*The Romance of a Mathematician’s Life:  The Ramanujan-Hardy Conundrum

(after a viewing of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”)

No matter how often one might have heard the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, it never ceases to astound.  G. H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician with whose life Ramanujan’s story is inextricably intertwined, put it poignantly when he remarked that his collaboration with him was “the one romantic incident in my life.”  Even those who are mathematically illiterate are touched by the story.  It is a romance that nothing can kill.  And when the life of a mathematician appears as a romance to ordinary people, then one can only turn to Hamlet’s admonishment to his friend:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Ramanujan&HisNotebook

Srinivasa Ramanujan with one of his legendary notebooks.

However sophisticated the interpretations surrounding Ramanujan’s life and his extraordinary genius, the bare outlines of the story appear in a form that is inescapably present to every reader of the narrative, which goes something like this:  A little-known, indeed rather obscure, Indian mathematician was toiling away as an office clerk in Madras in the early part of the 20th century.

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Srinivasa Ramanujan’s birth home in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

Though recognized by his peers in Madras as man of unusual mathematical gifts, Ramanujan could find no one in his vicinity capable of understanding the theorems which he had a habit of recording in his notebooks.  Meanwhile, Ramanujan had been published in the journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.  Ramanujan eventually, and altogether fortuitously for the history of mathematics, came to the attention of G. H. Hardy, quite possibly the greatest mathematician of the day in the Anglo-American world. The two would commence a famous intellectual collaboration after Ramanujan had been brought over to Britain.  Alas, five years in Britain, while they would bring Ramanujan to the notice of fellow mathematicians all over the world, would also be his undoing.  The inhospitable climate and food took its toll of the fastidious Brahmin, and a year after his return to India in 1919 Ramanujan passed away at the age of 32.

GH Hardy

G H Hardy, Cambridge mathematician.

At first glance, a casual reading of Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, which has inspired the film of the same name, might appear to convey the impression that the Ramanujan-Hardy encounter is best read as a ‘culture clash’.  Hardy, writes Kanigel, was a “Fellow of Trinity College, the mecca of Cambridge mathematics, hence of English mathematics” (111); Ramanujan, on the other hand, was largely an autodidact, and was bereft of any degree.

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The Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1914.

Though Ramanujan spent five years at Trinity College, and the two worked in close proximity throughout this time, Hardy was little aware that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian and that his complete rejection of meat, fish, poultry, animal lard, and, I suspect, eggs was leaving him starved in a country that for centuries had remained clueless about vegetables.  (Now that Britain had been civilized by South Asians, at least this problem has been addressed.)  Even less would Hardy have understood that vegetarianism alone is construed by some as a religion—though, as shall be seen, Ramanujan’s religiosity went well beyond dietary preferences.  Watching this film, where episodes that point to the difficulties that Ramanujan encountered in being able to satisfy his hunger without violating the tenets of vegetarianism with which he had grown up appear intermittently, brought to mind an evening in 1992 I spent with T.G. Vaidyanathan, a comparatively little-published but maverick thinker (and even more so teacher) of great reputation.  TGV, as he was known to friends, was visiting New York; we walked to dinner; and when I inquired whether he had any preference for a particular cuisine, he stated only that he was a strict vegetarian.  What stays with me from our conversation that evening is TGV’s remarkable rendition of his faith:  Vegetarianism is my Bhagavad Gita, he told me.

 

So with Srinivasa Ramanujan, except that he further expressed himself as inspired by the Goddess.  Hardy, by contrast, was an unflinching atheist.  But this was not, as is commonly supposed, a clash between the mysterious and spiritual East and logos-centered West.  True, there are moments when the film might appear to descend into such clichés, as when Hardy, in a moment of exasperation, berates Ramanujan for ignoring “proofs” and relying on “intuition”.  However, Kanigel wisely eschews the satisfaction of embracing the easy distinction between the spiritual Orient and the material Occident that continues to inform many popular readings of their encounter, gesturing instead at least at what are some of the more fundamental questions that emerge from the collaboration of these two minds.  Both Ramanujan and Hardy were consumed by numbers, though there is the arresting question about what we mean by numbers at all—and particularly very large numbers, broaching, shall we say, infinity.  What did either of them understand by numbers?  What, in turn, were the sources of their creativity, and what might the fact that Ramanujan was unschooled have to do with Hardy’s inability to comprehend how Ramanujan’s mind worked?  How, Hardy asks Ramanujan more than once in the film, do you know what you do know?  How do you arrive at these theorems?  Is there, in other words, a method to this madness—for surely it was madness that drove Ramanujan to his results and then to extinction?

 

The Hardy-Ramanujan narrative is a parable about the politics of knowledge and the incommensurability of knowledge systems. Against Hardy’s repeated insistence that Ramanujan offer “proofs”—which I would liken to the stations of the cross, the steps that culminate in the apotheosis of mathematical truth—for his theorems, the South Indian Brahmin countered that the “proofs” barely mattered. If a theorem was correct, then what need was there for proofs?  Hardy’s knowledge was more than merely bookish; nevertheless, he had been schooled in certain styles of mathematical thought and was bound to a bookish conception of mathematical rigor.  What Hardy barely recognized was that his own knowledge, formidable as it may have been when measured against other mathematicians, had constrained him; Ramanujan, in contrast, was unburdened by formal learning, and that was also the source of his extraordinary creativity.  To me, Sir, Ramanujan told Hardy, “an equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”  Now Hardy could simply have dismissed this as a nonsensical remark, the residual effect of superstition from which the mind of a Hindu, no matter how much given over to the work of logos, is never entirely free.  Or he could have assimilated Ramanujan’s statement to a worldview for which he had some affinity, namely that mathematical truths have something of the ineffable about them, a beauty and purity which approximates spiritual truth.  Or he could have taken Ramanujan’s strange expression of truth as a tacit invitation to at least momentarily unburden himself, desist from proof-seeking, and allow a less charted framework of knowledge to inform his work.

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Ramanujan (center) with other scholars at Cambridge University.

There are, as the film amply suggests, a great many other features that are important to an understanding of the Ramanujan-Hardy narrative and an appreciation of the immense odds against which Ramanujan had to struggle.  The racial element was always present, if not in their relationship, certainly in Cambridge and in wider mathematical circles:  an unschooled, “bloody Indian” had slowly but surely established himself in the Mecca of mathematics and cut the venerable dons of this institution down to size.  Kanigel misses out, however, on the politics of sexuality that is incipient in a narrative which has tacitly opposed a masculinized Hardy representing the imperial and ratiocinative vigor of Britain to an effeminized, vegetarian, superstitious Brahmin belonging to a subject race.  Their story, though it has never been read this way, is also a parable about how ostensibly neutered and highly objective forms of knowledge are also captive to dominant registers of masculinity.  But, amidst these and many other strands of thought that emerge from this story of the meeting of two minds, it is the politics of knowledge to which we must remain supremely attentive as we continue to grapple with this story.

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The first of three postage stamps released by the Government of India in honor of Ramanujan, this one on the centenary (1997) of his birth. Few Indians have been conferred such official recognition.