The unlikely mathematical genius

A look back at one of the world's greatest mathematicians.
11 April 2016

Interview with 

Professor Catherine Barnard & Adam Perkins, University of Cambridge


Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in a small village outside Madras, India. And in anMaths unlikely turn of events this man, despite having no formal education, became one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. This week, biopic 'The Man who knew Infinity' comes out to celebrate the man's achievements, just over a hundred years after he came to Cambridge to study under Trinity College's G.H. Hardy. Naked Scientist, Graihagh Jackson has the story...

One morning early in 1913 Hardy found among the letters on his breakfast table a large untidy envelope decorated with Indian stamps.  When he opened it he found sheets of paper, by no means fresh, on which in a non-english holograph were line after line of symbols.  Hardy glanced at them without enthusiasm.  He was, by this time, at the age of 36 a world famous mathematician and world famous mathematicians, he'd already discovered, are unusually exposed to cranks.  He put the manuscript aside and went on with his daily routine...

Graihagh - But there was something about this letter that was bugging Hardy.  On those scripts were theorems he's never seen before.  Could this crank actually be an unknown mathematical genius.  It seemed unlikely that a young man with no formal training and from a poverty stricken area of India could have solved some of the fundamental problems of mathematics.  But, nonetheless, he sent a message to his colleague, Littlewood, to meet him after dinner to go over the letter...

Before midnight they knew, and knew for certain, the writer of these manuscripts was a man of genius.

Adam - We are looking at a letter from G.H. Hardy, the mathematician to Scofield, who was librarian to the University Library, Cambridge.

Graihagh - That's Adam Perkins.  He's in charge of all the scientific manuscripts at the Cambridge University Library and he was kind enough to show me some of  Ramanujan's letters.

Adam - And Hardy gives an account of letters that he's been able to salvage from his collection of other papers; all from Ramanujan.

Graihagh - And what I thought was really lovely here is that he said sadly he's lost that first letter but actually he's not surprised because everyone was very interested in his case and so he often handed it around to fellow mathematicians.

Adam - It is the case that he'd circulate his letters saying

 that this is quite extraordinary.  This man I've never heard of before who works in India has sent me this long letter.

Graihagh - They are 15 pages or so long and a lot of it, these mathematical equations, look very impressive but are completely illegible to someone like me.

Adam - Well, indeed.  I deal with a lot of manuscripts and I can assure you these are very clear indeed.

Graihagh - All apart from the mathematical equations?

Adam - Well, the actual content is another matter but at least of the content you know exactly what Ramanujan was writing but the mathematical analysis is something quite different, yes.

Catherine - So, after a number of letters, Hardy invited Ramanujan to Trinity and he would have arrived here in front of the great where we're standing at the moment.  He would have looked up to see the statue of  Henry VIII.  He'd have gone through the gate and into Great Court and been stuck by one of the most beautiful sights in Cambridge.

Graihagh - Professor Catherine Barnard.  She's a Fellow of Law but also a senior tutor at Trinity College.  Now you might be wondering how a Professor of Law has ended up talking to me about maths.  Well, as a senior tutor, Catherine is very involved in running the college and so when the production company asked her if they could film at Trinity she thought, I need to know more about Ramanujan. 

Catherine -   As a lawyer, he's not really crossed my path and so I bought the Robert Kanigel book and really enjoyed the wonderful story about this man who comes from a really very disadvantaged background, gets to Cambridge and does some of the most brilliant maths that has exceptional longevity.

Graihagh - And over a hundred years later, since Ramanujan's arrival, not much has changed here at Cambridge including the iconic Wren Library, which has the only known photograph of the Indian mathematician.

Catherine - What we see in the picture is a rather handsome young man with a rather quizzical expression in his eyes.

Graihagh - This was his passport photo wasn't it?

Catherine - Yes, I think that's absolutely right,yes.

Graihagh - What's really striking to me is actually he's got this Elvis like quiff.  Obviously he was before Elvis.  But his eyes - he's got such big almond eyes - very white and then very dark pupils.  They're quite something.

Catherine - Had the college been mixed he'd have been quite a ladies man but, of course, it wasn't and he only had eyes for one thing and that clearly was maths which was what brought him over here.

Graihagh - What was it like for him?

Catherine - I think he would have suffered terribly from the cold.  I think the other thing that would have really struck him would have been the magnificence of the buildings.  The Wren Library, where we are, with its magnificent light shining through the windows but also the busts, the bookcases, but also probably rather intimidating if you'd come from a very different background.  And I was also rather struck by a quote in Robert Kanigel's book and, if I may, I'll just read you one quote from it.

"In this old town of cobbled walks, grassy courts, and medieval chapels, whole universes away from Madras, Ramanujan had found a kind of intellectual nirvana."

Graihagh - And what made Ramanujan's maths so remarkable?

Catherine - He was a remarkable mathematician.  I think his story's so extraordinary that where he came from in India with next to no training and he developed these extraordinary formula.

Graihagh - I mean it's something in the region of 3000 or 4000 equations he put together, most which have been proven right.  I mean that's just incredible to me.

Catherine - Presumably the man never slept.

Graihagh - I mean indeed because he lived till he was 30, didn't he?

Catherine - Yes.  It was a tragically short life and, obviously, while he got intellectual sucker here, the climate and the food was not good for him.  Obviously he suffered quite a lot physically if not mentally and, very sadly, he didn't live much longer than after he returned to India.

Graihagh - It's amazing to think perhaps what he could have achieved had he lived a bit longer.

Catherine - Absolutely, although it's often said that mathematicians are at their most brilliant in their late twenties, early thirties so perhaps we did see the prime but, who knows.


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