I discovered recently that a past Fellow of the Royal Society is about to become the subject of not one but two films. Fellows do pop up in both film and literature from time to time (in fact our Library has a section dedicated to Fellows in Fiction), and it will be interesting to see the life of a Fellow depicted on screen.

The scientist in this instance is Indian mathematician Srinivasa Aaiyangar Ramanujan, and I was intrigued to find out why he might become the subject of films where another mathematician might not. Ramanujan was born in the town of Erode, in southern India, and was based in Madras (now Chennai) before he joined Cambridge University.  He began writing to Godfrey Harold Hardy FRS, a Fellow of Trinity College, who later described Ramanujan as ‘the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics’. Hardy became instrumental in arranging for Ramanujan to pursue his mathematical work in Cambridge, which he did in 1914.  Ramanujan was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1918, aged just 30, but by this time he was suffering from a long-term illness and, although well enough to return to India in 1919, he died the following year.

 

Photograph of Srinivasa Ramanujan FRS, in the collection of the Royal Society.

 

Perhaps the ‘romantic’ phrase Hardy used was because Ramanujan had a life story which grabs the imagination. The paragraph above simply gives a brief overview, but delve deeper and you find a boy who failed to gain promotion to the senior class level of college but later found himself at Madras and then Cambridge Universities. Or you might find yourself admiring his determination to work almost up until the day he died? Perhaps Hardy was also aware of a fascination we seem to have with those who achieve so much but die comparatively young. In pop culture there are numerous examples, but the world of mathematics has other contenders. Personally I tend to remember the mathematician Évariste Galois because I was told that he died at the age of 20 fighting a duel! I’d be interested in seeing a film about Galois, and perhaps you have ideas about which mathematician or scientist you would go to see represented on the big screen.

 

Ramanujan’s Royal Society election certificate, EC/1918/18. His proposers included G H Hardy, Joseph Larmor and Alfred North Whitehead.

 

Despite his short life, and whether or not the circumstances of it are interesting to you, there is no doubt that Ramanujan was widely respected as a mathematician and continues to have an impact of mathematicians today. During his time at Cambridge he published works alone as well as in collaboration, and was published in a number of mathematical journals such as the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society and the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society. Today there is a Ramanujan Journal dedicated to publishing papers in the following areas of mathematics that Ramanujan’s work influenced:

* Hyper-geometric and basic hyper-geometric series (q-series) * Partitions, compositions and combinatory analysis * Circle method and asymptotic formulae * Mock theta functions * Elliptic and theta functions * Modular forms and automorphic functions * Special functions and definite integrals * Continued fractions * Diophantine analysis including irrationality and transcendence * Number theory * Fourier analysis with applications to number theory * Connections between Lie algebras and q-series

(List taken from http://www.springer.com/mathematics/numbers/journal/11139)

Here at the Royal Society there is little in the way of archival material relating to Ramanujan, but we do have a good deal of published items, from his ‘lost’ notebooks to biographies and the fictional work, ‘The Indian Clerk’ by David Leavitt. Perhaps the nicest item that we have (depending on your taste in art) is a bust of Ramanujan, by the artist Paul T Granlund – one of a number that were produced, it is nevertheless a lovely object to have. It was presented to the Society in 1994 by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar FRS and is displayed here in our premises, a fitting tribute to one of our youngest Fellows.

 

Bust of Ramanujan, on display at the Royal Society.

 

  • Perhaps we should reference the story of the ‘Hardy-Ramanujan number’, which is the story by which most people (myself included), and for better or worse, know Ramanujan:
    http://www.richannel.org/number-1729-and-taxi-cabs

    • Fiona

      I wonder if it will make into the film? It certainly gets a mention in some of the biographies of Ramanujan. Thanks for reminding us of it.

      • Well, it’s a nice way of engaging kids – and adults – with the mysteries of numbers!