The Man Who Knew Infinity: Srinivasa Ramanujan, Intuitive Mathematician

ramanujan2The Man Who Knew Infinity is the remarkable story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian mathematician whose revolutionary ideas took Europe by storm during the years around World War I. The film, released in 2015, stars Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons, and is based on the book of the same name by Robert Kanigel. What made Ramanujan so amazing, were his deep spiritualty and intuitive leaps in fields for which he had no prior background. Ramanujan said that his insights were divinely inspired and came to him in dreams, which he quickly wrote down upon awakening.

An autodidact, Ramanujan showed early brilliance in mathematics despite little formal training. Unable to complete college because he could not pass any courses besides math, Ramanujan struggled to find employment and was chronically poor. Finally hired by the local transit company, he quickly impressed his employers with his ability to solve complex equations. He completed his work so fast he was able to work on math problems the rest of the time and submitted several papers to the Indian Journal of Mathematics.

ramanujanIn the meantime, former college professors contacted colleagues at Trinity College, Cambridge University, among them Professor G.H. Hardy. Over time, Hardy persuaded Ramanujan to come to England.  Once there, the Indian encountered prejudice and many scoffed at his lack of training, but Hardy compared him in brilliance to the likes of Jacobi or Euler, stating that he had never met his equal.

In some cases, it took years for others to replicate and develop proofs for equations and theorems that Ramanujan had jotted down. In a letter to Hardy, written from his deathbed, his notations on “mock modular forms” are now proven to have  implications for string theory and black holes.

A devoted Hindu, and deeply religious, Ramanujan said that whole formulas and theorems came to him from God. He was deeply intuitive and credited his substantial mathematical capacities to a divine source.  He said “An equation for me has no meaning, unless it expresses a thought of God.” Ramanujan died in 1920 at the age of 32, but his notebooks and work opened new avenues of inquiry and his calculations are still being proved as true to this day.