ramanujan the man who knew infinity
Book Review, Non-Fiction

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan written by Robert Kanigel

9780349104522 One of the most engrossing biographies that I have read. Not only is it a feat of writing because of the eclectic nature of the subject matter – about a mathematical genius whose area of working can seem very obscure to a layman. But also because, to do justice to the subject, the author had to bring alive a vanished world. A world that we have only tenuous links to. The world of the colonial India and a British empire that was still at the height of its powers.

The best part about this book is that not only is a vanished world brought alive but also that the two men who are the main characters in the narrative – Ramanujan and Hardy, from two wildly different worlds, come across as almost in flesh and blood. And if you are put off by the fear that this book may contain reference to some arcane mathematics – perish the thought. Even if you don’t know who Pythagoras was, you would enjoy the book as much as if you knew who he was.

The story is incredible in itself. An untrained genius waiting to be recognized in the dusty backlanes of Madras, who on his own, rediscovered two centuries of western mathematics working with a slate and a few rags of paper. A man who abhorred proofs, preferring to work out solutions in his head. A man whose astonishing leaps of intuition baffle mathematicians to this day. And a man who eventually would come to influence the modern mathematical world like few following him.

On the other side a man who embodies the best in English education. A man whose talent was recognized early on and who got all the advantages of that time. A man who was considered a genius in his own right. A man who was as eccentric as he was fiercely unconventional.

The unlikely meeting of these two men, leapfrogging geographies and more importantly prejudices, resulting in some of the most exciting and original works is considered a romantic lore in the world of science. And that story is told with love here – right from the genesis to the tragic end

The personality of the two men also determined the way the partnership progressed. Ramanujan, always in need of a hassle free environment and in need of professional validation was tailor-made for the mentorship of Hardy, who was selfless in promoting Ramanujan and who took care to nurture the genius in the Indian.

But the tragic part of the story was also probably largely due to their

personalities (and also due to the war – WWI). The unravelling of a partnership, which, if it had survived for some more years, could have yielded who knows what revelations, is a story in itself.

As you move through the pages, you are struck by the care and love with which the author has studied the people populating the book; by how much the author has immersed himself in the world that they lived in – from rustic and warm Madras to the ramparts of cold and forbidding Cambridge. You get to know the two men – Ramanujan and Hardy quite well before we come to the meat of the story. The telling of the story never flags in its pace and you can understand the race against time that Ramanujan must have felt when was working in Cambridge. At times the book almost reads like a thriller!

Robert Kanigel puts care in the way he portrays his characters. He does not mythify them and does not try to gloss over drawbacks in the two men. He takes care to nurture the grey part of his characters, which is what mainly makes the story comes alive – none of his characters seem one-dimensional.

The best biographies are those in which you can breathe the air that the characters breathe and you understand why they did what they did, even if you are culturally and historically removed from them. And the best of them are the ones which you enjoy even if you don’t relate to the subject matter. If that’s the yardstick taken, this book would rank right there at the top.

 

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