“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air”
Thomas Gray’s ” Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard ”
Thomas Gray was talking about talented people who never have a chance to use their talent, a topic we have covered in earlier articles about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) from research funding, gender bias and outright sexist points of view. Now, a new film may help to address Australia’s perennial shortage of STEM skills, at least in the Maths area, by telling the story of an Indian mathematical genius who died in 1920 and is still causing a stir.
The Man Who Knew Infinity, starring Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, is about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self taught mathematician who died in 1920 at the age of 32. Jeremy Irons plays the leading British mathematician Godfrey Harold (G. H.) Hardy, who invited Ramanujan (Dev Patel) to Trinity College Cambridge during World War 1. The Cab 1729 anecdote is a classic example of Ramanujan’s genius.
Hardy took a cab to visit Ramanujan in hospital and mentioned, as mathematicians do, that the number of his cab was 1729, which he described as “uninteresting”. Ramanujan disagreed, pointing out that 1729 is the smallest number expressible as a sum of two cubes in two distinct ways, i.e.
1,729 = 123 + 13 = 103 + 93 .
Could this kind of anecdote go viral in today’s social media? Is there an unknown genius working on a YouTube video?
An interesting personal account appears in a November 18, 2015 article in The Conversation, The Man Who Knew Infinity: a mathematician’s life comes to the movies. The author is Jonathan Borwein (Jon),Laureate Professor of Mathematics, University of Newcastle, who makes the point that Ramanujan might be unknown if he had been born a few years earlier or a few years later.
For the more mathematically inclined, Ramanujan, His Lost Notebook, Its Importance by Professor Bruce C. Berndt is worth reading. He notes that “In both England and India, Ramanujan was treated for tuberculosis, but his symptoms did not match those of the disease. More recently, an English physician, D. A. B. Young carefully examined all extant records and symptoms of Ramanujan’s illness and convincingly concluded that Ramanujan suffered from hepatic amoebiasis, a parasitic infection of the liver. “
From the 1910 to 1914 Ramanujan recorded his theorems without proofs in 3 notebooks. He intended to provide the proofs and was working on that when he died. However his work with Hardy was higher priority during his 5 years in England, making him famous. The “lost notebook” is a further collection of papers Ramanujan was working on at the time of his death and which then went missing till 1976.
Professor Berndt gives a brief biography of Ramanujan and an account of the work on his notebooks by a number of eminent mathematicians, including the author, following Ramanujan’s death. Among other possible reasons for the missing proofs, the author suggests that “Ramanujan worked primarily on a slate. Paper was expensive, and so writing out all of his proofs on paper would have been prohibitive for Ramanujan. Therefore, after rubbing out the proofs on his slate with his sleeve, Ramanujan recorded only the final results in his notebooks.” He goes on to explain how the “lost notebook” was found and why it is attracting even more attention today, currently influencing many modern branches of both mathematics and physics.
Are there geniuses like Ramanujan waiting to be discovered today? Will the better global communication by the scientific community help to bring out hidden talent? Improved health and education funding to the lowest income groups and to underprivileged countries is probably the key.
If nothing else, The Man Who Knew Infinity may help students and researchers to see that maths is a more interesting subject than they had thought.