Thursday, August 23, 2007

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

I did mention that Kanigel presents accurately the things he grasped. But the operative word is Kanigel grasps well, things he can grasp. He may not have a command of Ramanujan's mathematics as well as a math specialist might. He does not hide this fact either. Neither do I. However, when I am reading a book on Ramanujan and his math, I would have been happy to skim over mathematical details *myself*, rather than have the author do it for me. Whenever Kanigel decides to get his hands dirty with Math, he describes certain basic Math concepts and slowly increases depth. However, you are left with a feeling that he is skimming things over. I do not blame him. He has to bear in mind that his audience is Math unfriendly. But I was left with a feeling that Ramanujan's math is still left inaccessible because of a lack of a main stream book that incorporates it.

On several occasions, Kanigel tries hard to describe what Ramanujan is not. Kanigel has obviously spent considerable time in India, where the hype surrounding Ramanujan is tremendous, compared to America. People in India strongly believe Ramanujan couldn't put a foot wrong. Well Ramanujan was wrong, albeit only very few times. But he has made an error or two. So Kanigel tries to put in perspective the few instances in which Ramanujan was wrong. The case where Ramanujan claims to have found, a function, for the number of prime numbers less than x (for example if you supplied a value for 'x', say 32671, then the function would tell you how many prime numbers fall between 0 and 32671), is quoted in great detail. The only problem I had with this is that I was always cut off from Ramanujan's hype. So would most American readers. In an attempt to compensate, balance, and possibly moderate an invisible hype surrounding Ramanujan, Kanigel's presentation of 'both sides' comes out as rather negative. In fact upon reading the book, you don't immediately get why Ramanujan was called a genius. Kanigel uses a lot of subtlety in saying that. You have to pause and think before going - wow! I felt the positives could have been highlighted in more detail - even if it was done so with the aid of metaphors - so that a uninitiated reader can understand the reason behind Ramanujan's genius.

Another negative aspect that I found about Kanigel's presentation of Ramanujan's story was his filling up of gaps in Ramanujan's life. He knew about India's struggle for independence, and the first world war. Both happened when Ramanujan was reasonably close to ground zero. And Kanigel weaves a narration that implies that Ramanujan's life could not have been left untouched by such factors. I have my own doubts on this. However, on parts of the book that indulges in social commentary, Kanigel does not say his opinions in his own words. He carefully cherry picks and quotes other authors of Politicial, social books of that time to make his point. I thought this was an interesting way to narrate your point without being apolitical.

The topic of Ramanujan and Hardy's religious beliefs have not been left untouched by Kanigel. At first I was confused on the relevance of this to Ramanujan's mathematics. Since Ramanujan and Hardy were not known for the religious or philosophical treatises, an elaborate mention of these subjects left me confused. Then I understood that this is the story of Ramanujan - the person. Apparently, Hardy was an atheist and made no bones about it. Ramanujan's religious affiliations are murky. Some, including Hardy, claim that he started off as a religious person and then became disgusted with religion. Others clearly disagree. Kanigel disagrees too.
I remember seeing an old TV documentary about Ramanujan that had a scene where Ramanujan is saying his prayers in front of a shelf with miniature god idols. His thoughts distract/interrupt his prayers and he constantly takes his notebook does some math before resumes his prayer (apparently the ignorant documentary producer was showing Ramanujan doing Sandhyavandhanam in such a curious way). Kanigel claims that a person who regularly did Sandhi and argued on upanishads could not be an atheist. Well he is sort of correct if you factor in the fact that Ramanujan rebelled whenever he wanted to and would have rebelled if he didn't like religion. He didn't. I remember seeing an Einstein video where, while explaining Einstein's ultimately unsuccessful struggle to unify the disparate equations into a single equation, the narrator quotes Einstein claiming that he worked on science because he wanted to understand God and his creations. Ramanujan several times has said that his math is a result of the intuition powered by Goddess Namagiri and completely attributed his prowess to her. But this was an interesting sub-plot. Unnecessary, but very interesting.
To conclude, this book was a very interesting read. Exposed me to the growing number of Ramanujan's experts in America. Not many books have influenced me in a big way. This book has. Makes me wonder if non-management books have more real world wisdom in them.

3 comments:

Babu said...

Excellent write up daaa...make me wanna read it too..so far in similar genre, I have read only Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World"...in which he explains to question beliefs that don't stand regress scrutiny...pretty interesting but very very slow read.

Zero said...

>>"In an attempt to compensate, balance, and possibly moderate an invisible hype surrounding Ramanujan, Kanigel's presentation of 'both sides' comes out as rather negative."

I beg to differ. Genius isn't in correctness at all. As humankind has moved forward in time, different levels of "knowledge" and "truths" have surface and disappeared. That doesn't undo the genius of the ones who offered the earlier "truths."

Hawkeye said...

babu,

the thing you have to think about is 'what sort of scrutiny". sometimes i feel too much importance is given to scientific explanations.

zero,

ramanujan was proven incorrect in his own time. he knew it while being told as incorrect by hardy. that in no way diiminishes his stature but then kanigel provides that more space than necessary.