Srinivasa Ramanujan

by Edward Ortiz

In the film "Good Will Hunting," the feisty Will Hunting solves tough math problems with ease, and in seemingly total obscurity. But how many people know that a "true" Will Hunting lived at the turn of the century, and that his name was Srinivasa Ramanujan?

Born into a humble Brahmin family in South India, Ramanujan showed an interest in mathematics. At an early age he studied trigonometry and pure mathematics on his own. Like most mathematical genuises, Ramanujan devoured as many books on mathematics as he could. At sixteen, Ramanujan borrowed the English text "Synopsis of Pure Mathematics". This work was to prove a deep influence on Ramanujan's development as a mathematician, for it offered mathematical theorems without accompanying proofs, thereby prompting Ramanujan to prove the material by his own mathematical cunning. So much was mathematics his consuming passion that he neglected his other coursework. Ramanujan's grades dropped and the college ended his scholarship. Undaunted, Ramanujan continued writing advanced mathematical proofs and results in his notebooks. He did not graduate.

On January of 1913 Ramanujan sent a letter to G. H. Hardy at Cambridge. It was not the first time that Ramanujan had tried to contact an eminent mathematician concerning his mathematical writings. Included with Ramanujan's letter were nine pages of Ramanujan's advanced mathematical work. Hardy, the pre-eminent mathematician of his time, would forever be changed by this humble but self-assured letter which began:

"I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of 20 pounds per annum. I am now about 26 years of age. I have had no university education... being inexperienced I would very highly value any advice you give me..." Included in his letter were 100 theorems that Ramanujan had found in various parts of mathematics. Hardy, no stranger to letters from the unimpressive and suspect, was cautiously impressed. Upon closer examination, Hardy became convinced that he was reading from pages authored by a true mathematical genius.

Hardy asked Ramanujan come to Cambridge. At first Ramanujan was unsure; moving conflicted with Ramanujan's Brahmin background. But finally he consented to the move and was admitted to Trinity College in 1914. Ramanujan collaborated with Hardy on seven papers, as well as publishing many of his own works, including a very important study on the partition of numbers.

Peculiar and intuitive, Ramanujan's work startled Hardy and other leading mathematicians at Cambridge. At times, Ramanujan would arrive at theorems through incoherent and inexplicable arguments. This characterisitic of Ramanujan's work was due to the fact that Ramanujan lacked formal systematic training in mathematics.

Formula used to calculate Pi using the Ramanujan's method.

Ramanujan's faculty for mathematics also bordered on the mystical and spiritual. Among one of the stranger mathematical incidents was one where Ramanujan related that a mathematical answer to a complex theorem came to him in a vivid dream.

The combination of weather, culture, and diet at Cambridge was to take its toll on Ramanujan. Unable to procure the vegetarian cuisine which were his dietary staples in India, Ramanujan found life in Cambridge difficult. After 1917, Ramanujan was admitted to several sanatoriums for ill health. The cause of his distress was never completely established, though tuberculosis was considered probable. Ramanujan was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and made a fellow of Trinity College in 1918. The conferring of these impressive accolades temporarily improved Ramanujan's health and re-energize his work. However, his health forced him to return home to Madras in 1919. On April 26, 1920 Ramanujan died at the age of 33.

Ramanujan left behind a legacy of brilliance. Like those of mathematician Evariste Galois and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ramanujan's early death makes one wonder what could have come. Ramanujan's genius was the ability to make his mark against insurmountable obstacles.

Page created on 6/8/2004 1:23:58 PM

Last edited 1/9/2017 11:11:35 PM

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Related Reading:

Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Scribners: NY, 1991.