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The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan Hardcover – 1 May 1991
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An exquisite portrait...the rarest of literary achievements...Ramanujan's tale is the stuff of fable (LOS ANGELES TIMES)
an exciting and thoughtful book... should catch the imagination of any reader- even the reader with little mathematical background. (INDEPENDENT)
This is a fine example of a work of popularising mathematics, and deserves a wide readership. (NEW SCIENTIST)
Enthralling... one of the best scientific biographies I've ever seen. (John Gribbin) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
* 'One of the finest, best-documented biographies ever published about a modern mathematician' - Martin Gardner --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product description
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The latter came about, when in despair at his situation in India, he sent his mathematical notebooks to three eminent Cambridge mathematicians asking for help. Only one, Hardy of Trinity College, saw something remarkable in the notebooks and made strenuous effects to get Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. There were formidable obstacles, not least of which was Ramanujan’s religious beliefs; as a Brahmin he could not travel abroad without being shunned by his community. Eventually, his mother sought guidance from the local god and as a result persuaded her son to travel.
His arrival in Cambridge was to herald the start of one of the greatest collaborations in mathematical history, which would profoundly affect the lives of both Ramanujan and Hardy. The latter quickly realised that Ramanujan’s education had left huge holes in his mathematical knowledge, and he even had only a tenuous knowledge of what a rigorous mathematical proof was. Hardy and his collaborator Littlewood had to tread a fine line between schooling their ‘pupil’ in modern mathematics without destroying his raw natural genius. The author describes this interaction very well and even attempts to explain something of the nature of their research, which was in an area of mathematics called ‘number theory’.
Although the research was very successful, Ramanujan found it difficult to adapt to life in England. It probably did not help that the two men were very different in temperament (for example, Hardy was a passionate sportsman and a confirmed aetheist) and Hardy could perhaps be criticised for driving Ramanujan too hard and failing to realise the lonely life he was living. But simple practical matters, such as the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables during World War I, essential for Ramanujan’s strict vegetarian diet, made life difficult and led to him becoming seriously undernourished. In 1917 he became ill with tuberculosis, and spent periods in a variety of sanatoriums. His stout body steadily became thin and frail and by 1919 it was felt advisable that he should return to India, which he did, but he died the following year at the tragically early age of 32, still working until the end.
Only after his death did the world in general understand what a genius he was, but how his theorems appeared to him is still a mystery. Ramanujan himself always maintained they were ‘revealed’ to him, almost in their final form and he had little interest in formal proofs because he knew they were ‘the word of god’. Needless to say, western mathematicians struggled with this view and spent huge efforts to obtain rigorous proofs. Nearly always Ramanujan’s theorems proved to be correct. What could he have achieved had he received a formal maths education in the formative years between 18 and 26 and lived longer? We can only speculate, but the work that he did in the few years of his short productive life was enough to establish him as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.
Robert Kanigel has written a good book. It is not only a biography of Ramanujan, but there is also much about Hardy and the interaction between the two great mathematicians, both academically and personally. He also is to be congratulated for trying to explain a little of their research, and although not always successful, it does give a flavour of the rarefied world of ‘number theory’ and shows how Ramanujan’s work is still very relevant today.
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