Srinivasa Ramanujan – Awe Inspiring Mathematical Genius

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Ramanujan was born to a poor family in December 22, 1887 near Erode. He attended several primary schools before entering the Town school in Kumbakonam, in January 1898. Even at a tender age he made simple discoveries in mathematics. By the age of 12, he was well versed in Trigonometry. Nowadays, computers are used for logistics purposes, but Ramanujan, at the age of 14, assisted his school by assigning its 1200 students to its 35 or more odd teachers. He always pondered over the mystical significance of numbers and was often seen with a slate. He was so poor, that he couldn’t afford paper. Only his final results are recorded in notebooks.

It is amazing to note that, even at a young age, he understood the significance of a discovery and the need to persevere them. In 1904, he joined Government Arts College in Kumbakonam. In college, he only concentrated on Maths and lost his scholarship, when he failed in other subjects. He later enrolled at Pachaiyappa’s college in Chennai. Here, too, he couldn’t comprehend subjects like physiology and failed in the Fine Arts exam. He left college, without attaining a degree and continued his independent Mathematics research.

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Ramanujan’s house at Kumbakonam

Ken Robinson, an international advisor on education, in one of his TED speeches said, “Do you think of Shakespeare, being 7? He was seven at some point. I mean he was in somebody’s English class, wasn’t he? How annoying would that be? His teacher saying ‘must try harder’” In the same way, it’s really puzzling to think, what the child prodigy Ramanujan might have thought in the mathematics class and how would he have felt, when, in college, he could not concentrate on any other subject and failed in most of them. That’s a thought, which illustrates how even intellectuals like Ramanujan goes through bouts of inadequacy. It also questions the squandering nature of education boards. Thankfully the genius was noticed by two intellectuals Prof. G. H. Hardy and Prof. J.E. Littlewood.

Ramanujan published several papers in influential Indian Mathematical journals. He would give six months time for the mathematicians to come up with a solution. Many of them pretended to be busy and Ramanujan eventually published the results. He mostly worked on theorems in empty stomach and remained in the brink of starvation. When his attempts to foster sponsorship failed, he sent his long list of complex theorems to three academics of Cambridge. Of the three, only Prof. Hardy noticed the genius of his theorems. Upon watching these, Hardy and his colleague Littlewood commented, “A single look at them is enough to show that they could only be written down by a mathematician of the highest class.”

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Proofs are said to be the currency of mathematics. When Hardy demanded proofs for some of Ramanujan’s theorems, he was silent. He said it was his intuition and there are no proofs. Hardy thought that he was holding out on ‘proofs’ fearing that it would be plagiarized. In one of his letters to Hardy, Ramanujan said that, he doesn’t have ‘proofs’ and it is hard to get a ‘proof’ in an empty stomach. A productive collaboration was started and Hardy made plans to bring Ramanujan to England.

Ramanujan’s mathematical methods usually leap from one insight into another without explaining or proving the logical steps in between. However, his researches are proved perfectly in the later years. One of his mysterious intuitions between the two types of mathematical function led to a proof, recently, and this might help physicists to learn about black holes. Many of the modern mathematicians are continuously baffled by each of his researches. His intuitions are now called “Ramanujan Conjectures.”

In 1914, Ramanujan’s path breaking contributions was honored. He was elected ‘Fellow of Trinity College’, Cambridge, even though he didn’t have a college degree. The harsh life, he experience in England during First World War and combined with his own peculiar habits (he was a strict vegetarian and he remained uncompromising about dietetic observance), led to a rapid decline in health. In 1919, he returned to India and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In January 1920, he wrote a letter a Hardy about his discovery of “Mock Theta functions” — considered to be among his deepest contributions. In April 29, 1920, G.H. Hardy received a letter, informing him about the demise of Ramanujan (which occurred on April 26).

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Ramanujan was one of the mathematicians, who laid the bedrock from which the modern mathematics has emerged. He had a childlike simplicity and a gift of penetrating ‘intuition.’ – A gift which made the likes of “Steve Jobs.”  

 

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