I know if I was a reader (which I am) and saw a post titled “Making Friends With Math” (in progress here) I would surely want to read it right away, since in my 45 years to date I still haven’t picked up a single clue for how to do this.
But for Shrinivasa Ramanujan, the man about whom it has been said that, “every positive integer was one of [his] personal friends,” being besties with numbers was apparently like breathing.
After I recently watched the new film about his life, “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” I told my boyfriend I didn’t think I had any integers, positive or otherwise, who were even acquaintances.
Ah well. I figured this must be the reason Ramanujan’s mentor, G.H. Hardy, called their meeting and collaboration “the one truly romantic incident of my life.”
To meet, let alone have the talent to work with, a genius who told his mentor, “Sir, an equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses a thought of God”….well, that would have had to feel fairly romantic indeed.
After receiving a desperate letter from Ramanujan, G.H. Hardy invited him to Cambridge University in England to research and publish on mathematics under his wing. While, as a Brahmin Hindu, he was not permitted to sail across the ocean from his home in Madras, India, to England, he went anyway – for the sake of math.
And from the moment Ramanujan arrived, he continually pressed Hardy to let him publish, saying, “I don’t want these ideas to die with me.”
It would seem he knew something besides math that no one else did. I say this because, by the age of 32 and scarcely one year after returning home to his wife in Madras, Ramanujan was dead.
Of course I will need to read the biography the movie was based on to get a more full picture of aspects that the film version of his life permitted only seconds to address.
But what I did get, immediately and directly, was that for Ramanujan, math was everything. It was his life, his breath, his reason for being and his most urgent mission.
To me, that thing is writing (well, technically, that thing is Pearl, my parrot, and Malti & Bruce, my two turtles, but since I’m attempting to compare apples to apples here….)
Perhaps the most riveting facet of Ramanujan’s too-short life and astonishing work is that he gave full credit for his mathematical abilities to the family goddess, Namagiri, whom he said gave him all of his ideas in dreams and meditations and helped him solve complex problems without being able to explain to others how he did it.
Fascinating. At the end of the film, the footnotes stated that today, Ramanujan’s ideas are the subject of ongoing research, and are currently informing scientists’ efforts to understand the behavior of black holes.
Black holes. Seriously. How fantastic is that!
That there are beings in this world who arrive here already bearing gifts far too complex and critical for most of us to begin to comprehend – to the point where even they don’t know how it is that they do what they do – and then to disappear shortly after they have discharged whatever they came here to share – well, that is a phenomenon I continually wonder about.
But in watching the story of Ramanujan’s life, there was one clear thread I absolutely understood.
It would seem that, in most cases, even the greatest amongst us often need a mentor – a hero, a champion, a guide – to help them figure out how to get their ideas and offerings into the hands of those who can understand and use them.
In other words, without willing mentors standing by to lend a hand, it is possible that so many mysteries about black holes and life would remain forever out of our reach.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you seen “The Man Who Knew Infinity?” Did you, like me, find it so intriguing that the one person willing to mentor Ramanujan, a man of such enduring faith, was a professed atheist who could believe only in his mentee and go no further? What is your take on the type of genius that arrives here, delivers such amazing ideas and insights, and then departs? Why might this occur?