To Infinity And Beyond: The Unique Friendship Of Ramanujan And Hardy.

This is a guest article by Radhika Bangar, a computer science engineering student from North Maharashtra University, Jalgaon. 

The Man Who Knew Infinity a film by Mathew Brown is an account of the unlikely friendship between two geniuses, GH Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan.

The History

In Chennai of early 1900’s few would have noticed a young accountant, whose coat tail flapping in the breeze, a brick red namam (Tilak) on his forehead. Yes! He was S Ramanujan a young Indian genius who created a history in Mathematics. We all know what Ramanujan has given us. He died in year 1920, a promising life cut short but not before he had stunned the West with his intuitive theorems in Mathematics, with over 3,900 theorems and results to his credit. His infinite series of pi (symbol) was among his most celebrated findings. When he died he was only 32, a life to short to leave too many footprints.

It all began in year 1907 when Ramanujan started thinking of a career in Mathematics, but he was poor, had no formal college education and desperately needed a benefactor. It was Seshu Aiyar, a professor at Presidency College, Madaras, who suggested Ramanujan to write letters to GH Hardy, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Cayley Lecturer in Mathematics at Cambridge, a celebrated mathematician who was 10 years Ramanujan’s senior.

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S.Ramanujan (Image: Wikipedia)

His very first letter dated January 16th, 1913 had about 120 theorems. But he got no reply. He again wrote with loud and clearness in his talks

“I am already a half-starving man. To preserve my brain, I want food and this is now my first consideration. Any sympathetic letter from you will be helpful to me here to get a scholarship either from University or the Government.”

Hardy would have ignored it just like the two other mathematicians who received the letter. Perhaps it was introduction of the letter that captured Hardy’s imagination enough to move him respond.

“Dear Sir,
I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only 20 Euros per annum. I am 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by local mathematics as ‘startling’.”

An excerpt from the first letter Ramanujan sent to GH Hardy.

Hardy intrigued by Ramanujan’s letter and notes, is said to have taken them to his colleagues in Cambridge. Ramanujan’s journey as a mathematician began. He could now afford to buy notebooks to scribble his findings, but these notebooks found their way to England much before Ramanujan himself did. Hardy invited him to England but his mother was not in favor to his sailing to a foreign land. Luckily for Ramanujan, his mother had a dream of being surrounded by Europeans and heard Goddess Namagiri commanding her to stand no longer her son and his purpose.
Filmmaker Mathew Brown says,

“I became fascinated by the relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy. They are two men so fundamentally different. Ramanujan was Brahmin Indian from Madras with no formal education, who believed a formula has no meaning unless it expressed a thought of God. Hardy on other hand was a reserved professor at the prestigious Trinity College at Cambridge University and also an avowed atheist. It is an incredible story of how two people were able to overcome their personal differences to form one of the greatest collaborations in the history of Mathematics.”

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G.Hardy

Since the selected 100 or so seductive mathematical theorems he sent to Hardy were not supported by proofs. That’s where his mere intuitions came to play. He would go to tell Hardy that each equation is related to God, in some way, and that Goddess Namagiri ( his ancestral deity) would put equation to his tongue when he was asleep. Hardy, a staunch atheist, saw past the religiousness, a superlative mathematician. And still remains the most scientific partnership till date.

Strong bond of Friendship whose base was mathematics

Differences of culture, religion and race are plenty; the overcoming of them – or not – provides for sufficient drama to gorge on. At Harvard conference, Hardy summarized his relationship with Ramanujan succinctly. He said, “It was the one romantic incident in my life.” It was the chemistry, the tension and back and forth initiated by Hardy on mere intuition influenced Ramanujan’s mathematics immensely. Hardy served as a father-figure to Ramanujan; a distant impersonal father who was the ideal taskmaster and had high expectations of Ramanujan.

These two men despite of their differences were brought together by the destiny; It was the passion that they shared kept them together.

“It was a romance of a shared passion.”

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