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The Man Who Created Magic With Numbers

Updated on January 3, 2017

The Story Begins

Once a math teacher, while teaching Class III students said: “Any number divided by itself was one. Divide three fruits among three people, each would get one”. A little boy, with curious eyes, piped up and inquired, “But is zero divided by zero also one? If no fruits are divided among no one, will each still get one?”

The little boy, with the quest to know the infinite, later became an all-time great mathematician in the history of mathematics. Srinivasa Ramanujan, born to a Tamil Brahmin family in Erode, with almost no formal training in mathematics, did wonder with numbers. With life too short and too many footprints left, Ramanujan contributed 4000 original theorems to the field of mathematics.

Srinivasa Ramanujan
Srinivasa Ramanujan

Early Life

Kumbakonam is where the story of this magician begins. The temple town in Thanjavur district, 270 km south of Chennai, was where Ramanujan grew up after his birth to K. Srinivasa Iyengar, a clerk with a cloth merchant, and homemaker Komalatammal on December 22, 1887.

In 1898, young Ramanujan joined the Kumbakonam Town High School, where he came across G. S. Carr’s book, Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure Mathematics, a book that influenced the young boy in ways that shook the world of mathematics.

In 1906, after his matriculation, Ramanujan left Kumbakonam for his higher secondary. The biography of Ramanujan authored by Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity, from which the movie has been adapted, illustrates the most authentic account of Ramanujan’s early life. Kanigel writes, when Ramanujan first arrived at the Madras railway station, he was so exhausted and disoriented that he fell asleep in the waiting room.

“A man woke him up, took him back to his house, fed him, gave him directions, and sent him on his way to the Pachaiyappa’s College. However, he managed to fail his intermediary exams and took up a job as an accountant in Madras Port Trust. Ramanujan spent most of his early life in a flat in Hanumantharayan street in Triplicane, Chennai, furiously scribbling equations on scraps of papers.

G.H. Hardy
G.H. Hardy

Ramanujan Became Serious About Mathematics

Too poor to afford notebooks, he used to work out his equations on a large slate and erase them with his elbow. It was in 1907, that Ramanujan started to seriously think about his career in mathematics. Stuck in poverty and with no formal college degree, Ramanujan desperately needed a benefactor, when Seshu Aiyar, a professor at Presidency College, Madras, suggested him to write to G.H. Hardy, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Cayley Lecturer in Mathematics at Cambridge and a celebrated mathematician. Fortune was not with him and hence Ramanujan did not get any response to his first letter that had 120 theorems.

But Ramanujan wrote again to Hardy, “I am already a half-starving man. To preserve my brains, I want food and this is now my first consideration.

Any sympathetic letter from you will be helpful to me here to get a scholarship either from the University or from Government.” Ramanujan’s letter and notes intrigued Hardy, who then took them to his colleagues in Cambridge.

It was on the recommendation of Hardy and his colleagues, Ramanujan was considered for a scholarship at the University of Madras.

But how could a man without a bachelor’s degree be granted a scholarship? He had even failed his intermediate exams. Thankfully, he did not fail in mathematics. University records at Tamil Nadu Archives reveals that Ramanujan had failed in English and Sanskrit, but had scored 85, out of 150, in maths.

Of course, that is not a score for a mathematician of his capability to be proud of, but it is guessed that Ramanujan, an eccentric genius, only attempted the questions that interested him. Although there were dissenting voices, the insistence of Vice Chancellor P. R. Sundaram Iyer favored Ramanujan and his scholarship amount of Rs.75 was cleared on April 12, 1910.

The Last Years

Now Ramanujan could afford notebooks to scribble his equations. Luck was in his favor in 1914 he received the scholarship to travel to England, where he was awarded B.A. Degree by the research of the Cambridge University in 1916 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in February 1918.

During his stay in England, he collaborated with Hardy and made significant contributions to mathematical research. In less than five years, Ramanujan was back to India, stooped in illness, fighting malnourishment. He died a year later, on April 26.

But the last year of his life that he spent in Chennai was by no means any less significant for the field of mathematics. The mathematics that Ramanujan developed during his last days has a high potential for applications in number theory and also in physics and some of them are significant to string theory.

We all know the saying that when there is a will there is a way and Ramanujan stands as an inspiring example. No matter how many obstacles life offered or how much misfortune he faced, in his 32 years of life, he did what a few could have imagined.

Tease Your Brain with S. Ramanujan's Magic Square

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