The Man Who Knew Infinity

Ramanujan, a self-trained mathematician unable to find an academic position in India, had a poorly played job as a clerk.   Convinced that he was a genius and desperate to be heard, he sends letters with samples of his work to major British universities.  He receives a reply from Professor G. H. Hardy at Cambridge, who invites him to come to the university.  Things do not go smoothly — many of Hardy’s colleagues are not all that enthusiastic at the idea of working with an uneducated (in their view) Indian.  Even those who accepted his mathematical genius regarded him with a kind of bemused condescension, considering him kind of an idiot savant — someone with genuine insights, but no idea how he got there.  And the social differences loomed large.  Ramanujan, although he lived in abject poverty,  was a Brahmin, used to thinking of himself as a superior being by virtue of his birth.  This did not go over well with his English colleagues, who thought of themselves as sole masters of the universe.  And how did a vegetarian manage to survive in an England where even vegetables were often cooked in lard?

Ramanujan, as it turned out, was capable of producing the rigorous proofs Prof. Hardy thought were necessary for his work to be taken seriously.  So the two men eventually developed a working partnership, if not true friendship.  But Ramanujan could never answer Hardy’s persistent question — where do you get these insights?   Perhaps, said Ramanujan, it is because God speaks to me.  Given that much of Ramanujan’s work was in what mathematicians would call infinite series, that’s as good an answer as any.

The movie works, I think, because of the strong performances of the two leads, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel.  Irons is a fine actor, who has been known to chew the scenery when he is bored with a role.  He is not bored here, and finds the right balance between social awkwardness and political savvy (he is, as it turns out, an adept player of academic politics).  Patel likewise finds the right line in a difficult part, balancing a man aware of his supreme intellectual gifts but one who nevertheless depended on friendship and family support, both of which were sorely lacking in his new world.

Ramanujan returned to India after WWI, and died young, so we don’t know what he might have accomplished with a normal life span.  His work was recognized as brilliant in his own time.  But as is common in number theory, few practical applications for his work were found for many decades.  These days, his work is used in advanced cryptography and to explain the physics of black holes.

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