SHRINIVAS RAMANUJAN (1887 - 1920)

Galileo Died At The Hands Of Inquisition And I Will Die Of Poverty

Shrinivas Ramanujan, in his short life-span, proved to be a mathematical genius comparable to the likes of Karl Jacobi and Leonhaed Euler. Despite lack of formal higher education and battling against heavy odds of poverty and ill health, his mathematical genius flowed. His contribution in the fields of elliptic functions, infinite series and the analytical theory of numbers is immeasurable. Even after his death at the young age of 32, his notes continued to be a subject of research and a source of further mathematical theorems, formulae and solutions. Born in India, which was then under British rule, he received encouragement and recognition not only from discerning Indians but also from his contemporary British mathematicians. Against the dictum of his religion he traveled to Britain where he collaborated with Prof Hardy at the Trinity College. Between 1914-1918, which coincided with World War I, Ramanujan stayed and worked at the Trinity College. Though his health was deteriorating, his mental faculties and mathematical genius flourished. It took an impressive list of eminent mathematicians to propose his name for election as a Fellow at The Royal Society of London. This unique honor was conferred on him on May 2, 1918.

Shrinivas Aiyangar Ramanujan was born on December 22, 1887 in a Brahmin family in Southern India. His father was an accountant for the local traders, and was by no means well off. At the age of five, Ramanujan started attending primary school at Kumbakonam, his father’s place of work. Even during his school days his grasp of mathematical concepts was exceptional. He mystified his teachers and classmates with rapid calculations of long mathematical problems. At home too, his mind appeared to be busy thinking about and mentally playing around with numbers. The society in which he lived was appreciative of learning in general and mathematical aptitude in particular.

His school friends recall approaching him for help in Mathematics. This he would readily provide enthusiastically. Though they knew that his grasp of the subject was much more, they could not fathom the depth of his intellect.

It was after he entered Town High School in Kumbakonam in 1898, that his genius took wings. In 1900, he began working on summing up of geometric and arithmetic series. Interestingly, in 1902 when he was taught cubic equations he went right ahead and evolved his own method to solve quartics. Going a step further he tried solving quintics by the same method but failed to do so.

The year 1902 marked a turning point in Ramanujan’s life. From the local library he got hold of a copy of a book on pure mathematics by G S Carr entitled Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure Mathematics. The book was a collection of around 6,000 theorems and formulae with short proofs. Written in a concise manner, by a tutor, the book served to unfold uncharted fields for Ramanujan’s intellectual quests. Carr’s book was fairly outdated being published in 1856. Carr himself was never renowned as a great mathematician. But his book definitely was a scholarly and lively text written by one who obviously enjoyed mathematics. It not only provided the required thrust to Ramanujan’s genius but the influence of the book was to be felt in his works even after he had received much wider exposure to current theories.

In 1904, when he was just 16, Ramanujan began investigating the series of S (1/n) and calculated Euler’s Constant to 15 decimal places. His study of Bernoulli numbers also commenced at this stage.

Due to his school performance, Ramanujan was offered a scholarship at Government College, Kumbakonam. His preoccupation with mathematics led him to neglect other subjects and, unfortunately, the college failed to renew his scholarship the following year. This was a setback that he took to heart and without informing his parents, went to Vishakhapatnam about 650 kms. from Madras. He continued his research work and focused on relations between integrals and series.

During the years in college, the professors of mathematics particularly Ramanujachari and Mudaliar quickly realized the worth of their precocious student. Often when a complex problem was explained to the class, Ramanujan would stand up and offer another solution which was easy and involved fewer steps.