The Man who Knew Infinity



In great anticipation, I went to watch this movie this morning when it opened at cinemas here. I had seen the trailer some weeks ago, and realising this is a biopic that has something to do with mathematics, I couldn’t wait for it to open. (Not that I’m a maths person; in fact, I’m just hopeless with numbers!)

The movie lived up to my expectations. And watching Dev Patel for the fourth time (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) affirmed my opinion that he is a very good actor!

Dev Patel plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematics genius (translated: no degree, unemployable, jobless) from Madras. He writes to Cambridge University mathematics professor G.H.Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons), enclosing some of his work. Hardy is impressed and invites him to Cambridge, which he visits in 1952, leaving his wife and his mother behind.

Ramanujan lands the job as a clerk in the accounting department at Hardy’s recommendation, who believes that he is “now an ordinary glass but we will soon see a diamond”. Ramanujan does not even want to use the abacus because his mind works faster than his hands, and he is working on his own formulas as he loves numbers more than people.

Hardy recognises his talent and tells him, “In Mathematics, patterns build themselves in the most incredible, beautiful form. You have been alone in your mind your whole life. It should be recognised.” It’s intriguing that an “ill-educated Madras Indian clerk” has “the imagination to invent anything as profound as a maths formula – the ground-breaking Prime Number theorem“. He has been told time and again that intuition is not enough, and that he must come up with proofs. Yet he persists with his passion and Hardy agrees it is “an art into itself, and like all art, it reflects truth; like Mozart hears symphonies in his head, you see numbers to their infinity”.

Also mentioned are the Divergence theorem and Partitions. All these go way above my head, but I’m suitably impressed (especially when I could make out what things like P(200) and the square root of the square root of 268,639 mean).

When an article is published in the London Mathematical Society (denoting prestige), Ramanujan suffers even more discrimination and bullies  due to cultural differences and racist abuse. Quite incredibly, all these go unnoticed by Hardy until they are pointed out to him. Just as he is oblivious to Ramanujan suffering from tuberculosis until very late. When told that his conditioned has worsened and advised to get his affairs in order, Ramanujan attempts to throw himself into the path of an oncoming train, but is rescued. It is only at this point that Hardy admits, “Sorry I’ve not been able to be a better friend. Life fot me has always been mathematics”.

Afraid that her son may not return to Madras, Ramanujan’s mother did not send him any of the letters his wife wrote to him. He thought she has forgetten him, while she was upset that he never replied. She wrote him a farewell letter, saying that she would  live with her brother. Ramanujan sailed home as soon as he could, but his illness worsened further. He spent about a year with his wife, and instead of returning to Cambridge to finish his work, succumbed to his illness, aged 32. Hardy, in his eulogy, said that “his death is one of the worst blows I’ve ever felt”.

In the end credits, it is mentioned that  Ramanujan’s theorem has been compared to Beethoven’s tenth symphony. This is something I don’t get, as Beethoven wrote only nine symphonies!


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