Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

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

Posted by nliakos on July 8, 2012

by Robert Kanigel (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991)

This is one of the books that has been on my to-read list for many years–since long before I started keeping this blog, when the to-read list was a folder stuffed full of handwritten lists and book reviews clipped from The Washington Post and other publications. I no longer have that file, but I can almost picture the review that prompted me to add The Man Who knew Infinity to the folder; it occurs to me that it probably dates from the year the book came out; if so, I have been meaning to read it for over twenty years. “Better late than never” is certainly true in this case.

I am kind of math phobic. I used to weep over my algebra homework in high school, and I deliberately went to a university where I would not have to take any math; the last math course I took was plane geometry in my junior year of high school. No trig, no pre-calc, no calculus, and as a result, no physics either. My avoidance of math has left a hole in my education that can never be made up.

Ramanujan, the mathematical genius of Madras and the subject of this detailed biography, was at the other end of the continuum; in order to devote himself to mathematics, he avoided doing pretty much everything else. As a result, he never received a college degree in India and came very close to living and dying in obscurity. Due to his own stubborn perseverance and self-belief and to his good fortune in meeting people who were in a position to support him in one way or another, this did not happen. When he died, at the age of only 32 (leaving behind a mathematical legacy that continues to absorb scholars today), he was probably one of the most famous men in India.

Robert Kanigel’s biography is rich in detail about the people, places, and times that figure in Ramanujan’s story.  However, it is never boring; I avidly read the descriptions of life in the towns and cities of South India under the British Raj; of the life of G. H. Hardy, the English mathematician who “discovered” Ramanujan  and became his mentor and collaborator; and most particularly of the difficulties experienced by Ramanujan and other young Indians who traveled to England to study without the benefits enjoyed by today’s international students (such as the company of numerous others in the same situation, offices dedicated to their support and counseling, and easy communication via the Internet with friends and family back home). The fact that Ramanujan was at Cambridge during the First World War, with its rationing of food (he was a strict vegetarian) and the danger surrounding sea travel which prevented him from visiting India for five cold and lonely years, probably contributed to the decline in his health which led eventually to tuberculosis and the tragedy of premature death soon after his eventual return to India after the war ended.

Kanigel’s own genius is that he could write a book with frequent references to mathematics and make it so interesting to the lay reader. Kanigel writes, “Because it lies on a cool, ethereal plane beyond the everyday passions of human life, and because it can be grasped only through a language in which most people are unschooled, Ramanujan’s work grants direct pleasure to only a few…. The rest of us must either sit on the sidelines and…cheer, or else rely on vague, metaphoric, and necessarily imprecise glimpses of his work.” (p. 350) Kanigel’s lucid prose certainly inspired this reader to cheer Ramanujan’s achievements from the sidelines.  The book was easy to read and hard to put down, even if I did not put energy into trying to understand the actual mathematics (which would have been fruitless, anyway!).

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