'The man who knew infinity'

It is not often that biographies of even famous personalities steal the limelight 20 years after they have been written.

But Robert Kanigel’s fascinating biography of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, indulgently seized the mental geography of rediscovering the life and times of an impoverished South Indian soul making it big in the hallowed portals of Cambridge with his incredible outburst of functions and equations.

As prime minister Manmohan Singh kicked off the year-long 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Ramanujan in Chennai, Kanigel, a few hours later, transported a large audience of the young and the old to a totally different era — recounting how Ramanujan (Born: Dec 22, 1887; died: April 26, 1920), discovered by an offshore mentor and Cambridge Mathematician G H Hardy, became an inspirational force against all odds. “It is a tragedy that he died young at 32,” mused Kanigel, leaving behind a distinct stamp, an unparalleled legacy in the world of mathematics, something evidenced by Ramanujan’s ‘Notebooks’, which continue to engage mathematicians researching in ‘Number Theory’ even today, and by his collaborative work with Prof Hardy at Cambridge for five years.

Inspired by the Goddess

While accounts of Ramanujan’s early life have not failed to record how his family deity — he hailed from a traditional Hindu Vaishnavite family then living in Kumbakonam-, Goddess Namagiri of Namakkal had inspired him in his dreams after which he would put down a mathematical result in an intuitive flash as it were, Kanigel himself came quite close to the mystical.

One cold day in the late 1980s’ when Kanigel touched down at Madras for his ten-week trip to research on his book on Ramanujan’s life, the science writer was astounded by an encounter soon after his arrival at the airport.

As Ramanujan’s 125th birth anniversary was momentous in itself, Kanigel was quite indulgent with his audience, cautiously recalling that episode. Landing at the airport, Kanigel said he had no clue as to how to go about Madras, until an unbelievable piece of good luck opened the doors.

Kanigel had got into an auto-rickshaw to be taken to a hotel in the city in the dead of that night. Even over 20 years after that episode, the author with a strange admixture of calmness, wonderment and disbelief recalled thus: “Sitting right beside me was a passenger who said his grandfather had worked with Ramanujan in the Madras Port Trust.”

“Do you believe this?” he asked the crowd. Even as they instantly broke into rapturous excitement, Kanigel admitted that moment still baffled him though “I see it as a coincidence most of the times.” “But, some times….,” the biographer paused. Suffice to say, that chance befriending made his research trip ‘very satisfying’.

The passion for numbers haunts every step that as he put it, one can hardly exclude mathematics while writing about Ramanujan’s life.

If Ramanujan had famously stunned Hardy on the significance of the number ‘1729’ – as the smallest number that can be expressed as sum of two cubes in two different ways-, Kanigel was tempted to dwell into the number pattern masked by ‘125’ at the 125th birth anniversary year bash inaugural. “It is the sum of two squares that can be expressed in two different ways-, (ten square plus five square and eleven square plus two square- both when added up gives 125!),” chuckled Kanigel but not daring to go beyond. Nonetheless, the woods are not to be missed for the trees. Taking a broader gaze of what Ramanujan’s life and times means to people now, 125 years after his birth, Kanigel said, “it  represents one-eighth of a millennium; one full cycle of human life has gone by.”

For all the impediments, Ramanujan “was determined to get people to his side,” he remarked. Even “the genius needs to prosper; we all want to live up to our potential that gives life its glow,” Kanigel philosophically summed up.
 
In that sense, Ramanujan “ was like every man” who wants to be happy and successful, observed Kanigel, even as he was delighted that a new, technically far superior two volume edition of Ramanujan’s “Notebooks”, a joint effort of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai, came out on Monday.   

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