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: A Life of the Indian Genius Ramanujan

By Robert Kanigel

Pub Date: May 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-684-19259-4
Publisher: Scribner

 Destructive forces of East and West combine to crush the flower of genius in this brilliantly realized biography of a self- taught, turn-of-the-century mathematician, by the author of Apprentice to Genius (1986). Born in 1887 to humble circumstances in a southern Indian backwater, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar received little encouragement in his growing obsession for mathematics--fueled particularly by his discovery of a forty-year-old math book written by an English tutor. Nevertheless, Ramanujan began compulsively filling his own notebooks with scribbled mathematical theorums, heedless of the fact that he was flunking out of one after another of the area's universities, all designed by the British to train native administrators rather than cultivate Indian genius. At age 26, unemployable, misunderstood and desperate for sponsorship, Ramanujan mailed a sample of his work to the eminent young British mathematician, G. H. Hardy, thus initiating what would become one of the surprising discoveries of twentieth-century mathematics--his own brilliant, still insufficiently-plumbed, understanding of the nature of numbers. Greatly impressed, Hardy arranged for Ramajuran to join him in Cambridge, where the Indian enjoyed the joys of subsidized intellectual labor and international appreciation at the price of giving up the daily spiritual sustenance provided by his own culture. The trade-off proved too much. Prevented from returning to India once World War I commenced, cut off from the spiritual element he'd always integrated into his mathematical theories, and with only the ascetic atheist, Hardy, for company, Ramanujan went into a steep physical decline. Seven years after his arrival in England, at age 33, he was dead. Kanigel's particular interest in how primitive superstition, India's bureaucratic mindset, English spiritual asceticism and a Western war combined to destroy the miracle of Ramanujan's genius adds deeper dimensions to the already fascinating story of a difficult but astoundingly fruitful cross-cultural co