As someone who have the concept of infinity as a hobby Ramanujan has been a person that I’ve been fascinated by for years. But beside that he came from a poor family in India, made interesting contributions in the area of infinite series and (like many other geniuses) had a short life, I did not know very much about him or his contributions.
This book is so much more than a biography. It is a fantastic book that allows us to follow Ramanujan closely, but still always at a respectful distance. Rather than a traditional simple biography this is book captures Ramanujan’s life through two human stories (Ramanujan’s and Hardy’s, who invited him to Cambridge), two cultural stories (where we see an academic western culture contrasted with a ”normal” family living in relative poverty, Two perspectives on life (a more rational and one more spiritual), a war, and what I would call an infinity quest. The last is really what binds the book together.
Among other things the book is fantastic story of what happens when someone pursue a quest that few understand and does so at almost any cost. But it is also a very unusual, admirable and I would argue successful, attempt to also give glimpses into what Ramunajan actually spend his life exploring.
I would also like to see this as a call for students, or anyone actually, to dare to trust their passion. A key quote is the following:
"Many students put off attempting anything on their own account till they have mastered everything relating to their problem that has been done by others. The result is that but few ever acquire the knack of independent work.” E. T. Bell in Men of Mathematics, but I would argue that it is valid in all fields.
The way Kanigel manages to capture the resistance to innovative thinking, both in India and UK, at the same time as he provides insights to the personal relations that made it possible for Ramunajan to find a place where he, for a short while, could find intellectual support for his passion.
I also found the found the way he described the tension/dynamics between Hardy and Ramunajan very interesting in relation to infinity. I have often found that it is an interesting field as I think most of those attracted to infinity are either extremely logical and radical (in the sense that they are not afraid of unexpected results), or extremely spiritual but with a significant capacity for math/logic. But they seldom meet as the later in the West tend to get attracted to more artistic work, and the former to math. With Ramunajan a meeting that is almost impossible happened anyway.
In parts of the book it is almost as if you can hear how the institutions are trying to eject Ramunajan as an infection. I was impressed by how Kanigel spent a lot of time with Hardy, as the crucial bridge builder that allowed Ramunajan into the system, but without diminishing the fact that it was Ramunajan who gave us something absolutely fantastic in a very unexpected way.
After this book I also feel that I better understand the fear that many academics have in relation to infinity. I have often seen a lack of understanding of math as the key obstacle, but I see now that a lack of passion to explore the unexpected might be the main obstacle. Especially as many of those who are most afraid are utilitarians of the less complex kind and they tend to make an effort to ignore passion in all shape and forms.
It is hard not to love a book like this and I hope a lot of people will. My challenge now is if the next book by Kanigel will be “The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency” or “Vintage Reading: From Plato to Bradbury, a Personal Tour of Some of the World's Best Books”. It will also be released as a movie soon, but I doubt that they will cover any of the math in that (if they will I will make sure I watch it).