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
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.