Decoding the Mystery of Ramanujan

Welcome to the Time Travel Show, where we interview famous personalities from the past! Today we have a brilliant Indian mathematician, famous for his work done on the subject! We are here in Madras, the year is 1919, where Ramanujan is engrossed in his mathematics. Please give it up for Srinivasa Ramanujan!

Thanks for having me! I am honoured to be interviewed by someone from the future.

The pleasure is all ours, sir. If I may, could you tell us more about yourself?

But of course! I find it funny that if I was asked this question 6 years ago, I would have said I am a lowly clerk at the Port Trust Office in Madras, but I am proud to say now that I am a Fellow of the Royal Society. As a formal introduction, however, I am Srinivasa Ramanujan Aiyangar, a mathematician. I was born on the 22nd of December in the year 1887, in Erode, Tamil Nadu. I am a person of deep faith, being a Tamilian Brahmin, which some people find surprising because of my career path. But I will say, I am proud of what I achieved as I grew up. 

Speaking of growing up, were you always so intelligent, even as a child?

I think it depends, as even though I was pretty good in Maths, my teachers screamed at me more than anyone else when it came to other subjects. I was always intrigued by Maths. When I was about 11, I remember that two college students were staying with us as lodgers. I used to test their mathematical knowledge and often exhausted them! As a child, I got hold of the advanced trigonometry book and I mastered it by the age of 13. By16, I had read G.S. Carr’s collection of 5000 theorems in detail and then went on to independently develop Bernoulli numbers and calculated the Euler-Mascheroni constant. My peers rarely understood what I did but they used to be in total awe of me.

Why did you love mathematics more than the others?

Simply said, maths is everywhere, you can observe it in nature, I was always an observant person who loved to think and find answers to complex problems. The solutions to most complex problems in maths come in patterns just like we see those in nature. I would even say that mathematics itself is nature, with its combination being the code that is life.

I have heard that you worked as a clerk, despite being gifted. Why is that?

That is an embarrassing story for me. You see, I didn’t have a college degree. I got a scholarship to study at the Government Arts College at Kumbakonam, but my focus on mathematics made me not pay much attention to other subjects, leading me to lose the scholarship. Later I also enrolled in Pachaiyappa’s College, Madras but failed again in subjects like English, Physiology, and Sanskrit. Without an FA degree, nobody considered offering me a job. People said I was lucky to even get a job as a clerk at the Port Trust Office, but that was based on my knowledge of mathematics.

How did you make yourself known in the circles of England during the height of the British Raj?

It took me some time actually, I did not think of myself as much back in those days, especially because of my job. I think I got the courage after living in Madras for some years.

How so?

While I was in Madras, I met Ramaswamy Aiyer, who was the founder of the Indian Mathematical Society. He was excited when I showed him my work and later referred me to B. Ramchandra Rao. Rao found interest in what I did but doubted its ingenuity. It took some convincing to make him believe me! Thus, I got financial aid from Rao and then published my first paper for the Indian Mathematical Society. The friends I made there inspired me to write to English mathematicians, 

I wrote to MJM HILL, EW HOBSON, and HF BAKER but got the best response from GH HARDY, a well-known professor at Trinity College.

How did you decide to travel to England?

Hardy was so impressed with my letter that he urged me to come to England. Being from a traditional family, I saw this crossing of the ocean as a bad omen. However, in Hardy, I had found a friend who viewed my plight sympathetically, and I truly believed in the importance of the work. At last Goddess Namagiri gave me a sign as she came to my mother’s dream and commanded her to not stand between me and my life’s goal. Then there I was sailing almost 10000 km to the west from the Chennai coast, which would take about a month or so to travel by ship.

What was being in the foreign land of England like for you?

England was a very different experience for me. I had lived in India for most of my life, and even though there was British rule, I was not ready for what I had to experience. There were very different manners, and even though I knew a little English, I wasn’t completely fluent in the language. It was also one of the first places where I met people who did not even believe in any god, like my mentor and now friend Hardy. I will admit, there were points of time where I did feel undermined, especially when I went outside the gates of Trinity College, but I always appreciated the equality with which I was treated among the peers that mattered, and became good friends with them through our work together. I just came back to India, spending about 5 years there, from 1914 to 1919, where I also saw the effects of the Great War ravaging the entirety of Europe. It was indirectly very tough on me, as I had to suffer in small ways due to the rationing and the food.

Food? What do you mean?

I am a vegetarian, you see? As a Brahmin, I find this killing of an animal for food as unnecessary, especially as you can have a healthy diet with vegetables as well. It is against my religious beliefs to fall into such acts, but I do understand if people do not feel as strongly about this as me. It was quite difficult adjusting to life in England because of this, as meat is a very common part of their diet. I fell ill sometimes because of this but I remained true to my faith throughout my time there.

It seems religion gave you a tough time in England.

Not at all! My religion, my faith is the reason why I was able to come this far! Goddess Namagiri appears in my visions and puts formulae on my tongue which I then verify! 

I know people find that difficult to believe, but that is the truth. I remember once telling this to a few of my colleagues-

“While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote several elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to write.”

I do believe that there is no better way I could frame it.

