Sunday, September 15, 2013
Book Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel
This is one of the most fascinating and incredible books I have read in recent times. It is the biography of the famous Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.
The book’s blurb states: “The Man Who Knew Infinity is a fascinating biography of the brilliant, self-taught Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan. It is also a history of the astonishingly fruitful cross-cultural collaboration between this young, ill-educated mathematical genius and his mentor at Cambridge University, G. H. Hardy – a relationship that turned the world of mathematics upside down before it withered and died through a combination of Indian bureaucratic short-sightedness, superstition, English spiritual asceticism and the First World War. Robert Kanigel, author of The One Best Way, tells this extraordinary tale, assessing the legacy of a man whose work contains some of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science, and whose major papers are still being plumbed for their secrets today.”
When I picked up the book, I was a bit apprehensive about reading the biography of a mathematician – I wondered if I would be able to follow it. However, my apprehensions were laid to rest. Kanigel’s attempt at piecing together Ramanujan’s brilliant and short life (he died at the young age of 32) is an outstanding oeuvre. Right from his childhood in the small town of Kumbanokam to his dedicated single-minded focus on learning mathematics to his journey to Cambridge and back, Kanigel paints before us a vivid picture of South India in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
The book is outstanding for a number of reasons. Most importantly, because it brings out the human element in each and every action or decision that Ramanujan took. You almost feel pity for the young Ramanujan who is unable to clear his exams because he would not study other subjects due to his interest in Mathematics. At the same time, you are also amazed at how he would sit in the courtyard of his home dedicatedly solving problems on his slate and erasing any errors with his elbows to avoid lifting his arms. But the best way in which the human aspect is brought about is by highlighting throughout the book how Ramanujan craved for appreciation and recognition at each stage; even though he knew he was brilliant and outshone everybody else, he still wanted others to say that.
Kanigel is also able to narrate to us life at Cambridge during those times, how the other mathematicians were in awe of Ramanujan for his genius and how Ramanujan, who never had an Indian degree to his name, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
The other important part about this book is the way the relationship between Ramanujan and his mentor Godfred Harold Hardy has been elaborated. The importance of having a mentor at a critical juncture in life and how it leads someone to achieve his true potential has been beautifully brought out. It is as if this relation was meant to be – else why would only Hardy respond to Ramanujan’s letters when the latter had written to two other Cambridge mathematicians as well?
The only sad part which ran through the book is the fact that ultimately it took a foreigner to recognize the genius in an Indian; Ramanujan had to go to Cambridge because his brilliance was not rewarded in his own country. This, unfortunately, seems to be the situation today as well though it is changing albeit at a snail’s pace. Another sad thing was the relation Ramanujan shared with his wife, Janki (who was only nine years old when they got married). Since Ramanujan was so pre-occupied with his work and since Janki was still too young to be a wife, they never really had a traditional husband-wife relationship. Janki also did not accompany him to Cambridge. Neither was she interested in learning about his work and his research.
This book is a must-read for anybody who feels passionately about Indians achieving something in their chosen field. It is about a person who is not afraid to spend time and attention on his passion even though it does not bear fruit initially; who is not afraid to go from door to door trying to make an honest living so that he gets the freedom to do what he wants and ultimately who is not afraid to leave the comforts of his home and family to go pursue a better career abroad (at a time when not many people would do so).