Friday, June 15, 2012

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel - Book Review

What can one say about a man who defied all odds to become one of the best mathematicians of the world having done rigorous research for less than 5 years? That too, when you come know that such a man originated from India (in early twentieth century) which was then enslaved by the British, the achievement becomes even more special. He had to survive the period in England in the extreme conditions of the first world war, his own ill-health notwithstanding. The man, Ramanujan, is really a genius of extra-ordinary brilliance. His biography "The Man Who Knew Infinity - A Life of the Genius Ramanujan" by Robert Kanigel is about a small town guy, Ramanujan, from an authentic Brahmin Iyengar family of Tamilnadu who turns the world over through his intuitive contributions in number theory (primes and partitions, in particular).

This book is an inspiring tale of the conviction of Ramanujan who wanted to show the world his works and earn a well deserved recognition from the very best mathematicians. This book describes how his mother and friends in India along with his collaborator in Trinity college at Cambridge, Prof. Hardy, helped him achieve his ambition but at the expense of the genius himself. This book is a treasure for the aspiring researchers in the world. Although Indians can appreciate and relate the life of Ramanujan much better than others, this book is a homage to a great mathematician who belonged to the elite mathematical community of the world. Ramanujan is a pride of India but it is indeed a pity that he could not live long enough to see his notebooks reach millions of mathematicians and his contributions getting realized as key tools in later scientific inventions.

The book starts with his early life in south Indian town called Kumbakonam where Ramanujan was educated. A tripos exam guide by Carr filled with mathematical formulas inspired Ramanujan into exploring mathematics while neglecting his other subjects in the college. This created a situation wherein earning a basic degree, which is the bare minimum expected of every student in that era, proved elusive as he used to fail in subjects other than mathematics. His requests for funding towards his research were initially rejected in India as he did not earn even a basic degree. Having married at an early age, he was forced to take up a job in port trust while still carrying out his passion for mathematics at leisure.

Ramanujan knew that his works were something special and wanted recognition for his work which he did not get in India under British Raj. He was forced to write to three eminent mathematicians in England. While two of them discarded his request and replied in negative, Hardy and his student Littlewood  could see the real potential of Ramanujan's work. The major part of the book is the effort they took to bring Ramanujan to Cambridge and how they were able to add rigor in otherwise intuitively stunning discoveries of Ramanujan. Ramanujan did not have proper mathematical training on proving different conjectures he had developed. Hardy extracted the best out of Ramanujan apart from playing a key role in making him one of the Fellows of Royal Society (FRS).

Ramanujan used to prepare food for himself as he was a strict vegetarian. Over time, Ramanujan unfortunately contracted tuberculosis which along with his dislike for English food, irregular eating habits, and English weather worsened his health. He could still write some major papers with Hardy even when he was admitted to sanatorium. The ongoing first world war made the sea journey unsafe and prevented Ramanujan to reach India for better care. Ramanujan however returned to India once the world war ended, but the damage to his physical and mental health had become irreversible by then. Kanigel presents this moving tale of a real genius who could not be saved by a nation who still prides in his incredible mathematical proofs.

Kanigel gives various instances of his life when Ramanujan, who even offered a part of Royal Society fellowship to help the needy students, could have been saved by others. His mother could have sent his wife Janaki to take care of him in England as requested by him. Hardy could have cared more about his health and monitored it over time apart from pushing him to deliver his best mathematical contributions. Even after returning to India after first world war, Ramanujan's mother and wife could have created a more pleasant atmosphere instead of fighting over petty things. Ramanujan's belief in astrology through which he predicted that he would not survive more than 35 years also might have played a role in his demise.

It is almost a century since Ramanujan left us. India has been an independent nation over the past 65 years. The basic question which is still left unanswered, why independent India could not foster more such Ramanujans. The question can be answered partly by trying to understand the attitude of present day students. Students nowadays like to go out of India just for the sake of getting higher reputation instead of the actual love and desire to contribute to science and mathematics. This attitude, I feel points in turn to the failure of our basic primary and secondary school education in guiding students. The inclination of students to basic mathematics and basic sciences after school education is still viewed as inferior in India.

The attitude of the majority of established Indian academicians, who treat those researchers from abroad and India differently, is evident even now. Students going to any arbitrary university abroad just to earn a foreign degree are made to think they are 'Ramanujans' in the making. But they do not realize the fact that Ramanujan grew up in British Raj and he was forced to go abroad to get recognition. We have a lot of opportunities for research even in India nowadays. On the contrary, most of the present Indian students do not have strong inclination towards fundamental research and want to go to any arbitrary university abroad just driven by the social constraints. Lack of motivation and adequate funding in independent India towards research might also be a certain contributing factor. This again begs us to answer a few key questions. What is the benefit of India getting independence when we still feel inferior to those educated abroad? Should India have been made to develop into a nation with more intellectual self pride over the past 65 years? No one can answer these questions in the affirmative to even a certain extent by citing any example.

After liberalization, many foreign companies have been allowed to setup their manufacturing centers in India. Every Indian is aware that the IT industry also contributes more to the welfare of the other nations than India. Indian students, who are inherently bright, are lured by the amount of money they can earn in these multi-national companies and are even forced by the changing Indian societal norms. Even the Indian managers of the so called MNCs merely act as brokers who tap the talent of the Indian students towards doing menial jobs. This is their primary job which benefits foreign economy more than that of India. Students are misguided and shown wrong path more in independent India than prior to independence when we could get at least one Ramanujan. These are some of the reasons I feel why India is unable to nurture intuitive scientific and mathematical thinking in the students and which have certainly played a key role to the decline in high quality research of modern India.

Most of the people in Brahmin community, who were close to Ramanujan, neglected Ramanujan's funeral as he had crossed the ocean and did not take bath afterwards in Rameswaram. The descendants of the same Brahmin community have developed into somewhat of a slave race contributing more to the companies originating in countries other than India. Even now, Brahmin community often feels it a criminal offense to work in either companies not owned by a foreigner or those who do not serve people of other nations. Indians who serve other Indians are looked down as somewhat inferior than those who live abroad. In short, we lack self pride which has intruded into the whole society. With such a social setting at present, Ramanujan's life is a real motivating factor for every Indian student who wants to pursue his own interests in basic science and mathematics. This book is a must read treasure for anyone who wants to develop a motivation towards a high quality dedicated research and contribute to the pride of India.

4 comments:

Vinay said...

I wanted to read this book for long. Let me see if I can get a hand on this over here.

What you said in the last part is true. You might have seen Prof. Milind Sohoni's website for more on the same issue. Forget Ramanujam, but are our 'young and bright' minds interested in developing solutions for alleviating the nation's problems? We are happy to support Anna Hazare on FB and twitter, but how many actually would leave their MNC jobs and develop technologies and equipment for helping the majority of the Indians?

Shanmuganathan Raman said...

@Vinay Yes. Rightly said. We are good at talking nice things but few put it in practice like Prof. Sohoni.

Liffey zachariah antony said...

ofcourse Ramanujan was a great Genius. Every student should read Robert kanigel's book about Ramanujan.

Sudharsan Subramanian said...

Never read this book.But heard a lot about it through Vairavan. I echo your opinion about students not being encouraged to take up mathematics and science.Wish the number of "engineering" colleges comes under control and the society welcomes the mathematicians and scientists as it welcomes the abroad return "engineers" in Anna international airport.