MOOMTAZ EMRITH

(Windsor, ON, Canada)

Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan came from a very modest background. Yet he was a mathematical genius in his own right. His father worked a day job while his mother was a housewife. However, he was born in a high-caste Brahmin Hindu family on December 22, 1887, in Erode, South India (today Tamil Nadu). It was during the time of the British Raj, which, as the world knows, lasted from 1857-1947. Srinivasa Ramanujan did not have any formal training in pure mathematics. Whatever he achieved was through his exceptional genius in the subject. In fact, his contributions “to mathematical analysis, number theories, infinite series and continued fractions including solutions to mathematical problems then considered unsolvable” are considered phenomenal for someone who never had any formal training in the tricky subject that mathematics is. In fact, as one critic put it, Ramanujan would develop his own mathematical research “in isolation”. He has made significant contributions in “the theory of numbers, including pioneering discoveries of the properties of the partition function.”

Ramanujan, who was raised by his mother under rigid orthodox Brahmin traditions, was a strict vegetarian and followed his divine Hindu inclination in his day-to-day life closely. So much so, later, when he would get the opportunity to go to London, England, for higher studies, he naturally was unwilling to go because a good Hindu, he had been taught, did not leave his country. His orthodox mother, of course, sided with him. She told him he would have a miserable life – culturally speaking – in a foreign land.

However, after Ramanujan finished his high school, he got a two-year scholarship at the University of Madras (now Chennai) but he lost the scholarship the year after because all he was interested in was MATHEMATICS and he neglected to give any serious attention to the other subjects in his programme of studies. So much so, he ended up having a tough life making ends meet. He did odd jobs like tutoring students to get by.  In 1909, he got married to a ten-year old girl – a practice which was not uncommon in Indian society then.  But he only took his bride home three years later. Of course, once a married man, he concentrated on looking for permanent employment. That was the time, when he met Ramchandra Rao, a government official, who was impressed with Ramanujan’s intelligence and supported his research work but Ramanujan wanted something a little more secure as a job and thus took employment with the Madras Port Trust, which provided him with a steady income and gave some stability in his life.

In 1911, he would publish his first paper in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society. Ramanujan’s genius was slowly beginning to be noticed in certain mathematical circles in India.  By 1913, he would start a correspondence with one British Mathematician, Prof. Geoffrey P. Hardy, in Cambridge, England. Prof. Hardy would be impressed by the young mathematician. In fact, Ramanujan took the extraordinary step of mailing him a package.

Bust of Ramanujan at the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, Kolkota,

Prof. Hardy was impressed by the covering letter that accompanied the package. It read thus:

“Dear Sir:  I beg to introduce myself to you as clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of  20 pounds per annum. I am now twenty-three years of age…”

Ramanujan went on to add that

“… he had made startling progress on a divergent series in mathematics, and had all but solved the long-standing problem of the distribution of prime numbers.”

And he ended his letter thus:

Being poor, if you are convinced that there is anything of value, I would like to have my theorems published … Being inexperienced, I would very highly value any advice you give me. Requesting to be excused for the trouble I give you.”

Ramanujan would make a deep impression on Prof. Geoffrey Hardy through the letters he exchanged with him. Later, Prof. Hardy would say that “a single look was enough to show that they could have been written only by a mathematician of the highest caliber” and he went on to compare the young Indian genius “to mathematical geniuses like Euler and Jacobi.”

In 1914, Prof. Hardy would also be instrumental in getting him a grant to Trinity College in Cambridge, England, and would get Ramanujan, eventually, to overcome his religious scruples about travelling overseas. He did go to London, where he did not have an easy time adjusting to the English way of life. Prof. Hardy guided him, mentored him and also collaborated with him in some of his early research work.

In London, Ramanujan soon discovered the wide horizon of mathematics and how many unexplored fields he had, unknowingly, uncovered. His genius was slowly being recognized and he was hailed as ‘a wonder boy’, and ‘a Mathematical genius.’ In 1918, he was elected FELLOW of the ROYAL SOCIETY OF LONDON – only the second Indian to have that honour and he was certainly the youngest.

In 1917, Ramanujan, who was always of frail health, contracted tuberculosis. However, his conditions improved enough by the following year and he, therefore, opted to return home to India, where he died on December 22, 1920, at Kumbakogan, South India (Tamil Nadu) India. He was only thirty-two years old and was then hardly a well-known figure in the world – except in some select mathematical circles.

In December, 2020, the centenary year of his birth anniversary, the Government of India, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had a special commemoration of the event and tributes were paid to Ramanujan’s memory and uncommon genius and the significant contributions he had made to Mathematics, many terms of which are named after him, notably: (i) Ramanujan Prime (ii) Ramanujan Theta Function, (iii) the Ramanujan Partition Formulae or (iv) the Ramanujan Mock Theta Functions – terms that should ring a bell with those gifted in higher mathematics.

On that occasion, the Government of India proclaimed December 22 as National Mathematics Day throughout India and which is, now,  an annual event.

In 2015, Hollywood released a movie based on Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life. It was titled “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” Young and promising Hollywood star DEV PATEL of Slumdog Millionaire fame, played the part of the young genius.

Almost a century after his death, his final notebook – known as the “Lost Note-Book” — that contained notes from the last year of his life, created quite a sensation when it was ‘re-discovered’ in 1976.

Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was a deeply religious Hindu, credited his mathematical capacity to divinity and said the mathematical knowledge he displayed “was revealed to him by his family goddess Namagiri Thayar”. In fact, Ramanujan once observed: « All equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God. »

To-day, Ramanujan is indisputably reckoned as a mathematical genius like no other and rightly honoured as such by his peers and, indeed, the world.

 

British actor and Oscar-winner, Jeremy Irons as Prof. Hardy and Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in the movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”

 

 

« Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was a deeply religious Hindu, credited his mathematical capacity to divinity and said the mathematical knowledge he displayed “was revealed to him by his family goddess Namagiri Thayar”. In fact, Ramanujan once observed: « All equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God ». »

 

« Ramanujan would make a deep impression on Prof. Geoffrey Hardy (Cambridge) through the letters he exchanged with him. Later, Prof. Hardy would say that “a single look was enough to show that they could have been written only by a mathematician of the highest caliber” and he went on to compare the young Indian genius “to mathematical geniuses like Euler and Jacobi.” »