ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Canticle for Ramanujan

Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician with incandescent work on pure mathematics, was a magician of a genius who broke into a select club of intellectuals in Cambridge.

Watching Dev Patel act as Srinivasa Ramanujan, in the film The Man Who Knew Infinity, got me ruminating about Ramanujan. Ramanujan was short, fat, cheery and, except when confronted with alienable social issues, of even temper. He was also a genius—everything that Dev Patel was not and also, unfortunately, couldn’t portray well. Purely as an aside, Dev Patel was an odd choice to portray Ramanujan. Weren’t there any other brown-skinned pudgy young actors in the world? Why was the movie more about G H Hardy? Why would an Englishman make a film about an Indian mathematician whose works were partially understood by fewer than a thousand individuals across the globe? Why a movie on the most abstract subject in this universe—pure mathematics?

Pure mathematics is the abstract science of number, quantity and space. The easiest way to think of it is that pure mathematics is mathematics done for its own sake, while applied mathematics is mathematics with a practical use. But, in fact, it’s not that simple, because even the most abstract mathematics can have unexpected applications. For example, the branch of mathematics known as “number theory,” where Ramanujan rules supreme, was once considered one of the most “useless,” but now plays a vital part in computer encryption systems. If you’ve ever bought something online, you can thank number theorists for letting you do it safely.

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