were discovered atleast 150 years earlier by the great mathematician Euler, he hid the papers on which he had recorded the results in the roof of his house. The famous Ramanujan Notebooks are still probed for the riches it contains and find varied applications even today. The book is as much of Ramanujan as of Hardy, the man who took Ramanujan to Cambridge and in effect introduced him to the world.
His school head master described him thus - An A-plus or 100 per cent, would’nt do to rate him. Ramanujan, he was saying, was off-scale. Somehow such a man brings to our mind an embodiment of seriousness and studiousness. But surprisingly that was not the case. An extract from the book: “He was so friendly and gregarious,” one who knew him later in Madras would say of him. He was “always so full of fun, ever punning on Tamil and English words, telling jokes, sometimes long stories, and going into fits of laughter when relating them. His tuft would come undone and he would try to knot it back as he continued to tell the story. Oh what an image that is.
Ramanujan, in the language of the Polish émigré mathematician Mark Kac was a magician rather than an ordinary genius.
An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.
We should be thankful to Kanigel for having recorded for posterity the life of Ramnujan and this book should be made a compulsory read for the graduate students in our Universities – to appreciate the life of a genius - not for studying it mindlessly to score marks, as I dread to think what we are capable of, while attempting to make a book part of an undergraduate syllabus.
I hope students would be taught life-histories of mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, poets and writers – not just the kings and queens or their present day equivalents, politicians. The history should not deify them in any way; instead it should talk about them as extraordinary people who strived to achieve something and succeeded; people with their own quirks and foibles; people with their aspirations and dreams and which they dared to make true. The fact that Ramanujan attempted suicide in a momemt of desperation does not take away from him his unalloyed genius. It just makes him a bit more human.
And finally we wonder along with the author, What might have been, had he been discovered a few years earlier, or lived a few years longer?