Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Book Review: A Life of The Genius Ramanujan - The Man Who Knew Infinity

A lot of people are fascinated about Ramanujan. This fascination fascinated me. Why? Why the rush to know more about him? Is the layman qualified enough to know him? What sort of pleasure would I get in reading something, that I know fully well, I may not understand. Is there a human ego to contend here? Is there a primitive testosterone based urge to convince ourselves that we are indeed good enough to understand a work of a "genius"? Yes, many are seduced by the sexiness of his story. While many try to know more about the work that he has done, only very few actually get a grasp of its purported "magnificence". Robert Kanigel, the author of this book, puts in perspective the attempts of a common man to understand and possibly admire Ramanujan ; "because it lies on a cool ethereal plane beyond everyday passions of human life, and because it can fully be grasped only through a language in which most people are unschooled, Ramanujan's work grants direct pleasure to only a few - a few hundred mathematicians and physicists around the world, perhaps a few thousand. The rest of us must sit on the sidelines and, on the authority of the cognoscenti, cheer, or else rely on vague, metaphoric, and necessarily imprecise glimpses of his work"

A cousin of mine claimed to be a Ramanujan expert and kept doing square roots for arbitrary license plate numbers he saw. He even told me that Ramanujan wrote awesome theorems, which were burnt in a fire accident leaving us with only conclusions and no proof. Another old man told me that the white man stole Ramanujan's work, took credit and killed him through starvation. I understood all this to be untrue as I read this book. More importantly it convinced me that the closer you go to people, who are so called 'Ramanujan experts', the more you will get disappointed. As Kanigel puts it, many try and relate Ramanujan's work to the common man by comparing him with Bach, Beethoven, and Michelangelo. I have been listening to Beethoven for a decade, and I can't say I fully understand him either. So understanding and taking pleasure from Ramanujan's work through comparisons with art is "for a layman, to be sure, this is an ultimately unsatisfying way to confront Ramanujan's mathematics, for it keeps us at several removes from what he did, leaves us having to take others word for it, looking at his mathematical achievements through a blurry film of metaphor, poetry, and, yes, ignorance. True, the composition of a sonata maybe equally mysterious; but the result more intimately involves the five senses."

Robert Kanigel's book has been on my 'To Read' list for a really long time. Once as a guest to some body's house in Dallas, I got so bored with the proceedings of the evening dinner that I decided to take this book from a shelf and read it. I read about 70-80 pages. I was so fascinated by Kanigel's grasp of South Indian life that I decided to read the book in entirety later, which did not happen until recently. Remember, this book is meant for an American audience. To capture South Indian life, more precisely, Kumbakonam life, is not an easy task. Yet, Kanigel's preciseness is amazing. The details that he can grasp, he grasps well and presents it with a depth that very few foreign writers about Tamil Nadu have managed. You get none of the stereotyping, approximations and glossing over that other North Indian and foreign writers tend to do while writing about Tamil Nadu. For example, he casually mentions that a marriage is over only after the 'sapthapathi' is complete - which - not many South Indian Brahmin's know. He delves deep into aspects of Ramanujan's customs, rituals, more specifically his Brahmanism, vegetarianism. The analysis on Ramanujan's habit of eating with his hand and the precautions such people take in everyday life to keep that hand clean is simply amazing. Kanigel's attention to detail is outstanding and more often than not - on an un-American subject, he comes out with an accurate analysis - something which even authors from Tamil Nadu fail to do. And if you feel he got it wrong somewhere, think again.

Briefly Ramanujan's story had 3 aspects; 1) Mathematics; Ramanujan worked in an area called pure Mathematics. This is an area of mathematics that rarely, if ever, has any practical application. It will not help the world become better than what it already is. If it does, its purely accidental. Ramanujan's genius lay in his understanding of numbers and its properties. It was purely pure. Hardy was a mathematician who clearly disliked people's penchant for applied Mathematics. He detested it and believed in Math for Math's sake. So Ramanujan-Hardy was a near perfect marriage. Ramanujan schooled in Sarangapani Sannathi Street, Kumbakonam, was unexposed to progress of modern Mathematics in Europe, and so ended up reinventing theorems already invented by Euler or Jacobi. This does not diminish, in fact it adds to, Ramanujan's greatness. However, it significantly wasted his time. Carr's book of formulas, which was a pocket formulae book of sorts that contained only final conclusions/theorems and no proofs, greatly influenced Ramanujan in his formative years. Because of that book, Ramanujan truly believed that Math was done and dealt with in end results. Many can have this wrong assumption but to continue doing Math in such a style - you need to be Ramanujan. Either the book accelerated Ramanujan's horsepower or Ramanujan was already super-intelligent - Ramanujan's intuition powered him to directly provide a solution for many problems without going through a formal proof process (so much for my cousin's fire theory) . That he was able to see properties for numbers, which others hardly saw, made his art look like magic. But he wasn't a human calculator, which is a lower form of genius. He was a very intuitive person. Hardy's 'prove it' attitude greatly, but correctly, altered Ramanujan's working style. For his mathematics, Ramanujan was considered equivalent of Math gods such as Euler and Jacobi, which is pretty much the highest honor a mathematician can receive. If his life hadn't been terminated, Math would have been immensely richer.

