The Man Who Knew Infinity

May 22, 2016 By Deepa Gopal
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Sometimes genius is born in the most unlikely of places...

Imagine a small town in South India in the late 19th century. A town where the latest advances in Mathematics that were taking place in Europe would take decades to reach. Yet, here was born one of the greatest mathematical minds India and the world would ever see.

Srinivasa Ramanujan's spectacular but short life has inspired a book and a movie by the same name -- 'The Man Who Knew Infinity". The movie has also inspired the CEO's of Google and Facebook, along with others, to start the Ramanujan Foundation to preserve his legacy.

Childhood To College

Ramanujan was born in 1887 to a poor family - his father was a clerk at a store, and his mother a housewife. He attended the local school where he excelled in all subjects - though Math was clearly his favorite. However, it was a book he discovered at age 16 with a list of 6,000 theorems in all fields of Mathematics that sparked his genius. He found himself solving the theorems and discovering new ones.

After high school, Ramanujan was admitted to a local college with a scholarship. However, he was so obsessed with Math that he failed the other subjects and did not graduate. While living in near poverty, he continued to write pages and pages of Math in notebooks, packaging papers and anything else he could get his hands on.

The people around him recognized his potential. After seeing a paper published by him in a local mathematical journal, they encouraged him to contact one of the leading mathematicians in Cambridge, England - Prof. G.H Hardy.

An Unlikely Friendship

When Prof. Hardy received a lengthy letter with Math equations postmarked from India, he was intrigued. Others around him dismissed the letter as a hoax, but Hardy felt there was more to the man behind them. He corresponded with Ramanujan and invited him to Cambridge.

At age 27, Ramanujan embarked on a long journey by sea to England. The new world took adjusting to for Ramanujan was not used to the ways of the British, and was a vegetarian. Hardy took him under his wing, helping him settle down and building his formal training in Mathematics.

Ramanujan published more than 20 papers in number theory, with Hardy guiding him on proofs and presentation. One such paper was on partitions - the number of ways a positive number can be added up. For example, the number 3 can be broken up as 3+0, 2+1 and 1+1+1. Now imagine bigger numbers!

Ramanujan received his bachelor's degree and a fellowship and was inducted into London's Royal Society by age 30, a remarkable feat for anyone. However, the cold English weather and the feeling of loneliness in a new country did not suit Ramanujan and he came down with tuberculosis. He returned to India when his health improved slightly, but passed away a year later at age 32. 

Ramanujan's death was a huge blow to the world of mathematics. Some of his works are still being proved.