Monday, May 9, 2016

Movie Monday: The Man Who Knew Infinity

I was eager to see this movie because of a biography I read some years ago about its lead character, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor, self-taught mathematician from India whose work began to astonish people from the time he arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1914 and continues to astonish people today.

Even the brightest people who study math all their lives do not attain the level of insight and understanding of how numbers operate that Ramanujan displayed from an early age.  He was obsessed with mathematics and worked hard, but he also was endowed with a brain that allowed him to approach seemingly impossible challenges, work out their solutions and write them in neat sentences, absent formal proofs and logic.  The only argument is whether he was the finest mathematician of the last several hundred years or of all time.

Ramanujuan's personal story is a sad one.  Bedevilled by illness from a young age -- dysentery or cancer or tuberculosis, perhaps all three -- he died in 1920 at age 32.

The Man Who Knew Infinity sets out to tell Ramanujan's life story, putting his accomplishments in context with the external challenges he faced in his short life.  It is enjoyable to watch, but it perhaps bites off more than it can chew and resorts to cliches to make its narrative appealing to people with limited understandings of higher math, which is just about all of us.

The Best Part

The movie's central element is the intellectual relationship between Ramanujan and his Trinity sponsor, G.H. Hardy.  In 1913, Ramanujan sends a letter to Hardy, sharing some of his theorems.  Hardy, a very fine mathematician himself, shares the letter with colleague John Littlewood, and the two are impressed enough to arrange for Ramanujan to join them at Cambridge.

The tension between old-school Hardy (played excellently by Jeremy Irons) and Ramanujan is Hardy's insistence that the autodidact slow down and document his thought processes -- in effect, that he show his work.  There are unsuccessful efforts to make the Indian genius learn methods by attending undergraduate math courses, and, over time, more successful collaborations between mentor and student that lead to publication and broader appreciation of Ramanujan's work.

This is well displayed, and apparently historically accurate.  Hardy the atheist and Ramanujan, the Hindu who believes his ideas are given to him by a divine being, come at things from very different places.  They frustrate each other and argue often, but their mutual respect and devotion to their work bind them intextricably.

The Less Good Parts

First things first:  The title character's name is pronounced RaMAHNujan, though he is called RamaNUjan in the movie. This is a small matter, of course.  I didn't know how to pronounce the name until I looked it up the other day.

More to the point, the arc of Ramanujan's life is the stuff of perseverance against obstacles: getting a clerk's job in impoverished India, bringing his work to the attention of Indian mathematicians and British officials in the country, moving to a new and unknown continent, facing down skepticism based on his foreign identity and limited formal education, demonstrating that he was as brilliant as Hardy said he was, earning the respect and admiration of possibly the most elite mathematics department in the world at his time, and all the while fighting one or more wasting diseases.

The movie shows this but adds conflict for conflict's sake.

It invents a romance between him and his wife, Janaki, who were married when he was 20 and she was nine or 10 years old and who did not live together until she was 12.  By the time he left for England, she was 14 or 15; theirs was almost certainly an arranged marriage and almost certainly had more to do with filial duty than love. (This is not to say that arranged marriages do not become love matches over time.) Nobody knows the relationship between the two, who spent a year together between Ramanujan's return to India and his early death, but casting it as something that might resemble a 21st century first-world romance feels like a stretch.

In another example, Ramanujan's mother's meddling in the relationship between her son and daughter-in-law apparently was invented out of whole cloth.  Biographers say his mother (her husband is absent from the movie) initially opposed his leaving Madras for England but gave her blessing after a she believed she received a divine message ordering her to relent.  It cannot have been easy. The poor woman gave birth to three other children after Sriniva; none lived to see a first birthday.

A third conflict -- Ramanujan's beating by bigoted British soldiers in the Trinity quad -- may have happened, but I doubt it.  The mathematician certainly was viewed initially with disdain by English toffs at Cambridge, but inventing a violent act to amp up sympathy based on virulent British racism seems forced.  In my (admittedly later) experience, Brits are buttoned-up people who do their grousing in private.

I think I get why the film was made this way.  It certainly could not have communicated the totality of Ramanujan's accomplishments to a general audience.  And there were only so many shots of amazed colleagues' goggling eyes and mouths agape that could have been fitted into the plot.


One of the few photographs I have seen of Ramanujan is the one below.  Ramanujan is in the center, Hardy at the far right.

Contemporaneous reports tell us that Ramanujan was a short, pudgy fellow of modest demeanor, great humility and relentless drive.

In the movie he is portrayed by Dev Patel, a good actor and a tall, slim, handsome man whose film wardrobe of crisp, well-tailored suits would be the envy of any metrosexual in London or New York today. 

It is true that filmgoers identify more easily with really attractive actors, but it may also be true that theater and movies have trained us to admire beauty more than truth, playing to our instinctive emotional tendencies to value form over substance. 

Human beauty fades with age and disappears into the grave.   By contrast, the results of Ramanujan's mathematical obsession are durable.  The formulas he devised have been applied over many decades to understand the mathematical underpinnings of numerical orders and physics.  

Ramanujan's admirers -- mathematicians and others -- call his work "beautiful" with unironic sincerity.  

This is how he should be remembered.


Below is a brief video by a math scholar discussing the movie and the Ramanujan-Hardy connection, and giving a bit more color to the significance of Ramanujan's work. 

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