Book review: The man who knew infinity

Absolutely no idea how I chanced upon this book, but chance upon it I did. Before reading the book I knew Ramanujan was a great mathematician from India who went to England and also died very young. That was it. Had absolutely no idea that he did not have a degree in anything while in India having failed most of his subjects, ran pillar to post trying to find recognition for his mathematical abilities and some funding so that he could indulge in the same.

The book begins in Kumbakonam and does a pretty good job of describing Ramanujan’s early life or pretty much the early life of any orthodox Iyengar kid for more uninitiated audiences. You could say it could get boring initially and it does. But the author does paint a good picture of Ramanujan’s background and his custom-bound family which helps understand many things later. After that he proceeds to England where he does a similar thing for G.H. Hardy, Ramanujan’s mentor in England. Of course, the author being American and writing with Americans in mind, he sets about explaining British customs and way of life right from scratch in as much detail as with Iyengars. The initial part is definitely slow, plodding and can be easily boring for an Indian reader. Even turn of the 20th century British customs would be familiar to most Indian readers having grown up reading Enid Blyton and such, and there’s nothing new the book adds except giving a detailed account of Cambridge customs and ways of life.

Ramanujan’s struggles initially while he runs from one Indian mathematician to another expecting support before landing a clerical job which pays him enough and gives him enough leisure to work on Mathematics is well documented. His sudden discovery by Hardy who is sent most of his work by mail (by a persevering Ramanujan), seen in the light of his struggles seems like a fairytale and definitely reads like one. It’s interesting how the sole purpose of sending those letters to British Mathematicians was to get them to provide some funding so that he could sit at home and continue working on Maths.

Hardy, stunned by his work, expects proof for what he sees as really tall theorems, but never gets any. In the meanwhile he tries to convince Ramanujan to come to England. After much convincing, as it would be against his caste to cross the seas, Ramanujan sets out defiantly. It’s interesting to note that many relatives would not attend his funeral because of that!

The best part of the book is of course Ramanujan’s life and work in England, where he works on infinite series, theta functions, partitions etc under the guidance of Hardy who does a good job of getting him to come up with proofs and setting right the terms and notations he uses while not killing his intuitive ability with too much emphasis on process. Hardy and Ramanujan collaborate to produce some great work for the 5 years Ramanujan spends in England. He eventually labels discovering Ramanujan his greatest achievement and puts him in the same league as Gauss and Euler.

The author goes to a lot of pain to explain concepts from pure mathematics to lay readers and sure does a good job of it. It would have been easy to lose readers in a minefield of integrals, Pis, summations and derivations like an IIT-JEE preparation manual. He side-steps them well with good summary explanations provided.

Ramanujan’s time in England also coincided with the first world war and this is when his life starts its final twist. Being a strict vegetarian who cooks for himself, he ends up with no social life. Unavailability of good food during the war, his lack of discipline with life when engrossed in Mathematics, the depressing English weather and World war environment, breakdown of communication with his family after petty issues, lack of vital vitamins, inexperience with cold weather, multiple factors contribute to the eventual breakdown of his health. It surprised me to note that he had even tried to commit suicide.

Fearing his health, he is nominated for an FRS earlier than most nominations and manages to get it. At the end of the war, after substantial work he returns to India to a university position but is unable to take it as his health continues to go downhill along with massive ruptures in his family life. His best work, according to the author, on mock-theta functions was produced from his bed and he eventually passed away at the age of 32.

The book does not end there and continues on what became of his work. Ramanujan not being the workhorse mathematician weighed down by rigour and proof, mainly produced series and their solutions on whim, as if to say that if you have a series like this, it will give you this final answer. Many mathematicians spent years trying to prove his theorems, knowing well that what he had come up with was right. It becomes even more astounding considering that there were no computers to do the calculations for them those days and in the case of partitions, he had to enlist the help of another mathematician who was considered a computer and could give them a list of partitions up to the number 200 which was used to verify Ramanujan’s theorems.

The book is an interesting study and provides a good perspective on the lives of mathematicians those days. Most of the work done by them was never of any use being in obscure fields which no one cared about. But its easy to see how it laid the foundations for fields in modern computer science like cryptography etc.

At close to 400 pages the book is long and the initial part can get boring. But if you can get through that its a fairytale read!


2 thoughts on “Book review: The man who knew infinity

  1. read this some yrs ago, and It was an absolutely engrossing read. fascinating insight into lives and those times… written well I thought from his early formative days to Madras to England..quite a journey

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