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The Man Who Knew Infinity – How Indian Genius Ramanujan Rose From Zero to Wow the Math World


Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-educated mathematician, pioneered brilliant discoveries of theorems. He was aided by Professor G. H. Hardy in England. The Man Who Knew Infinity, starring Dev Patel, is a biopic on his life.

Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-educated mathematician, pioneered brilliant discoveries of theorems. He was aided by Professor G. H. Hardy in England. The Man Who Knew Infinity, starring Dev Patel, is a biopic on his life.

Movies about mathematicians excite us mostly because their ingenuity is both unfathomable and fascinating to us. Like the misunderstood genius Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), or the inspiring Stephen Hawking (Theory of Everything), a peek into a past that we can only read of, overcoming obstacles that we can only imagine, makes us remember and respect these gifted minds.

This April, a biopic based on the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, is all set to release. His life was chronicled in the book The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel, published in 1991.

A self-educated mathematician, Ramanujan was known for his theorems that contributed significantly to understanding number series, infinite series and continued fractions.

S. Ramanujan is played by Dev Patel in the film, The Man Who Knew Infinity
Source: Wikimedia Commons, YouTube

He was born in December of 1887 in Erode, Tamil Nadu. While almost all of his siblings died in their infancy, he miraculously survived a case of smallpox at the age of two. His intelligence began to shine when in school in Kumbakonam, he imbibed more mathematical knowledge than anyone of his age. He studied a book on advanced trigonometry at 13, learnt cubic equations at 15, and devised his own methods of solving them. By 16, he mastered a book called A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, which held a collection of 5000 theorems. He then moved on to understanding the Bernoulli numbers.

After graduating in 1904 from the Town Higher Secondary School, he joined the Government Arts College in Kumbakonam. He failed most of the subjects because he couldn’t focus on anything other than math. After a stint at another college, he gave up getting a degree altogether.

In 1909, he was married to 10-year-old Srimithi Janaki, and tutored students while he looked for a job. Meanwhile, the Indian Mathematics Society was set up by V. Ramaswamy Aiyer. Ramanujan, at this point, started mingling with India’s mathematicians, wowing them with his brilliance. In 1913, he began writing letters to British mathematicians. Out of these, G. H. Hardy was to be the one who would believe in Ramanujan’s skills.

Hardy and his colleague J. E. Littlewood were impressed enough to call Ramanujan to England.

Jeremy Irons (left) portrays Hardy, while Toby Jones (right) plays Littlewood
Source: YouTube

Bidding farewell to his wife and child, Ramanujan arrived in England by ship in April 1914. This was the turning point in the 27-year-old’s life.

Once in Cambridge, Hardy and Littlewood combed through his collection of theorems. They found that while some of them already existed, many of them were new, unparalleled discoveries. In the next five years at Cambridge, Ramanujan published many of his work there, aided by Hardy.

Owing to his work on highly composite numbers, in 1916 he received a Bachelor of Science degree, which was later renamed to PhD. The next year, he became a part of the London Mathematical Society, and the year after that, he became a Fellow of Trinity College and Fellow of the Royal Society. He was one of the youngest (at 30) at the Society, being only the second Indian to become a Fellow there, and the first at Trinity.

However, he returned to India in 1919. An onset of various kinds of illnesses had made him weak. Life for vegetarians was difficult during First World War, due to a scarcity of vegetables and fruits, which made him malnutritioned. He was then diagnosed with vitamin deficiency and tuberculosis.

In 1920, he died, aged 32, in Kumbakonam, but not before leaving the world with a plethora of theorems and discoveries in mathematics, which were researched and proved to be true years after his death.

Watch what Ken Ono, mathematics professor at Emory University and math consultant for the film, has to say about Ramanujan:

His companionship with Hardy was all about contradictions. Hardy was an atheist, who followed logic and sense, while Ramanujan was religious and intuitive. Many a times, Hardy was unable to figure out how Ramanujan, a quiet, pleasant and dignified man, could rely on intuition to come up with theories. Often, Ramanujan would attribute his abilities to Goddess Mahalakshmi, saying that he would see visions of complex equations on a scroll in his dreams. Together, Hardy and Ramanujan had many accomplishments that changed the world of mathematics.

Years after his death, his family home in Sarangapani Street, Chennai, was turned into a museum. An international journal called The Ramanujan Journal was launched, to publish all research and work related to his findings.

The Man Who Knew Infinity stars Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as G. H. Hardy. Watch the trailer here:

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