I have now gone through all the different types of blog posts that were assigned in our course. I am looping back to looking at the history of mathematics in this blog since I feel that my last post on the history of mathematics was a tad recent.
Ramanujan interested me right away when we talked about him in class. I didn’t know exactly what drew me to him at first, though by the end of my research I was a little clearer. I watched a BBC documentary on him for one of my class daily’s and decided that writing a brief history on him would be an enlightening experience for why I was interested. The first part of this blog will be a brief history of his life, followed by a section on his work, and finishing with a critical view of his life and legacy.
Ramanujan is one of those mathematicians that come around once in a hundred years. He had an innate ability to understand math in ways that were far from traditional. Growing up in a small town in India, his ability in math could not carry him forward in traditional academics since his other subjects were far from proficient. He taught himself mathematics from limited sources and began communicating with GH Hardy in his early twenties. In the early 1900’s Ramanujan left India and came to Cambridge to work with Hardy. His life was far from happy here. He was a strict vegetarian because of his Hinduism. But because of the intensity of his vegetarianism (nothing could be cooked in a pan that had once held meat) he often didn’t eat. He wrote home to his wife to send food “the cheapest route possible.” Because of the weather and his lack of nutrition Ramanujan was frequently sick. He left after six years in England, but was so sick that he lived barely a year in India.
According to his widow, Ramanujan was always doing “sums.” His mathematics was focused on infinite series, continual fractions, and other areas of mathematics. His development of a theorem that can predict the number of divisions for any given number is revolutionary. It combines areas of mathematics that many wouldn’t equate to each other. His way of doing math was simple and not like that of traditional math that requires rigorous proofs. Because of this he wasn’t well received in an academic environment that was more traditional. It is only because of Hardy that his work was known at all. Even though Hardy acknowledges the brilliance of Ramanujan, much of Ramanujan’s work is written with Hardy instead of alone.
The last part of this blog will be a more critical view of his life and legacy. Ramanujan is viewed as this brilliant mind that left us with so much that we don’t understand. Rightfully so, there is a critique of how he was treated in England. But more than anything else the story is just sad. In the entirety of my research there seems to be a prevalence of sadness. The unforgiving school system in India didn’t support him, the racist undertones in England didn’t respect his work unless he conformed to their norms, the unsupported restrictions of his religion and diet, and more led to a life that was sad in England. But all of this sadness can be blamed on others. My thoughts are that he partly chose this sadness as well.
There is a story from his widow that talks about how he would be so focused on his sums that he wouldn’t stop to eat. His wife was forced to put rice in his hand so that he wouldn’t forget to eat. This makes me think the guy was a jerk. What kind of person doesn’t care enough about his wife to stop and eat dinner with her? I understand that I can’t judge a culture by my standards, but I don’t like this. Ramanujan also leaves his wife alone for years while he pursues his math in England. I don’t care how brilliant one is and how important one’s work is, there has to be a level of humanity in oneself.
What I would argue is that there needs to be a broader scope when looking at the life and legacy of Ramanujan. There needs to be a continuation of understanding that England’s academic system was not as receiving as it should have been. But there needs to be an affirmation of the support he did get from Hardy. There needs to be a disdain for a culture that was less welcoming than it should have been for someone who came with a different way of doing things, but through the proper hermeneutical and forgiving lens. There needs to be honesty when looking a Ramanujan’s personal life that allows one to be critical while again looking through the correct lens. Ramanujan is a man who will not be forgotten but a story that is laden with sadness.