The life and work of the Man who knew Infinity

In the modern era, few names related to academia command as much respect and inspire as much awe as does the name of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Arguably one of the greatest Indian mathematicians of all time, he was a man from a poor family under the British Rule in Southern India who had no formal mathematical training and yet ended up pursuing pure mathematics at Cambridge and being inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). The only things which made this possible were his genius and his love for mathematics.

Ramanujan was born in 1887 as Srinivasa Ramanujan Aiyangar in a Brahmin family in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. He showed genius from a young age and secured the highest marks in the district in multiple subjects in the primary examination. However, as his interest in mathematics grew, he started to neglect other subjects. At age 15, he somehow got his hands on a copy of the book ‘Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics’. This book contained thousands of mathematical results and theorems with almost no proof. Ramanujan was so absorbed in the book and his great love for mathematics that he barely studied other subjects and failed his higher examinations in both school and college.

Despite his worrisome state, Ramanujan somehow managed to make ends meet. His first break in mathematics came when the Indian mathematician Ramachandra Rao helped him publish his first paper on Bernoulli numbers in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society. Ramanujan’s work was so incredibly intuitive and his ideas so abstract, lacking the rigorous proof considered a prerequisite in academia, that it eluded the understanding of many academics at the time. Some even considered him to be a fraud.

Ramanujan started writing letters to Cambridge University, initially to no avail. However, on the third try, his letter reached G. H. Hardy. Hardy was amazed by Ramanujan’s work and papers and said that he had “never seen anything in the least like them before”. He immediately arranged for Ramanujan to travel to Cambridge. Starting in 1914, Ramanujan began working with Hardy on mathematical research, much of which was developed with a combination of Ramanujan’s uncanny intuition and brilliance and Hardy’s skill at rigorous mathematical proof. Ramanujan was not well versed with modern developments in mathematics but his mastery with continued fractions and his work on the Riemann series, elliptical integrals, the hypergeometric series, the zeta function, and divergent series had no parallel. His collaboration with Hardy on the partition of numbers was ground-breaking.

Ramanujan’s work was published across British and European journals. In 1918, he was elected to the Royal Society of London. At the time, Hardy had commented “I have never met his equal and can compare him only with Euler or Jacobi”. Eventually, his health deteriorated in England and he returned to India, where he passed away in 1920 at the age of only 32. The early demise of such a great mind was a significant loss for the field of mathematics. He left behind three notebooks with a treasure of mathematical work and ideas which academics continue to analyse and verify to this day. A journal called ‘The Ramanujan Journal’ was published in 1997 which focuses on areas of mathematics which have been influenced by the genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan.

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