Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Man who knew Infinity - A film about a mathematician

The brilliant performance by Jeremy Iron (who previously starred in the films 'Lolita' and 'Dead Ringers') and Dev Patel ('Slumdog Millionaire' and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel') as Dr Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan in the film 'The Man Who Knew Infinity' delighted our whole family. I went to watch the film with my wife and daughters. One of my daughters is very artistic and other one is really good at maths. They both loved the film. I believe the film is very artistic, sensitive, very emotive and at the same time it gives you an idea about mystery of the mathematical world and mathematicians.

 I love maths and one of my other heroes of Indian origin is Dr Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who found the Chandrasekhar limit (related to stars).
 Ramanujan's story fascinated me earlier on, perhaps because I did that Astrophysics course in Queens Mary. 'He could have gone on and solved the puzzles about 'Black Holes'' they said. 'How?' I asked.

On his deathbed, he mentioned 'theta functions' in a letter to Dr Hardy. Theta functions are supposed to be super -symmetric. Oh, I know, when we talk about supersymmetry, etc. something else comes to mind: 'string theory'.

A team of mathematicians later proved that theta functions indeed mimicked modular forms. They also found out that  expansion of mock modular forms helps physicists compute the entropy, or level of disorder, of black holes. Had Ramanujan lived to see that day, he would have added more functions.

He did not have any formal degree, but his brilliant mind produced amazing formulas of pure mathematics. One cannot call him anything other than a born genius. He thought Hindu goddess 'Namagiri' gave these formulas to him as her divine thoughts.

Ramanujan faced lot of hardship in India; he did not have a job in his earlier years. With his young wife and mother depending on him, Ramanujan needed the money to survive. He then found a job as a tax clerk. There was another clerk like that who also invented special theory of relativity later. But that genius, who turned out to be famous Albert Einstein, was more lucky than Ramanujan, because he lived in Europe.

After reading a letter Ramanujan sent to him, Dr Hardy invited Ramanujan to Cambridge, in England. Many of Dr Hardy's colleagues were against the idea. When Ramanujan was in England, he was not treated well. Racism arose, and there were many incidents due to Ramanujan's origins, but Dr Hardy and his friend Dr Littlewood trusted Ramanujan and his abilities. Dr Hardy pushed Ramanujan to produce the necessary proofs to his mathematical formulas and functions so he could publish them. Dr Hardy and Ramanujan were not similar in character and they did not share the same cultural background. Ramanujan was also a strict vegetarian and this led to the difficulty that he did not have enough nutritional food while World War 1 was raging across Europe.

Yet this beautiful friendship with the renowned professor and self-taught genius blossomed, therefore helping the future of mathematics immensely. For example, there is the Ramanujan - Sato series, Ramanujan's PI formulas,  Continued Fraction and mock theta functions, to name a few. It is an interesting fellowship - Dr Hardy was an atheist while Ramanujan, a devout Hindu, thought his God spoke to him through his formulas. 

His brahmin origins prevented him going overseas for his further studies at first. Finally, his mother relented and with his wife's blessing as well, he set sail to England. His religious upbringing played a big part in his later life in England; it caused him to live more like a hermit, working hard on his amazing mathematical formulas.

He did not have good food during the First World War, as was previously mentioned. He did not ask much help from Dr Hardy, hiding his needs and his pain of not living with his beautiful, loving wife. His mother, on the other hand, hid letters meant for Ramanujan from her daughter-in-law. Ramanujan was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis and treated in England, but never recovered fully.

In his final days, Ramanujan was accepted as a 'Fellow of the Royal Society' (FRS), the second Indian to do so, and finally as a Fellow of the Trinity College. His work was stolen in Cambridge and he was harassed a lot, but he ignored those mishaps as a true gentleman.

He returned to his wife and mother, and within a year he died, leaving his young wife a widow. He was only 32 years old. I think England and Cambridge did not take care of him properly. His work on fractions was stolen and it was found by someone else in Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1976.
These are now on Display at Cambridge.

The film does not reveal all of these incidents, but it does do a certain justice to this brilliant mathematical genius.

3. Picture from: