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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Infinity Encompassed: Tribute To A Mathematical Genius


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While his peers racked their brains over struggling with mathematical problems, he had compiled over 3900 results and equations that scientists haven’t been able to completely explain even today. When students of his age were busy complaining about the subject being tough, he was getting discoveries named after him. In times when pure sciences were fields largely closed for the general population, he was opening up new vistas in mathematics itself!

Shri Srinivas Ramanujan Iyengar, an autodidact mathematician who made legendary contributions to the world of research, was by all means the man who knew infinity!

     “Most certainly I have never met his equal; I can compare him only with Euler or Jacobi.” —GH Hardy

He had little to none formal training in mathematics. And large areas of the subject were unknown to him. Yet, defying all odds and breaking all stereotypes Ramanujan proved himself and his results prodigious and beyond phenomenal! Interestingly, his story is not just one of mathematics but also one filled with numerous invaluable lessons for the youth of today.

A child prodigy, mathematician par excellence, and the first Indian to be elected a fellow of the British Royal Society, Ramanujan had started working through complex quadratics and cubics by the tender age of 12. Leaving high school as the top student in his entire district, he had won a scholarship allowing him to study at the Government Arts College in the town of Kumbakonam. Yet, completely immersed in the obsession for his chosen subject, he failed in all non-mathematical exams and subsequently lost his scholarship. A year later, he again failed his exams after having enrolled in Madras’s Pachaiyappa College. Today’s competitive society would not have missed a single beat in labelling such a student as a failure. But proving himself an inspiration for all those who refuse to give up, he rose above all such failures; ten years into the future, Ramanujan, who had failed in college, was awarded the equivalent of a PhD from the University of Cambridge!

Ramanujan’s ascent to the epitome wasn’t easy either. After the setback in college, he continued to stay true to his passion and tutored students for mathematics while engaging in minor accounting jobs around the city. As fortune had it, Ramanujan’s path crossed with revenue officer Ramaswamy Iyer who was, interestingly, founder of the then new Indian Mathematical Society (IMS). Ramanujan did not have a résumé to impress him but as amazingly talented as he was, it took Shri Iyer just one look at Ramanujan’s notebooks to understand that he was in the company of a genius! And that was how Ramanujan’s works began to be published in Journal of the IMS.

With his thirst for mathematics still unquenched, and unfazed by all challenges posed in his way, Ramanujan later mailed a nine page letter to eminent pure mathematician Godfrey Harold Hardy, among a number of other British professors. Stunned by the ingenuity of the outlandishly original research confined in those nine pages, GH Hardy concluded that he was looking at the work of a gem of a mathematician! Hardy along with another professor JE Littlewood arranged for Ramanujan to move to Cambridge where they together worked wonders in mathematics. From the moment he realised his love for mathematics till his rise to fame, every turn in Ramanujan’s relentless journey is a call out for the current generation to not give up irrespective of how dire situations are.

     “An equation for me has no meaning, unless it expresses a thought of God!” —Srinivas Ramanujan

Above all, Ramanujan was a living answer to all those who claimed that science and religion cannot coexist. Deeply devout, he credited all his mathematical capacity and knowledge to his family goddess Namagiri Thayar. He looked up to her for inspiration and used to state, in all humility, that he would often dream of screens of blood filled with highly advanced mathematical content unfold before his eyes. It is also said that when his own religious beliefs stopped him from travelling overseas towards Cambridge, towards a golden future for himself and for the world of mathematics, it was again the goddess who appeared in his mother’s dream asking her to give permission to his son to move to Cambridge!

     “That was the wonderful thing about Ramanujan. He discovered so much, and yet he left so much more in his garden for other people to discover.”

—Freeman Dyson 

During those days, GH Hardy used to rate pure mathematicians on the basis of talent on a scale from 0 to 100. He rated himself 25 and Littlewood 30. David Hilbert, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest mathematician of the early twentieth century, was scored 80 by him. But Hardy proudly awarded a 100 to Ramanujan! How fascinating must the man have been to be referred such by a contemporary! How great must his knowledge have been to have achieved what so many before him could not! And how graced would the world of pure sciences and mathematics have been had this genius not been claimed by an untimely death at just 32 years of age.

Today, the celebration of National Mathematics Day commemorating the birth anniversary of Shri Ramanujan, must serve as a reminder to Indians far and wide that from Aryabhatta, who laid the very foundation of mathematics, to Ramanujan, who shaped mathematics into how we know it today, however hard the West might try to steal the spotlight, India shall always be at the vanguard knowledge and prosperity! This land has given birth to scientists and sages alike, and shall continue to do so till the end of time and space.

We might not have been fortunate enough to have lived when he lived. But we are fortunate enough to have known how he lived. And generations to come shall walk on the footsteps of and be inspired by Srinivas Ramanujan, the man who was infinity encompassed!

 [author title=”Megha Satapathy” image=”http://goachronicle.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/IMG_20210205_095950.jpg”]Journalist, Goa Chronicle

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Megha Satapathy
Megha Satapathy
"An orator, musician, bibliophile, and above all a nationalist. At 17, the author believes that anyone can make a difference in the universe, if they are daring enough!"

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