Srinivasa Ramanujan: A Book and A Movie

April 26th marked the 101st death anniversary of one of 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan. By coincidence, I was finishing ‘The Indian Clerk’ by David Leavitt at just about this time. And then went on to watch ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’.

When it comes to the book, even with its various digressions, the mystic mathematical genius of Ramanujan comes through. The trials and tribulations of lower-middle class lad from the deep South of India, steeped in religious tradition, totally unprepared for the England of the 1910s, are heart-rending. The mathematical genius is an uncomfortable social being–moody, vulnerable, lonely, awkward, under-confident. Never mind food for the heart and soul in terms of companionship and friendship, he does not have enough food to keep in good health. First his strict vegetarian regime and various taboos make it imperative to cook for himself. But more seriously, as the First World War breaks out, he does not even get basic rations, vegetables and fruits. This, coupled with the cold, had lasting impacts on his health, which not only led to serious bouts of illness and hospital stays, but his tragically untimely death at the age of 32.

Away from anything familiar, longing for his wife, and with only a few Indian friends, how lonely life must have been!

But whatever the body, the heart and the soul missed, the mind just went on! And in Prof Hardy who was instrumental in bringing him to Cambridge, England, he had an intellectual companion, albeit they did not always agree on ‘ways and means’. Ramanujan’s refusal to provide systematic proof for his intuitive mathematical assertions led to many an argument. His insistence that his mathematical claims and insights were written on his tongue by the Goddess Namagiri irritated and baffled Hardy.

Ramanujan’s legacy was in the form of 37 published papers, as well as three notebooks and a ‘lost’ notebook (discovered only in 1976) with approximately 4,000 mathematical claims, most without proofs. Almost all of these have now been proved, in the century and more after his death. They continue to inspire modern-day mathematics and expand its boundaries.

I got a sense of all this from the book.

Coming to the movie, starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan, I found it sadly unsatisfying. To begin with, I could not reconcile the tall, debonair and poised Patel with my image of the short, stout, badly dressed and awkward Ramanujan. However good the actor, there have to be some physical similarities. It cannot be that the first Indian at hand is cast in a movie with an Indian protagonist. Ben Kingsley’s looks were as important as his acting, in bringing the Mahatma to life.

And then, small trivial details about life and mores in Tamilnadu of a century ago. Just a little fact-checking could have made it so much better.

Though both are for a general audience and cannot by definition get into too much math, of course a book can deal a little better with math than a movie can. So there is that too.

Both play up the ‘saas-bahu’ drama between Ramanujan’s mother and wife to the hilt, the movie a little more sympathetic to the MIL than the book.

All in all, worth it for anyone to spend some time on. It will surely awaken a sense of wonder about the unimaginable achievements of a short life—not only blazing paths that no Indian had trod, but impacting the course of mathematics for times to come. And give a sense of genius which is beyond rational explanation.

‘Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigal, is a more serious, and hence somewhat heavier read. There is also a movie titled ‘Ramanujan’, which I have yet to see.

–Meena

Stamp on Numbers

Actually, that should read ‘Stamps on Numbers’. But ‘Stamp on Numbers’ is something I would have liked to say to my Math teachers, so let me work it out my system!

Browsing through the books in the home bookshelf is an obsessive COVID activity with me, as with many others. In this exercise, I came across a book entitled ‘Wonder of Numbers’ by Clifford Pickover. While I am sure the book has lots to teach on mathematics, what I found most interesting was a snippet that the country of Nicaragua had, in 1971, issued a series of stamps called the “The 10 mathematical formulas which have changed the face of the world”. The ten selected formulae:

  • 1 + 1 = 2
  • Pythagorean law for right-angled triangles
  • Archimedes’ law of moments
  • Napier’s law of logarithms
  • Newton’s law of gravitation
  • Maxwell’s law of electromagnetism
  • de Broglie’s law of light waves
  • Tsiolkovskii’s law of rocket motion
  • Boltzmann’s law of entropy, and
  • Einstein’s law of relativity.  

The back of each stamp apparently has a small explanation of the formula. No one is quite sure how these particular formulae were selected, but what I found most fascinating was that a country would think of putting out such a series!

Delving a little more taught me that there were several hundreds of stamps across the world, devoted to mathematics and mathematicians.

Several countries have brought out stamps on Mathematics Education. https://mathematicalstamps.eu/news/100

Nicaragua, Iran and Mexico have brought out stamps on the theme of ‘Counting on Fingers’. There are several stamps which highlight calculating instruments like Pascal’s Mechanical Calculator, William Schickard’ calculating device, the Slide Rule, etc.

A number of stamps have featured statistical themes, such as a graph showing the Norwegian gross national product growth from 1876 to 1976, and one depicting the decline in malaria.

There have been many stamps devoted to games and pastimes based on mathematical reasoning. Chess and Go—a Chinese game—have quite a few each. But so do other lesser known ones–Senet an early form of backgammon; an Egyptian game from 1350 BC played by two players on a 3 x 10 board; the African game of eklan which consists of a board with 24 holes, arranged in concentric squares into which sticks are inserted etc.  Of course, the Rubik cube, invented by the Hungarian engineer Erno Rubik, a coloured cube whose six faces can be independently rotated so as to yield 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different patterns, has a stamp or two.

The metric system was introduced in 1960 and gradually, most countries have adopted this system of weights and measures. There are quite a few ‘metrication stamps’ including:

  • a Brazilian metric ruler
  • a Romanian stamp demonstrating that a metre is one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator
  • a stamp from Pakistan demonstrating the metric units of weight, capacity and length
  • two Australian cartoon stamps featuring the metric conversion of length and temperature
  • a Ghanaian stamp indicating that a metre of cloth is a little more than 3 feet 3 inches.

Since 1897, International Congresses of Mathematicians have been held at which thousands of mathematicians from around the world gather to learn about the latest developments in their subject. These meetings usually take place every four years. Several of these congresses have been commemorated by stamps.

India has a few mathematical stamps too. Aryabhatta, Ramanujam and DD Kosambi are celebrated on Indian stamps. Jantar Mantar, the remarkable observatory designed by mathematicians and astronomers figures on a stamp too. The decimal system which originated in India and is a fundamental contribution, is actually celebrated in a stamp brought out by Nepal through a depiction of an Ashoka Pillar from Lumbini, which portrays this.

My search engine wanderings led me to a world which I did not know existed, and from where I have gleaned most of this information. The world of people who love mathematics, stamps and mathematical stamps .

Some of these, which are also the sources of much of the above information:

https://mathematicalstamps.eu/news/100

http://users.wfu.edu/kuz/Stamps/stamppage.htm

Stamping through Mathematics. Robin J. Wilson. Springer.

Mathematics and science : an adventure in postage stamps. William L.Schaaf. Reston.

Have fun!

–Meena