Homebrewn Genius

The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel.

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius RamanujanEnigmatic. Idiosyncratic. Brilliant. Genius. Words used to describe the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Robert Kanigel’s outstanding biography of the Indian mathematician makes you realize that all these adjectives fall flat on their (type)faces when faced with having to describe his life.

Born into poverty in an obscure corner of British India and stifled by an educational system that stressed conformity over creativity, he managed to break free and went on to become one of the preeminent mathematicians of his time. Over time, the same circumstances that helped him get fame and recognition – his domineering and persistent mom, intense creativity and a tendency to work, work and work, all the rest be damned – contrived to kill him early.

But the outlines hardly capture the essence of Ramanujan – a man full of outrageously contrasting streaks: Genial and gregarious, boorish and cranky. Humble and brash; supremely confident yet in constant need of approval and validation. He could also be called hypersensitive, but that would be understating it. When a couple of his guests at Cambridge refused a third helping of his rasam, Ramanujan left home abruptly and didn’t return for four days. He was also maddeningly stubborn and fatalistic. When on his deathbed, when a doctor suggested he go to Thanjavur for further treatment, he refused, punning instead that – “He wants me to go to Than (My) – Savoor (City of Death). A potpourri of odd ingredients that somehow ended up brewing a genius. Or a magician, in the words of Mark Kac,

An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of what we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.

A magician with a brain wired to invent, and invent feverishly. When he came across an obscure book of formulas designed to serve as a cheat sheet for British students taking mathematical exams, he set out trying to prove some of the theorems, and ended up conjuring hundreds of new identities. When he wanted to send some of his results to other mathematicians, he started copying the results to another notebook – a fair copy – but as he was writing, he would invent a few more new results. He relied on intuition and disdained rigor – frequently, his proofs were amateurish and wrong, but remarkably enough, the theorems were right. How? (Kanigel puts forth theories that include divine inspiration, and intuitive leaps of faith, though Hardy stubbornly refused to accept that Ramanujan was wired any different from the rest)

His was a lucky genius too – it found British mathematician G.H. Hardy – possibly the best British mathematician of his time – a charming young h atheist, a “non-practicing” homosexual and a liberal in the best sense of the word. A man who was open to the possibility that brown can sometimes do good things. Ramanujan wrote Hardy, begging to introduce himself and coyly stating a few intriguing results with no proofs. Unlike his contemporaries who had seen the results and dismissed them as worthless, Hardy recognized the letters as the work of a mathematician of considerable ability, and nurtured Ramanujan for the next few years – bringing him to England, and gently teaching him the virtue of rigor without dampening his creativity or hurting his ego.

Meanwhile, Ramanujan was starting to feel homesick – and the war wasn’t helping. Getting vegetarian food (potatoes, butter) was proving to be hard, and Ramanujan had to subsist on canned food –
sometimes cooking the food in the cans themselves. His possessive, overbearing mom would not let him bring his wife to England with him – denying Ramanujan the one thing he missed in the most in England – companionship – something to distract him from work, someone to talk to, care for and be cared by. Lonely, he buried himself in his work and neglected his health. Like all things in Ramanujan’s life, Hardy’s friendship was a double edged sword: it helped him gain worldwide recognition, but Hardy might have pushed him too hard, and not cared enough for his personal life which was unraveling rapidly. Kanigel dances around a little bit here (Hardy was too English to pry into his personal life), but it is fairly obvious that Hardy comes across as uncaring in his (personal) relationship with Ramanujan. Even after Ramanujan attempted suicide by jumping in front of a train in London, Hardy stayed aloof – professionally he was invaluable to Ramanujan, but as his only friend in an alien land he probably let him down a little bit.

Ramanujan returned to India a sick man, and died in the next couple of years. He was only 32. The cause of death is unknown, though Tuberculosis seems to be the widely accepted explanation. His creativity hit a peak in the years before his death, and his best work probably was done as he was dying.

The soap opera didn’t end after his death, though. His wife left to live by herself, and his brothers tried to get jobs using his fame, writing letters to everyone who would read them, claiming they had wasted the last few years of their life caring for their brother, and accusing his wife of “stealing” all his papers.

A country hungry for heroes lapped up his success, and the media was only too glad to overblow the case. Barely tangential applications of Ramanujan’s findings were touted as his “inventions”. The truth though was that Ramanujan didn’t care much for applications of his theories – he just did Mathematics. Hardy disdained applied Mathematics, and considered anything that could be applied to the real world inferior. India today takes immense pride in Ramanujan, though it is debatable how much it contributed to his success.

“His life,” Kanigel says, “is like a parable.” You can infer whatever you want from it. True. Could a better system of schooling have helped? Maybe he would have learnt a lot of what existed without having to reinvent the wheel. Or maybe it would have killed the genius in him.

At first glance, it appears that India did nothing for him. He pretty much made himself, and it took an English mathematican to tell the world how good he was. But then, could it have been his fatalistic spirituality that led him to trust his intuition? Did his brain’s wiring have anything to do with his upbringing?

Meanwhile, I think of Mr. Romald , who back in sixth grade used a wooden ruler to stunningly good effect when I added a couple of decimal numbers wrong. “Point under Point,” he screamed, letting loose a spray of spittle onto my double ruled notebook. I am pretty sure he killed my creativity.