On The Man Who Knew Infinity

  • By Ajit Balakrishnan
  • June 2016
  • 1191 views

Reflections  on mathematics, teaching and Ramanujan at a film theatre

Last  Saturday morning, I found myself emerging from a Mumbai cinema  teary-eyed, at the end of the movie The  Man Who Saw Infinity - the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a "self-taught"  mathematician from Madras (now Chennai) and a clerk in the Madras  Port Trust, who got himself invited to do research in advanced  mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1914, and who had to  return to India five years later because of ill-health, to die of  tuberculosis.

I  stood there trying to decode the sudden rush of tears in my eyes. Was  it because Ramanujan was a mere 32 when he died, or was it because of  the triviality of the reason for his poor health - which, as the film  presents it, was because of the vegetarian Ramanujan's malnutrition  in a country where, at least at that time, even potato chips were  cooked in animal fat?

The  answer as to why the Ramanujan story had saddened me so much came to  me in a set of cascading thoughts. The first source of my sadness was  that even today, a century after Ramanujan, recognition for academic  or scientific worth in India is dependent on Western certification;  in Ramanujan's time from British universities and in our time from  American universities. The second source of my sadness was at the  silly levels to which the awe about mathematics has risen to not just  in this film but in many other fields of life - mathematical  competence is presented as the ultimate competence. My final source  of sadness, I realised was about the way the Ramanujan story is  always presented - him being self-taught, that is to say, out of  divine contemplation, not from teachers and text books.

Let's  start with the bit about Ramanujan being self-taught. The truth was  that Ramanujan was what we would today call a college-drop out. After  a through grounding in mathematics at the school level, he joined  Government Arts College, Kumbakonam (founded 1854) and dropped out  from there, joined Pachaiyappa's College in Madras (founded 1842) and  dropped out from there as well.

In  other words, Ramanujan was in an environment where mathematics  teaching was flourishing. At the time Ramanujan joined them, both the  Government Arts College in Kumbakonam and Pachaiyappa's College had  already been in existence for more than half a century. And there is  little doubt that mathematics acumen was revered in those parts of  India: when my mother's younger sister won the Madras University gold  medal in mathematics in the 1950s, the celebration at my  grandparents' home in Salem lasted days; we children were all allowed  to eat unlimited home-made ice cream all of that week.

What's  more, by the time Ramanujan was born, the use of formalised methods  of teaching mathematics had existed for at least a thousand years in  India.

Algebra,  the core of mathematical thinking, was brought to the western world  thanks to the compilation of Indian techniques in the 8th century AD  book Al-kitab  al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-gabr wa'l-muqabala roughly translated as The  Book of Calculation by Completion and Balancing,  by the Baghdadi teacher and author Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.  The modern term "algorithm" is the Anglicisation of  "al-Khwarizmi", and "algebra" the Anglicisation  of "al-jabr".  His book, On  the Calculation with Hindu Numerals,  written about 825 was translated into Latin as Algoritmi  de numero Indorum,  is what took mathematics to the West.

The  final source of my sadness was with the way modern life (and the  film) fetishises mathematics. The Great Recession which the world has  been struggling in vain to overcome since 2008 and which has brought  many countries to their knees and destroyed many millions of jobs  world-wide can be directly traced to those mathematical artefacts  called "mortgage-backed securities" and "collateralised  debt obligations". The mystical qualities attached to the value  of these artefacts made even otherwise rational policy makers  overlook their fragility. Their mathematical complexity created the  awe which suspended rationality and allowed bond and securities  salesmen to sell billions of dollars' worth of that stuff  world-wide.

Modern-day  economists also wrap their sometimes simplistic assumptions in  complex mathematics to make them sound more credible. Alan Jay  Levinovitz, an assistant professor of philosophy at James Madison  University in Virginia, calls this "the new astrology" -  and says that, by fetishising mathematical models, economists have  turned economics into a highly paid pseudoscience. He quotes the  economist Paul Romer of New York University about macroeconomics  being plagued by "mathiness" and thus failing to progress  as a true science should, and that current debates among economists  are often as pointless as those between 16th-century advocates of  heliocentrism and geocentrism - whether the sun or the earth was at  the centre of things. "Mathematics", says Mr Romer, "can  help economists to clarify their thinking and reasoning... but the  ubiquity of mathematical theory in economics also has serious  downsides: it creates a high barrier to entry for those who want to  participate in the professional dialogue, and makes checking  someone's work excessively laborious. Worst of all, it imbues  economic theory with unearned empirical authority".

If  Ramanujan lived in our times, though, his existence would have been  far different than being a penurious teacher of mathematics - the  highest starting salaries in the world today are for "data  scientists" and the highest valuations are for start-ups whose  business models are based on detecting and exploiting mathematical  patterns. We  would have found Ramanujan presiding over a billion-dollar start-up  or running a mega hedge-fund.

First  published in Business Standard. Courtesy and Copyright Business  Standard

Also  read
1. India's lost history of Mathematical genius
2. Brief History of Indian Mathematics
3. Know Maths books taught in 18th century in India