Srinivasa Ramanujan

Since I had no one to celebrate with, yesterday, I had a Netflix episode and a rather bad movie. The latter, however, tells a fascinating story.

Regularly, I come into contact with the mathematical universe, as if this universe were a secret garden never visited, too chicken that I was to explore the complex paths. The film in question, The Man Who Knew Infinity, tells the story of the British mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s adventure. The film is bad, because it is really too sweet, seems to start in the middle of the story and we perceive very little of the infinity that the title announces. Moreover, the scenario is strangely similar to Wikipedia’s article on the guy.

In any case, the phenomenon of Ramanujan deserves attention. His short time on Earth was rarely recognized, because at the beginning of the 20th century, Indians, still under British rule, were considered second-class people. Ramanujan’s story could be summed up as follows: inspired, mathematical equations came to him almost in a dream. He was certainly a seasoned mathematician, yet without much general training since he focused only on mathematics, leaving other subjects behind, which invariably led him to academic failure.

Deeply religious, he could undoubtedly be considered an enlightened person at the time. Although there are a few legends around him, Ramanujan did not seem to appreciate the evidence in mathematics too much. For him, his discoveries were self-evident and it took the patience and rigor of his British mentor, G.H. Hardy, to get the prodigy’s genius recognized and channeled. Hardy would say that his most important contribution to mathematics was the discovery of Ramanujan.

This young Indian man had a profound impact on the world of mathematics of his time. He left four important notebooks of formulas that are often yet to be proven and that inspire other mathematicians. Some of these formulas, in the last notebook, have helped to advance the science of black holes.

That is all to say about this short and brilliant light. He died at the age of 32, not from tuberculosis, as the film suggests, but from liver disease, which was widespread in his native Madras.

That’s the way life is. We like to admire these shooting stars with such a short existence and we would like to possess even the crumbs of this passion that devours them. For my part, I regret not having the time or concentration to understand the infinite as Ramanujan seemed to know how to do.

There is so much to discover… As Hardy said (in the film, anyway), mathematicians exist to reveal the beauty of the world, a splendour that escapes them, created by who knows, and where, and by what. The tragedy is great when someone has only time to open this opaque veil of nothingness before it melts back to it without any other noise.