Master of numbers Ramanujan

IT is nearly a century since his demise, but the world is still in awe of his brilliance. His notebook scribbling of theorems and proofs still intrigue today's experts; his name continues to appear in research works as the significance of his methods unravel. His popularity as the inventor of 'mock' theta functions is well recorded in history. We still grapple with the right word to describe the mental acuity and genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Today is the birth anniversary of this mathematical genius, whose brief life of 32 years left an indelible mark on the world. In respect for his profound contribution to mathematics, December 22 declared was National Mathematics Day in 2012.

Born 130 years ago (in 1887), most of Ramanujan's life was spent in penury and illness. However, that in no way diminished his ingenuity numbers. Despite lacking formal training in pure mathematics, he possessed an intuitive excellence in the subject and did independent research on the topics of number theory, mathematical analysis, infinite series and continued fractions.

Due to his obsession with mathematics, he often neglected other subjects, which cost him a formal college education. Undeterred, he yearned to showcase his theories to the world, and his letter to professor G H Hardy in Cambridge changed the course of his life. Instantly recognising his mathematical prowess, Hardy encouraged Ramanujan's work and recommended him to the Madras University to pursue research. Soon, the University offered him a scholarship and also met his expenses to travel to England. Ramanujan became the first Indian and the youngest to receive a fellowship of the Royal Society of England.

Most of Ramanujan's work was in the field of advanced mathematics which were way beyond his times. However, Hardy's nurturing and vision enabled the world to enjoy the fruit of his labour and benefit from it. Their collaboration yielded nearly a hundred research papers. In fact, when Hardy was once asked to name his own most significant discovery, his reply was prompt: Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Astounded by Ramanujan's expertise with complex mathematics, Hardy is said to have openly admitted that many of the genius' works were incomprehensible to him. Once when asked to score the ability of his contemporaries, Hardy gave a 100 to the Indian while he rated himself at 25.

In the 1990s, Prof Bruce Carl Berndt, an American mathematician, was instrumental in editing Ramanujan's notebooks. He was amazed at the accuracy of each of the 3,254 entries and found them to be original and unconventional in method. To this day mystery surrounds Ramanujan's mastery with numbers as his prodigy remains incomprehensible to stalwarts.

Innovative methods

Much of Ramanujan's innovative methods and theories could only be worked out many years after his death as his analytical skills were far advanced where western mathematics stood in his era. His calculations paved the way for research in mathematics and multidimensional physics, and his results were eventually proved.

His vision in solving complicated theorems has found extensive use in various fields in our world today. For example, his works on integral calculus are used in the aviation industry to determine the drag force on aircraft; space technology uses his methodology to calculate the effect of earth's gravitational pull on man-made satellites; computer algorithms often apply his techniques to calculate iterations.

One of his neglected manuscripts opened pathbreaking avenues for astrophysicists at the Emory University in Atlanta. In 2012, scientists referred his notes and stumbled upon an entirely new way of understanding the mystery of Black Holes.

Despite his profound talent, the devout Tamil Brahmin had a mysterious humility about him. He would often attribute his contributions as result of visions: wherein a goddess streamed the solutions to him. It is no surprise this genius continues to inspire many.

To quote Astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate, Dr Subramanyan Chandrasekhar: "The work of Ramanujan will be appreciated, as long as people do mathematics."

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