Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Tasted Sweetness

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, Robert Kanigel

Reading the life of Ramanujan (pronounced something like Raa-MAA-nuh-jun) is likely to put those of an old-fashioned literary bent in mind of Grays Elegy in a Country Churchyard, lines fifty-three to fifty-six:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomd caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Or to put it in other, less poetic words: some people never realize a minute fraction of their very great potential. Many more geniuses have been born than have ever been heard of, and Ramanujan was nearly one of those born but never heard of, because he was born into a poor family in southern India in 1887. Without luck and a lot of hard work by his friends, he might have never taken his rightful place in history besides the likes of Gauss and Euler as one of the most intellectually gifted human beings who have ever lived.
And if youre wondering what he was gifted in, then youve obviously never heard of Gauss or Euler, which is a pity. Gauss and Euler were mathematicians and mathematics is probably the greatest of all human intellectual achievements, perhaps, paradoxically, because it is also the simplest and most direct of all subjects. That is why maths is so accessible to anyone with the right kind of mind. It doesnt depend on language or race or culture but on intellect, and that is why Ramanujan, despite his background, was able to climb to its peak.
Though even at its peak there were mists of prejudice and culture, which was why it took some time before the men who shared the peak with him even those further from the summit than he was were able to recognize him as one of themselves: a supremely gifted mountaineer of the mind. Ramanujan wrote three letters to mathematicians at Cambridge University and was ignored twice. The third letter, however, reached a mathematician called G.H. Hardy, who glimpsed something in it that his colleagues had missed, gave it more time and thought, and realized the truth: that the gods of mathematicians had chosen a new favorite in a country thousands of miles from the wealthy centres of intellectual life in Europe and America.
Because Hardy was powerful and had a great deal of influence, he was able to have this new favorite of the gods brought to England. By doing so, he very probably killed him: Ramanujan died before he was forty, in 1920, and his death almost certainly had a great deal to do with the cold and poor diet he endured in England during the First World War. Robert Kanigel weaves that story into the wider tapestry of Ramanujans life and the still wider tapestry of British and Indian and Anglo-Indian history and produces not just one of the best scientific biographies I have ever read, but one of the best biographies of any kind. You dont need to know anything about mathematics beyond the fact that it exists to appreciate the romance and tragedy of Ramanujans life, or its greatness, and one of the books central messages that genius can so easily go unnoticed or unappreciated has been a theme of literature too.
As my quotation from Gray proves. Ramanujan was lucky, though as a Brahmin he was less lucky than he might have been. If you dont understand that, its another reason to read this book, because it will teach you a lot not just about a genius, and genius itself, but about Indian and British culture and history too.

No comments:

Post a Comment