Inspiring students: Srinivasa Ramanujan

Image credit: Charles F. Wilson

In 2013, an article was published in this paper about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan - more specifically, an article about the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of his life. Ramanujan’s life was – and remains – an incredible story.

Ramanujan came from humble academic beginnings: a sole interest in mathematics hindered his advancement in school, his failure in non-mathematical coursework leading to the loss of a scholarship to study at Government College in Kumbakonam. But Ramanujan was a legendary mathematician even at a young age, mastering advanced trigonometry by the age of twelve, re-discovering Euler’s identity independently, and conducting research on Bernoulli numbers at the age of 17. So, to continue his mathematical studies, he became a clerk at the Madras Port Trust Office in order to support himself while enrolling in another college.

It was at this time, around 1912-13, that Ramanujan wrote to three academics at Cambridge about his theorems. One of those academics was G. H. Hardy of Trinity College. Hardy, and Littlewood, also a mathematician at Trinity, found many of the theorems that had been sent to them unusual and thought-provoking – which led to an invitation for Ramanujan to come to the University of Cambridge to develop his mathematical research.

But Ramanujan was a Brahmin, which prohibited him from crossing the ocean; his mother in particular was opposed to Srinivasa making the voyage. It was only after receiving her consent that Ramanujan could make the journey from India to Cambridge, arriving in April 1914. The challenges didn’t end there for Ramanujan: Robert Kanigel, the author of The Man Who Knew Infinity (the inspiration behind the movie of the same name), told me there was real racism that made Cambridge an “unwarm atmosphere” at the time.

It is unclear the extent to which Ramanujan experienced this first hand, but he continued to overcome difficulties he faced to excel at Cambridge, becoming the first Indian fellow of Trinity College and the Royal Society. As Mr. Kanigel told me, it was inspiring that he prevailed; there were strong social forces against him, which he overcame. For this, Mr. Kanigel believes Ramanujan is something of an everyman: he was a once in a century genius, but his story stands for all people with ambitions, hopes and dreams.

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