Pride of India India’s Mathematical Genius – Srinivas Ramanujam Iyengar.

Srinivas Ramanujam

Ramanujam was born on December 22, 1887. Right from his young age, he showed great aptitude for mathematics. His prowess in mathematics started expressing itself very early in his age. Mathematics was great fun for him. By the time he turned 13, he had already mastered trigonometry.

A boy who played with mathematics only had to become a genius in this subject sooner or later. It was during this time he came across a book ‘Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics’ by George Shoebridge Carr. This book contained about 6000 formulas in algebra, trigonometry, geometry and calculus. But it contained no proofs and was not at all a great work. But for young Ramanujam it was a treasure trove which he seized with both hands. It inspired him to hone his knowledge in mathematics and achieve great heights in this field.

Getting this book was the turning point in his life. He devoted every waking moment in solving the problems and it virtually opened the flood gates of new concepts and ideas in the field of pure mathematics. Sitting day and night with this book, he jotted down his ideas and made extensive notes which ran into 2000 pages. Later on these notes became famous as Ramanujam’s ‘frayed notebooks’.

Ramanujam, undoubtedly, was a genius by birth and much ahead of his time in the field of mathematics. Surprisingly, he was poor in all other subjects. His scholarship at the Government College of Kumbakonam was terminated after 1 year because he had fared very badly in other subjects except maths. This in turn did not procure him an admission at the famous University of Madras.

Young Ramanujam did not care for university degrees. Denied admission at Madras University, he gladly stayed back at Kumbakonam to concentrate on his pet subject – pure mathematics.

His genius as a great mathematician was first recognised in 1911 when one of his remarkable research papers on Bernoulli’s number was published in the Indian Mathematical Society’s journal.

In the year 1913 he forwarded his research papers to an eminent professor, G.M.Hardy of Cambridge University in England. Along with his research papers, he attached a covering letter to the professor stating that he did not posses any formal university degree. He also highlighted the fact that he studied on his own and worked out purely by himself with the help of books borrowed from libraries. There in Cambridge, Professor Hardy and his colleague J.E.Littlewood did not take much time in recognising Ramanujam’s brilliance as a mathematician. They invited him to come to Cambridge and made arrangements for his travel to England. Thus he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge bypassing all formal and routine procedures of admission.

After getting into Cambridge, he worked hard and stuck to his aim diligently. He published several research papers. Ramanujam was an unsystematic mathematician. However, he got his B.A. Degree in maths.

Srivinas Ramanujam found it very difficult to adjust to his new foreign surroundings. He felt uncomfortable by the freezing temperature and badly missed his pure vegetarian south Indian food. Nevertheless, he persevered and achieved wonders in the field of pure mathematics. He impressed one and all. His teachers were amazed by his insight and ingenuity. His professor surprised by this young man’s brilliance remarked ‘There can be no question as to the extraordinary insight and ingenuity which he has shown in treating it, nor any doubt that his memoir is one of the most remarkable published in England for many years. In him, India now possesses a pure mathematician of the first order whose achievements suggest the brightest hopes in scientific future.”

Srinivas Ramanujam’s research works were known as ‘Notebooks’. Many of his Notebooks are still being discovered and their marvellous results brought to light.

On Srinivas Ramanujam’s birth centenary, 1987, the New York Times said “Now his work is flowing into mathematics and science more deeply than could have been imagined a generation ago. Computers with special programmes to manipulate algebraic qualities have made it possible for ordinary mathematicians to pick up the trail of his thought. And modern physics from the superstring theory of cosmology to the statistical mechanics of complicated molecular system finds itself turning more and more to the pure findings of number theory and complex analysis.

Ramanujam by nature was an intuitive person. He followed his intuition and therefore could not or would not follow the conventional steps to reach a mathematical conclusion. He very often skipped several steps and most of the results were obtained intuitively and effortlessly. It appeared as if he played with numbers as a child would with his toys.

He stayed at the Cambridge University for 4 years. During this period, he produced many research papers which were original and significant in nature and substance. He broke many grounds in mathematics. His teachers and guides praised his labour, research and mathematical results. Critical acclaim and laurels came to him from many quarters and eminent persons. He was unanimously admired and appreciated for his exceptional talent. They felt he was unrivalled since the time of Euler and Jacoby. In February 1918, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, London at the young age of 30 years. He was the first Indian to have this honour. His name for Fellowship was proposed by eminent mathematicians of his times. He was also elected the Fellow of Trinity.

Unfortunately Ramanujam being a strict vegetarian, could not get good vegetarian food in Cambridge. Lack of good nutritious food began to seriously affect his already poor health, adding to the bitter cold conditions which he was not accustomed to. He still kept on working with his mathematical problems as he never lost his interest in his only passion.

Gradually when things turned to worse, his poor health started to affect his mental condition. He became depressed and in desperation to return to India he tried to attempt suicide.

He set sail for India and reached Bombay on March 27, 1919. He was a pale shadow of his former self. He coughed continuously and was suspected of having TB. His health grew worse and finally he breathed his last on April 26, 1920 at the young age of 32 years. His death sent shockwaves across the mathematical world.

Ramanujam’s major mathematical works and contributions include

  • The Hardy-Ramanujam-Littlewood Circle method in number theory.
  • Roger-Ramanujam’s Partition of integers, list of highest composite numbers and work on the algebra of inequalities.
  • His theory of partitions has attracted worldwide attention and it can be applied to a number of problems.

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