By Arjun Soin
Cubberley Auditorium was home to a full house. And no, it was not an exam that had it jam-packed. It was instead an evening that every math-frenzied Stanford affiliate and Bay Area denizen had been eagerly awaiting – a behind-the-scenes panel discussion on the “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” a film based on the life and times of a brilliant young mind of the 20th century, Srinivasa Ramanujan. Metaphorically, the notion of knowing infinity might well seem mundane at a place like Stanford. But the grave predicament in which S. Ramanujan came up with seemingly impossible mathematical propositions is awe-inspiring for just about anyone, mathematical or not. With this very sentiment echoing through the walls of Cubberley last Thursday by, a palpable anticipation for this film was duly aroused.
One of the panelists was Professor Manjul Bhargava from Princeton, a Fields Medalist, whose academic work has largely focused on building upon and concretizing Ramanujan’s theories from the past. Joining him was Ken Ono from Emory, another devout “Ramanujian” who had no qualms about proclaiming that the bulk of his personal and intellectual inclinations towards mathematics have been driven by a deep-seated reverence for Ramanujan. While the formidable force of intellect behind this movie was represented by Bhargava and Ono, director Matt Brown was on the distinguished panel too. In the few excerpts of the film that he showed, the exceptional attention to detail in portraying and capturing an uneducated man’s transition from a small village in southern India all the way to Cambridge, U.K. is praiseworthy, to say the least.
Now, a slight background before I go on to opine about the larger message driven home in the backdrop of this immense veneration for a two-time college dropout from early 20th century India. Residing in a single room with six other family members in a tiny village in the state of Tamil Nadu, Ramanjuan’s upbringing was constantly synonymous with impoverishment. Though his precociousness kept him driven to succeed against all odds, he reached a point where even local scholars couldn’t comprehend the level of mathematics he would intuit and scribble on his notebooks and the floor of the local temple. People in his vicinity now saw him as a deranged and delusional young adult, but his family never lost faith in him.
And so, he was encouraged to reach out to mathematicians across the globe in the hopes there would be someone willing and able to give Ramanujan the impetus to further transform the realm of mathematics. It was G.H. Hardy from Cambridge in 1914 who was his messiah in this sense. Astonished by Ramanujan’s letter that laid out formulae far beyond the then status quo of mathematics (so much so that he initially viewed the manuscripts as possible fraud), Hardy urged Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to enhance his intuitions with definitive proofs. Not only did five years in the U.K. render him a Fellow of the Royal Society, it also resulted in a hugely successful collaboration with Hardy in spite of persistent cultural asymmetry between the two. It is worth considering that Ramanujan’s health constantly deteriorated over his years at Cambridge, owing in large part to the scarcity of vegetarian food during World War I and stress of being far away from home.
Here at Stanford, facilities and infrastructure to churn out groundbreaking research most definitely abound. And as much as access to this research may well be a part and parcel of our lives, the panel discussion was a major epiphany. While we are fortunate enough to be in an environment that nurtures individual passion at the drop of a hat, Ramanujan knew nothing of the world beyond the four walls of his local temple or of the miniscule room he shared with six people. And yet, here we are today pondering the ironic brilliance that came out of such abysmal conditions. There may be no doubting his prodigal status and possibly the presence of Goddess Mahalakshmi (Ramanujan claimed his mathematics all came from her), but he was so completely immersed in his pursuit of numbers that society’s obstacles just never deterred him. It is daunting to even think of taking a month-long sail to get to somewhere (as Ramanujan did from India to UK). And there is no need to, in today’s day and age. But his journey serves as a powerful indicator that he was willing to go to any extent to manifest his innate talent into something more meaningful. It was, in other words, genius supplemented by perseverance.
The most notable takeaway that evening though, was a notion that seems cliché first but is oft-forgotten each time one boasts about places like Silicon Valley harboring the brightest intellectuals across the globe. It is that, as Professor Bhargava said “Talent can be found anywhere” — as it turned out in this case, even in the inconspicuous village of Kumbakonam sandwiched in a corner of South India!
Contact Arjun Soin at asoin ‘at’ stanford.edu