Profundis: The Man Who Knew Infinity

For a long time now I’ve hoped that someone would do a movie on the life of the remarkable Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. His story is a compelling and tragic one: born in India in the late 19th century, he began to distinguish himself as truly exceptional by the time he’d hit puberty. He worked on mathematics in isolation throughout his life, producing startling results and eventually making contact with G.H. Hardy of Cambridge University.

Hardy recognized the calibre of Ramanujan’s genius, and invited him to England. The two men had conflicting styles; Ramanujan grasped everything intuitively, often simply stating results with little to no justification, whereas Hardy was rigorous and believed strongly in proving each step. But as the First World War began and played out in Europe their productive five-year collaboration resulted in Ramanujan getting published, being elected to the London Mathematical Society and the Royal Society, and being made a Fellow of Trinity College.

Unfortunately illness was almost as consistent a theme in Ramanujan’s life as was mathematics. The diet and weather of England did not agree with him, and as his various health problems worsened he eventually decided to return to India to be with his wife and family. After spending barely a year at home, he died in 1920. He was just 32 years old.

Getting a handle on Ramanujan’s intellect necessitates some re-calibration. The chances are good that if you’re reading these words you possess a brain that is comfortably above average intelligence. Some of my readers might even be bona fide geniuses, with IQs in excess of 140 and multiple degrees to their name. They are likely unaccustomed to encountering subjects that baffle them, and have probably only met a handful of minds better than theirs.

Ramanujan makes nearly everyone look like a knuckle-dragging monkey that keeps putting its diapers on wrong. The usual descriptive vocabulary falls short here; one must reach for words like “incandescent” to do him justice.

It is this task which 2015’s “The Man Who Knew Infinity” sets itself, and achieves. Based on a written biography of the same name, the film does an excellent job of illustrating not only how much beyond even Cambridge-level professional mathematicians Ramanujan was, but also the absolutely fascinating way in which his mind worked. He repeatedly claimed that his insights were divinely inspired, often appearing to him fully-formed in dreams and visions of Hindu deities. His results were occasionally wrong, but were never less than astonishing in their originality and depth. They are still inspiring research today, close to a century after his death.

The film takes poetic license with a few aspects of Ramanujan’s life. His wife is depicted as an adult when in fact she was nine at the time of their marriage, for example. But these pale in comparison to the adroit handling of a story that needed to be told.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes mathematics or intellectual history.

 

4 thoughts on “Profundis: The Man Who Knew Infinity

  1. Hi there,

    I just wanted to drop a quick message to tell you that I really enjoy reading your blog. I can tell by the way you write that you have a deep sense of curiosity and wonder about the world, something that I also share.

    I’m extremely impressed by your dedication to the STEMpunk Project. My approach to learning is somewhat fragmented and while it gives me a wide base of knowledge, I don’t feel like I often develop a deep understanding of my subject matter.

    I would like to invest some of my own time in a deep learning project similar to your own, but I struggle to prioritise this long-tem thinking over my short term needs to learn things for advancement in my career.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. I am not sure where you are based, but I remember seeing an incredible play about Ramanujan here in London at the Barbican called A Disappearing Number. I’m not normally a theater person but couldn’t resist the idea of a play about a mathematician. It was so good, I had to go back to see it a second time. I didn’t know about The Man Who Knew Infinity however. 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uba-qzbZsV8 (tiny glimpse towards middle of this video)
    http://www.complicite.org/productions/ADisappearingNumber

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