The book The Man who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel, sheds light on the life of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan’s story is exceptional due to his background and all the circumstances that surrounded his life. The book explains to the very smallest detail, who Ramanujan really was as a human, the challenges he overcame and why he was so special. In the book, Education, Religion and Society (including family influence) are the some of the things that shaped Ramanujan and his way of thinking.
Coming from an impoverished family in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, during British Rule, Ramanujan knew life’s economic difficulties. He had essentially grown up a single child, since his only 2 surviving brothers had been born as he had grown up. Even though he was of a poor family Ramanujan’s family always encouraged his studies from a very early age. The genius, always had his way, and at times did not want to go to school for one reason or another.
He received a lot of attention from his mother, who essentially encouraged him to educate himself, in any way possible.
Coming from a Brahmin family, Ramanujan grew up with tremendous religious influence in his life. Brahmins are the highest in the caste structure in India. They are the priestly caste, and in essence, are the leaders of spiritual nourishment and education in Hinduism. His mother, being particularly religious, sang at one of the local temples and carried him with her.
He was participant in the poojas (worship) at home and was well instructed, as any good Brahmin boy should, in all the Hindu writings, myths and laws. Ramanujan loved and enjoyed all this.
It’s interesting to note that the author makes reference that mathematics and Hinduism have had a long relationship in India. On page 85 of the book, he makes a fleeting reference to this Mathematics-Hinduism relationship. Indian’s as inquisitive peoples and religious at that, used mathematics to gain answers to their questions. Their use of astronomy, astrology and others subjects, obliged them to find deeper meaning in mathematics. Perhaps this same inquisitive itch hit our genius! Being a Brahmin opened up opportunities for Ramanujan, that perhaps he would not have had.
Certainly, the opportunities would’ve been null in this period of time. Casteism, today, is still a “silent” big deal in India, therefor in Ramanujan’s time it was of a very loud and public importance. If one understands the importance of caste in India, one knows that class and finance are of little importance in contrast with caste. Riches are, but caste is a birth mark, it is God-given and it is not changed unless one “dies” spiritually, in other words, renounces his faith as a Hindu. Ramanujan was poor economically, but was born privileged!
As a Brahmin, he was opened doors that others could only dream of. His status as a Brahmin gained him the friendship and kindness of well-off Brahmins. During the financially precarious times, these men would be the ones to lend a hand, job, and roof to Ramanujan. These are necessities that kept him afloat before his big break. Ramanujan’s first love was said to be infinity. When he wrote to a mathematical journal on nested roots, there was no reply. He offered a solution, but his real inquiry was “what happened if you were never finished” and the “number of nested square roots was infinite”?
Infinity was like a mystical realm that none wanted to approach. The unseen or unknown, are not the topic of conversation among intellectuals such as science and mathematicians. Throughout history it has been shown that those bright men who wanted to dwell deeper into the “unseen” aspects of our world, have never fared well in society. Columbus himself was laughed at and made fun of for his “ludicrous” idea that the earth was round. Fortunately for him, he fared much better than others who challenged ideas in their time. Ramanujan was passionate and was stopped at nothing to prove his theorems.
Furthermore, this inquisition of infinity proved that he was in fact, not afraid of questioning or exploring the “unseen” part of our world. Perhaps it was his inquisitive nature, perhaps his high spirituality, we will never know! Kanigel’s book on the genius was impressive to me because he showed Ramanujan’s humanity. As a bright man, he must be hailed as so. But, what makes someone bright? What challenges did they over come? Why are they special? I learned a lot of Srinivas Ramanujan’s life and pondered, too, on his life and why his circumstances shaped him to be who he was.
Granted, he showed his genius at a young age, but all the chances and circumstances that were a part of his life, did create the outcome of his fortunate opportunity to go to Cambridge. He was rejected by 2 outstanding mathematicians, but he persevered and at the 3rd time, it was the fortunate strike! The book offered very helpful cultural background for those who are not acquainted with India, her society, customs and people. I learned a few things myself! The author spent several months in south India preparing and conducting the appropriate research for the book.
This was incredibly impressive, since I myself know that the area were Ramanujam was form is notoriously hot and humid, making it excruciating, even for the locals. He lived this time in India to get in-depth and accurate knowledge of his subject. The book is highly intellectual on its math portions. I am not a big fan of math and I perform at very mediocre level in mathematics, so it was painful for me to read and could not feel much enthusiasm for every new “leap” Ramanujan achieved mathematically! I just could not understand the mathematical portions at all, but the humanity and history in the book, kept my interest at all times!
The author does not lend a “lenient” flavor to the book, but rather a narrative to Ramanujan’s life, with brief commentaries and facts on society and culture. It is a shame that this interesting man, and intriguing human being, died at such a premature age! What kind of works would he be doing today? One can only wonder! But, one thing is for sure, Ramanujan left behind a legacy, and with me, a new respect. A respect for mathematics and for perseverance, and yes, perhaps an acceptance to be stubborn and follow my own passions as he did!