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Shedding Light in the Darkness

Mysterious Genius of Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan

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“An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God.”

Having barely passed high school math I had passed on watching the 2015 movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” about an Indian mathematician who had studied at Cambridge University. Until last night, and I was transfixed. Don’t let the academic subject matter put you off. It’s a wonderful film about a remarkable man who reported that the goddess Namagiri (a form of Lakshmi, goddess of fortune) would sometimes appear to him in dreams and reveal complex math formulas that are still being unraveled today.

“While asleep, I had an unusual experience,” he once announced. “There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing.”

Based on Robert Kanigel’s book, “The man who knew infinity: A life of the Genius Ramanujan,” and starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as eminent Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy, the film takes place around the outbreak of World War 1.

A poor, self-taught mathematical prodigy (who had mastered trigonometry by 12), Ramanujan wrote a letter filled with startlingly original theorems to Hardy, who recognizing the Indian’s genius, invited him to Cambridge. Hardy later wrote: “A single look at them is enough to show that they could only be written down by a mathematician of the highest class. They must be true, for if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”

In a Believer Magazine article, Robert Schneider wrote how Ramanujan’s “horoscope, cast by his mother, predicts that he will be a genius beset by great suffering. “Svasti Sri,” it reads, “when the moon was near the star Uttirattadi, when Mithuna was in the ascendant, on this auspicious day,” he will be born.

“The Goddess begins to appear to Ramanujan in his dreams, showing him scrolls covered in strange formulae. “Nākkil ezhutināl,” he later said. “She wrote on my tongue.”

At Cambridge he experienced racial discrimination and the disdain of some professors who couldn’t accept that an Indian, let alone one who had not graduated college, knew more about math than them.

A Hinduism Today article on Ramanujan noted that his wife said her husband predicted “his mathematics would be useful to mathematicians for more than a century.”

One of his extraordinary feats involved work on a process called partitioning, figuring out how many different ways a whole number can be expressed as the sum of other whole numbers. As Hinduism Today notes – Ramanujan, with Hardy offering technical checks, invented a tight, twisting formula that computes the partitions exactly.

“U.S. mathematician George Andrews, who in the late 1960’s rediscovered a lost notebook of Ramanujan’s and became a lifetime devotee, describes his accuracy as unthinkable to even attempt.  Ramanujan’s partition equation helped later physicists determine the number of electron orbit jumps in the “shell” model of atoms.”

Schneider in the Believer article marvels about Ramanujan’s work, quoting mathematician Ken Ono. “The concepts (encoded in the tau function) didn’t exist when he was alive. That’s the mind-boggling part: Ramanujan anticipated the work of people who would live long after him. He had visions that said there were going to be some theories in the future.”

“The act of multiplying zero by infinity, he said when he was young, yielded all numbers simultaneously—the body of Ishvara, or God in its totality. Each number was a single act of creation among the infinitude that created and sustained the universe from moment to moment.”

In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Ken Ono says about Ramanujan: “He was really a poet, not a problem solver. What you find in Ramanujan’s original notebooks is just formula after formula, and it’s not apparent where he’s going with his ideas. He was someone who could set down the paths of beginnings of important theories without knowing for sure why we would care about them as mathematicians of the future.”

“If he had been asked to explain why he did his work, he would probably say that he recorded formulas that he found beautiful, and they were beautiful because they revealed some unexpected phenomenon. And they’re important to us today because these special phenomena that Ramanujan identified, over and over again, have ended up becoming prototypes for big mathematical theories in the 20th and 21st centuries. He lived 80 years before his time.”

While on his death-bed, Ramanujan wrote a letter to G. H. Hardy, outlining several new mathematical functions never before heard of, along with a hunch about how they worked. Decades later, researchers proved he was right – and that his formula could explain the behavior of black holes.

“No one was talking about black holes back in the 1920s when Ramanujan first came up with mock modular forms, and yet, his work may unlock secrets about them,” Ono reported. The findings were presented at the Ramanujan 125 conference at the University of Florida,in 2012.

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku – “Srinivasa Ramanujan was the strangest man in all of mathematics, probably in the entire history of science. He has been compared to a bursting supernova, illuminating the darkest, most profound corners of mathematics.”

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