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'The Man Who Knew Infinity': The Incredible Journey Of Self-Made Genius S. Ramanujan

20/05/2016 3:03 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Having ridden in a cab that bore the number 1729, mathematician G.H. Hardy noted that the number was a rather dull one. "I hope it is not a bad omen," he said on a hospital visit to his contemporary S. Ramanujan who was being treated for tuberculosis. "No Hardy, it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest one which can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways," Ramanujan replied. The rest is history and 1729 is now known as the Hardy-Ramanujan number. In another scene, he earnestly tells Hardy, who is an avowed atheist, that the equations that he arrived at were with the help of the Goddess Namgiri.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a film based on the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan, and was released in India last week. The film -- written, directed and produced by Matt Brown -- is a fairly authentic portrayal of the genius, and is based on the eponymous biography by Robert Kanigel.

[Ramanujan] was not even a graduate, but was fully confident of his abilities and the discoveries he had made.

In his book, Kanigel quotes B.M. Wilson:"Parts of his life could be lifted unchanged by a screenwriter for the talkies!" These were prophetic words, with several films and plays made on Ramanujan's life and work. Robert Kanigel's book, though, was the first authentic biography (many earlier accounts of Ramanujan's life by Indian biographers were hagiographies), detailing his life and work in terms that resonated with the average reader. Kanigel was already a noted biographer and when this subject was suggested by his agent, he was ignorant of Ramanujan and had never visited India. He, however, took on this task seriously, spent time in India and met people associated with the genius.

The book became an instant bestseller, ran into several editions and was translated into a number of languages. Kanigel describes his life, the poverty he faced and the struggles he underwent. Ramanujan could not complete his education since he needed a job to support a family. But he continued to produce his work at a feverish pace. Kanigel also introduces the reader to number theory which was the main subject of Ramanujan's work in a manner that is interesting and comprehensible.

The life and work of Ramanujan as depicted in this film will hopefully inspire greater recognition of his contributions to the world of mathematics.

The film by Matt Brown treats Ramanujan exactly as he was described in the book -- a young Indian who was not even a graduate, but was fully confident of his abilities and the discoveries he had made. Dev Patel plays the role of Ramanujan and is quite successful in this difficult role. Jeremy Irons plays the role of his mentor G.H. Hardy, who brought him to Cambridge amidst opposition from his fellow dons. It is remarkable that he discovered Ramanujan's genius based on just his letters, and wasted no time in bringing him to Cambridge. When Ramanujan arrives, Hardy is initially cold and demands proof for all mathematical discoveries. Ramanujan dismisses proofs as a waste of time and is convinced his work speaks for itself. He eventually discovers European mathematicians and learns their methods and produces an exhaustive volume of work in the few years that he spends with Hardy in Cambridge. He also endears himself to the scholars at Cambridge, and England in turn honours him for his work.

He returns to Madras and continues his work and makes several more important discoveries before he dies tragically at the age of 32. India and Cambridge mourn the death of this genius.

Ramanujan's voluminous work has confounded scholars, and some have spent their entire lives working on his discoveries. One such mathematician is Ken Ono who is also a co-producer of this film.

Mahatma Gandhi was a world figure and was an inspiration to freedom fighters all over the world, including Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. However a film on his life directed by Richard Attenborough brought Gandhi and his philosophy to people all over the world in a way books could not. Mathematics and especially Number Theory are far from a favourite topic of lay people, but the life and work of Ramanujan as depicted in this film will hopefully inspire greater recognition of his contributions to the world of mathematics.

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