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The Mystical Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Stories about mathematicians are, perhaps surprisingly, the fodder for a number of critically acclaimed movies – from the fictional Good Will Hunting to the John Nash biopic A Beautiful Mind. And now, another film about a mathematical genius has arrived: The Man Who Knew Infinity (trailer above).

It tells the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian self-taught prodigy, who credited his brilliant insights to visions given to him by a goddess.

Though he had almost no formal training in pure mathematics, he made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation; it was quickly recognized by Indian mathematicians. When his skills became obvious and known to the wider mathematical community, centered in Europe at the time, he began a famous partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy, who realized that Ramanujan had rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new ones.

…Ramanujan credited his acumen to his family goddess, Mahalakshmi of Namakkal. He looked to her for inspiration in his work, and claimed to dream of blood drops that symbolised her male consort, Narasimha, after which he would receive visions of scrolls of complex mathematical content unfolding before his eyes. He often said, “An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God.”

Beyond the mystical manner in which he made his breakthroughs, what is also extraordinary about Ramanujan’s work is that, as one mathematician has put it, “there is a seeming reversal of cause and effect. No one can write down a formula with deep, hidden properties unless they first know what the deep properties are that they are trying to encode. This is the way mathematicians understand math to work; it is the only way they—we—know to approach the subject. But the significance of the tau function—the reason to write it down—wasn’t discovered until Ramanujan had been dead for sixty years”:

“There’s no way Ramanujan knew all these intermediate things,” says Ono. “The concepts [encoded in the tau function] didn’t exist when he was alive. That’s the mind-boggling part: Ramanujan anticipated the work of people who would live long after him. He had visions that said there were going to be some theories in the future. Somehow. He didn’t need any intermediate steps for him to anticipate that there would be all these subjects, and that he would find the first examples of them, and that they would go on to be the prototypes that we desperately needed to build our subjects. Whether he’s in fashion or out of fashion has more to do with us, with where we are in coming to grips with him.

So what was the origin of Ramanujan’s genius? Hidden abilities of the human brain? A conduit directly plugged into the back-end of mathematics? Or truly visions from another realm?

Sadly, Ramanujan died at the age of just 32…one can only wonder what other breakthroughs he might have made given a long and prosperous life.