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TIFF: ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ – The Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Perhaps after the biopic of the young Indian mathematician makes its way to theaters, he’ll take his place next to history’s greatest minds.

The Man Who Knew Infinity Photo

Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel in ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity.’ (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Sir Isaac Newton. Professor Stephen Hawking. These are household names who made their mark in the field of mathematics at Cambridge University. Perhaps after The Man Who Knew Infinity makes its way to theaters, Srinivasa Ramanujan will take his place next to them where he deserves.

Ramanujan, at least as he is presented in this new film that debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, was something of a miracle worker with numbers. Young Dev Patel furiously scribbles formulas that come to him in the night and tweedy British professors exclaim “it’s as if every positive integer is a personal friend.” It’s a real life superhero movie.

While the film goes light on the actual in-depth computations (thankfully) the scenes of Jeremy Irons and Toby Jones reacting to the young man’s work gets across just how radical his insights were. Here are some of the niftier facts we learned watching this movie.

– Zero Degrees

Despite Ramanujan’s unparalleled skills in the field, he was essentially self-taught. He graduated from high school in his native India in 1904, but he was so absorbed in mathematics that he quickly flunked out of college. Basically, he was such a genius at math that he ignored his other courses. He had been teaching himself higher math from books since the age of 16.

Srinivasa Ramanujan Photo

Srinivasa Ramanujan. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

– Got His Number

Unable to find a good job without a degree, he began working as a clerk. He then decided to send some of his written theorems to a well-known professor at Cambridge, G.H. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons in the film.)

When Hardy received the package postmarked India from someone he’d never heard of, he thought his chum, fellow Cambridge prof John Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) was pulling his leg. The formulas Ramanujan sent were so advanced – and contrary to so many accepted beliefs – that they sat for a while before Hardy ever wrote back. In time Hardy would become Ramanujan’s sponsor and partner.

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– Not So Stupid

Ramanujan came from an area in Southern India called Madras (today known as Chennai) which, to some of their self-deprecating citizens, automatically spiked any idea of traveling to Britain to study math. A funny sequence in the film repeats the common story (and myth) that the name Madras was a variant on “Manda-rajya ,” which stands for “Realm of the Stupid.”

But Hardy’s invitation to come to Cambridge caused other problems. The Brahmin caste in the Tamil regions at that time were strongly dissuaded from leaving their country. Crossing the seas would bring dishonor, and his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) worried that no one would ever want to marry their children.

– Friends in High Places

Much of The Man Who Knew Infinity deals with the push and pull between Ramanujan and Hardy. The young Indian, who never quite gets his bearings in this new country (what’s this snow?!) just wants to let these amazing equations come to him. Somehow, he knows them to be true. Hardy, an old school stickler, demands that Ramanujan write proofs.

Srinivasa Ramanujan G.H. Hardy Trinity College Photo

‘The Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (center) together with his colleague Godfrey Harold Hardy (extreme right) and other scientists at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.’ (Photo: Charles F. Wilson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s something Ramanujan can eventually teach himself to do, but isn’t his strong suit, and wastes precious time. Finally, Hardy begins to ease up when a colleague, none other than future Nobel Prize-winning writer/thinker Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), suggests Hardy let Ramanujan “run free.”

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– Genius on Film

Unfortunately, many of Ramanujan’s miraculous discoveries are too complex to dramatize in a film. Unlike, say, Amadeus, a film about the composer W.A. Mozart, you can’t just play divinely-inspired music on the soundtrack. There’s an attempt to dig in to what was among his greatest findings, his work on Partitions. Basically, he intuited a formula that could determine how many ways there were to add up to a certain number. (In other words, you can make “5” by adding 1+1+1+1+1 or 2+3 or 4+1 etc.) Finding a short solution to this for large numbers was something they said could never be done, but, if the movie is to be believed, the solution came to him like a bolt of lightning.

– Ramanujan’s Legacy

Unfortunately, Srinivasa Ramanujan died at the age of 32, while he was still at the peak of his powers. Only in 1975 did scholars rediscover his so-called “lost notebook.”

As recently as 2012, researchers were finally proving and finding applications for mathematical theories he wrote on his deathbed, which Ramanujan claimed came to him in dreams. Some of this work is being used in the study of black holes, which were decades away from being theorized when Ramanujan died in 1920.

Some count sheep when they go to sleep, Ramanujan counted complex equations that still shock scholars nearly a century later.