2) Ramanujan/Hardy's Personal Life: Ramanujan was an orthodox Iyengar, who was subject to the customs of his time. He was fat, was mama's little obedient boy with little interest in sports. You could call him a Thayir Sadham (curd rice) and you would be partially correct. But only partially. Kanigel brings out Ramanujan's social ineptness very well. In contrast, Hardy was, well, gay. Which in orthodox 18/19th century England was blasphemous. Hardy was also a cricket fanatic and lawn tennis player apart from being a handsome man with excellent social skills. Both were rebels in their own form and style. Ramanujan was, though not wretchedly but, unbelievably poor. He couldn't afford education. Lost his scholarship, failed in exams, and ran away from home. He led a life, which in those days bordered on knife's edge. Nobody, not even him, knew how he would survive the next day. A life, which in today's world will be considered ridiculous. The only typical thing is his life was that; he married a girl almost a decade younger than him, his mother ill-treated that girl and kept them apart. However, unlike most daughter-in-laws, Ramanujan's wife ran away when he was in England and returned only when he came back. Not only did he have such probems burning background while he was busy being a genius, Ramanujan, himself, was an ultra-sensitive person, bordering on super-eccentric genius. He urinated/excreted on the math papers, when he found out that his 'original' work had already been invented by Euler. He ran away from his England home, when his guests did not appreciate his cooking. He tried to commit suicide because he wasn't as productive as he thought he would be(his sickness kept him away from math).

3) Ramanujan, a pioneer NRI: People forget that NRIs (Non Resident Indians) weren't common during Ramanujan's time (1914). Yes, Indians were slaves, workers, barristers and all that but we didn't belong to anything remotely upper class. The travel, the culture shock, the racism (India was British colony) that he might have faced while mingling with low-class British cannot be understated. But the religious connotations are also fascinating; "For an orthodox Hindu - and Ramanujan came from a very orthodox Hindu family - travelling to Europe or America represented a form of pollution. It was in the same category as publicly discarding the sacred thread, eating beef, or marrying a widow. And, traditionally, it had the same outcome - exclusion from caste. That meant your friends and relatives would not have you to their homes. You could find no bride or bridegroom for your child. Your married daughter couldn't visit you without herself risking ex-communication. Sometimes you couldn't go into temples. You couldn't even get the help of a fellow caste man for a funeral of a family member. Here was the grim, day-to-day meaning of the word out caste." Ramanujan was a rebel who not only defied such a disproportionate challenge but also adapted, mingled and mixed with the English to the point where visiting Indian students called him Socially 'good'.

It is the combination of the three incredible aspects of Ramanujan's life that makes it so interesting, romantic and sexy. Not his Math, which awesome as it might have been, is clearly beyond common man's grasp. What I understood was that - just being genius in mathematics was not enough for Ramanujan. He had to contend with family chaos, dislocation from his reality and the inherent mental imbalances that his math abilities had given him. This is the part that a common man usually grasps. This is what makes Ramanujan's story fascinating for the common man. The fact that these worldy aspects curtailed Ramanujan's career is as interesting as the fact that such a career was curtailed.

To Be Continued.


Hari N Iyer said...

u make me wanna pick up the book and read it immediately.....

looking forward to the book and part 2 of the review

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Awesome review, sire! Will read the book whenever I get my hands on it!

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Anonymous said...


Your blog entry makes me wanna read the book too.

Why do Americans/people who live in America call 'maths' as 'math'? I guess it is an american way of english. But still? Any particular reason?



Venkat said...

this is one time where you are not going to influence me into buying a book Hawkeye coz I've already finished reading it :-)

to be honest, it was more the curiosity to know more about an Indian/Tamilian/Iyengar genius (genius as in cool dude) that was the lure. I would doubt that the common man reads about Ramanujan to understand his genius, well maybe math fanatics might.., but to most of us the attraction is in the association and the USP is his persona and challenges as you have pointed out.

what impressed me most was the detail in which Kanigel understands the nuances of the Tamilian caste-subcaste heirarchy and goes about setting the tone for the book by detailing it..

Hawkeye said...

hari, sudipta.

thanks dude! the book is good. read it when you get a chance.




thanks dude. i personally think math is more correct. 'math' is a simple truncation of 'mathematics' after the 'h'. Whereas 'maths' is more complicated and un-straightforward. it is a StringTokRemove("mathematics", "ematic") - in that it takes the first four letters and joins it with the last letter. What makes math even bad is its pronunciation as 'max'.


true true. he is well aware of all the happenings in india and around the world during ramanujan's time and somehow interweaves both.

Anonymous said...

point noted. Thx.

Yea I hate it when people pronounce it as 'Max'.

Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Maths geeks won't read books like these anyway. They stick to maths than personalities.

btw, why don't people make a movie out of his life? They could atleast make a cheesy lovable version like they did with John Nash. Are the big studios sleeping in India?