That’s quite an interesting way to put it. It has even led people to compare you with Euler and Jacobi, with some of your colleagues even saying, Newton. What’s your take on that?

Ah, I am humbled by this, yes, but they are far too great mathematicians, and with Newton, it is incomparable, like integers and complex numbers!

Hardy wouldn’t say this, he was the one who mentioned this to us. He even said, and I quote, “My greatest contribution to mathematics is the discovery of Ramanujan.”

That man has been a blessing in human form, and I am proud to have had him as a mentor, and now as a friend and colleague. He is being humble, as without his and Littlewood’s guidance, what people see now as my genius wouldn’t have been published or publicized. My contribution is only as much as they were able to help me with, along with Namagiri.

What do you feel are some of your most important contributions?

I have made many theorems and formulae, enough to astound my colleagues, all by the grace of the goddess Namagiri! When any of them asked me about the simplified equations I used to reply, 

“An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.”

I am sorry, I got a bit carried away from your question. The most satisfying contributions I made to mathematics were the prime counting function and partitions.

In simple words, the prime counting function gives you the most accurate prediction of the number of primes less than x. This function is really helpful when x is of the order of a trillion or even larger!

Partitions give you several different ways in which you can express a positive integer as a sum of other positive integers. For example, you can figure out that 4 has five partitions.

This again is useful for very very large numbers!

So if you were doing such fine work in England, why have you come back to India?

I am quite ill and decided to take a leave as a sick man is never as productive as a healthy one. I have been diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and being in a foreign climate such as England had not been that kind to me. I had also spent 5 years away from my family, my connection with them only being by correspondence and through Namagiri. Anyway, I did feel a calling to return to my homeland, as if it were important to return.

We’re so sorry to hear you’re sick! How have you been spending these days?

The days have not been quite fun when it comes to talking about physically, but mentally, Namagiri still speaks to me. I am working on a few more equations, ones which I believe everyone will find fascinating. I can’t wait for my colleagues in England to go through these, as I do believe such discoveries could lead to even more scientific breakthroughs.

What advice would you give to us future Indians?

I have not seen the future but I am sure that future people must be very developed! I must seem to you as a stone-age man! All I could tell you people is don’t lose your spiritual self have faith in god! 

We would like to hear about the incident which led to the making of the Hardy-Ramanujan number.

I was very ill last year when Hardy came to the hospital to meet me. He remarked in jest, “I came by taxi having the number 1729. It’s such an insignificant number!” I promptly replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.” Those being the sum of 10 cubes and 9 cubes, sum of 12 cubes, and 1 cube!

That was truly a super-fast breakdown of a number! Indeed Littlewood rightly said, “every positive integer was one of his personal friends.”

Sir, what are you currently doing in Madras?

I am doing my usual research writing stuff on loose sheets of paper and living happily in the company of my wife, Janaki.

Well, thank you, sir, for your brilliant insight into your life! We have been such a delight to us, and we hope you get better soon!

Thanks for having me, and may the goddess Namagiri bless everyone here to the infinity!. ———————————————————————————————————————————————–

“Mangal, cut the simulation,” said the teacher.

The transmission of Srinivasa Ramanujan stops.

“Was my simulation of Srinivasa Ramanujan satisfactory?” asked the voice of Mangal, the AI assistant presiding and helping the people on the Mars colony in 2220, with a blue man’s face being where Ramanujan was present.

“Perfect as usual! It is quite something for you to replicate a person’s mannerisms through just historical accounts. Thank you for that brilliant demonstration, you may shut down for now!”

Mangal’s blue light turns off.

The teacher continues, “So I hope everyone is awake?”

The students, unlike their almost sleepy demeanor, seemed to be wide awake, followed by a loud “YES MA’AM”.

“Any questions?”

Multiple hands went up in the virtual classroom. She then picks one of the tan-skinned students in her class to ask his question.

“Yes, Neil?”

Neil asks, “Ma’am, what happened to Ramanujan?”

This was exactly what the teacher wanted to be asked, seeing this as a sign of a class well received.

“Srinivasa Ramanujan heads back to India as you all have seen, with him being diagnosed with Tuberculosis, a deadly disease on Earth back in those days. It was misdiagnosis, however, as he had hepatic amoebiasis, a disease that was curable in England at the time. This, as sad as it may sound, led to him passing away, in the year 1920 CE, at just the age of 32. Even ill, he kept writing the equations as told by the goddess Namagiri. It is just so terrible that his death could’ve been avoided, and that such a genius lost his life. The last few notes he wrote on loose sheets of paper were compiled and sent to England by his wife. A collection of these notes written in the last year of his life is called “Ramanujan’s lost notebook” which gave multiple discoveries and equations in mathematics, even helping us figure out the secrets to black holes, string theory, and anti-gravity. Even 300 years later, his discoveries are helping us figure out discoveries in a variety of sciences.”

The bell rings, the class is over, but the teacher puts one last word in.

“Ramanujan, even though he is not as well known as Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, has provided a backbone with the future of scientific study is based on, and that is no small feat for a man who worked as a clerk in a small Port Trade Office. In a way, this should remind us that greatness comes from small beginnings.”

-Rohan and Shlok

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