In The Jungle of the Infinite

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan

by Robert Kanigel
Scribner's, 438 pp., $27.95

Srinivasa Ramanujan
Srinivasa Ramanujan; drawing by David Levine

Godfrey Harold Hardy was a pure mathematician and the archetypal Cambridge don: fellow of Trinity College, unmarried, his life a mixture of research, cricket, and college society; his features so finely chiseled that C.P. Snow described his face as “beautiful.” He was eccentric in a disarmingly English way: he abhorred telephones and waged a quiet but very personal vendetta against God. Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar was born into a poor Brahmin family, contracted smallpox at the age of two, flunked out of college twice, went through an arranged marriage with a girl of ten, and was described by Ramachandra Rao as “a short, uncouth figure, stout, unshaved, not overclean.” He was a Hindu, as all Brahmins are, and worshiped the goddess Namagiri of Namakkal. It is hard to imagine two people more unlike each other. Yet their lives became so strongly entwined that it is difficult to mention one without, in the same breath, referring to the other. The Man Who Knew Infinity is really a biography of them both, although Ramanujan takes pride of place: perspicacious, informed, imaginative, it is to my mind the best mathematical biography I have ever read.

In January of 1913, when Europe was becoming enmeshed in what would become the First World War, Hardy received a large manila envelope, postmarked Madras. Inside was a sheaf of papers, and a covering letter:

Dear Sir,

I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education…. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics…. I am striking out a new path for myself.

Prominent mathematicians—and Hardy was one of England’s greatest—receive packages like this all the time. Mostly they come from cranks who imagine they have squared the circle or trisected the angle, problems that mathematicians know to be insoluble. Hardy could easily have thrown the package away; but a page of strange formulas caught his eye. He recognized a few, but others were quite unusual.

The letter continued:

I would request you to go through the enclosed papers. Being poor, if you are convinced that there is anything of value I would like to have my theorems published…. Being inexperienced I would very highly value any advice you give me. Requesting to be excused for the trouble I give you.

I remain, Dear Sir, Yours truly,

S. Ramanujan.

Hardy quickly convinced himself that this was no crank, but a self-taught mathematician of the highest order. He decided that Ramanujan should be brought to England. Thus began their paradoxical friendship.

The centenary of Ramanujan’s birth took place four years ago. An hour-long television program was made about him, and…

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