01 May 2016

'The Man Who Knew Infinity'

Srinivas Ramanujan was born in Erode (250 km south of Bangalore, in today's Tamil Nadu) in 1887. He worked as a clerk in a shipping company in Madras. A devotee of Goddess Namagiri (Lakshmi), he used to 'see' equations that were unknown to mathematics at that time. He wrote about his equations to Godfrey Hardy, a mathematician at Cambridge University. Hardy brought him to Cambridge in 1914. Ramanujan's equations included:
a) An equation to tell the number of prime numbers upto a given number
b) An equation to tell the number of ways in which a number can be obtained by adding other/smaller numbers
c) And many more.

There was just one problem: he didn't have the proofs for these equations. Proofs? What proofs? Goddess Namagiri had told/shown him the equations. There was no need for any 'proofs'. Hardy patiently told him that there is a science called 'mathematics' (and also ordinary humans who don't talk to Goddess Namagiri) that needs proofs. Under Hardy's guidance, Ramanujan studied mathematics at Cambridge, developed the proofs for his equations and published them. He was recognised for his genius with Fellowships at both Cambridge and the Royal Society. But in the meantime, his health had suffered. He returned to India in 1919, and passed away the next year - at the age of 32.

It is difficult to make a good movie about a great man. The few good ones are Gandhi, Patton and Lawrence of Arabia. It is even more difficult to make a good movie about a scientist. A Beautiful Mind? Hollywood gave it a bunch of Oscars just to look smart. Making a good movie about Ramanujan - who is a mystery not just to ordinary people, but also to mathematicians - is almost impossible. British writer/director Matthew Brown makes a heroic effort to turn American author Robert Kanigel's 1991 book (I haven't read it) into a movie. Dev Patel is OK as Ramanujan. Jeremy Irons as Hardy turns an English textbook lesson/chapter (with some maths thrown in) into a movie with life, colour and passion.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is the story of a great mind and its great achievements - which we cannot fully understand. It is also the story of the friendship between two good men - which definitely touches our hearts.

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