The Man Who Knew Infinity

Debunking genius is all the rage in academia these days. Yet for all the zealotry of the would-be demystifiers, it is child’s play to refute them. Read a page of Shakespeare. Replay a Michael Jordan arabesque in slow motion. Or simply say the name Ramanujan (“Rah-MAH-na-jun, with only light stress on the second syllable, and the last syllable sometimes closer to jum”).

At the heart of this absorbing biography is the story of a genius—a story so bold in its outlines as to make the debunkers gnash their teeth. At the age of twenty-five, Ramanujan was working as a clerk in a government accounting office in the South Indian city of Madras. A mathematical prodigy, he had failed to make an academic career for himself, in part because of his overwhelming passion for the world of numbers. What he craved above all, Robert Kanigel explains, was “leisure,” not idleness but freedom from economic necessity and time in which to pursue his pure mathematical investigations.

In January, having already written to two eminent British mathematicians who failed to respond positively, Ramanujan sent some of his work to the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy along with a request for help and advice. Unlike his colleagues, Hardy recognized Ramanujan’s unorthodox and extraordinary gifts. He arranged for a scholarship. By 1914, Ramanujan was in Cambridge; by 1918, he had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Yet in England he contracted tuberculosis. He returned to India after the war in very poor health, yet even on his deathbed he was “scribbling” equations. He died in 1920; mathematicians are still exploring the papers he left behind.

Kanigel’s biography centers on the collaboration between Ramanujan and Hardy, himself a brilliant and eccentric figure, yet it also establishes the radically different cultural contexts and family settings in which the two men came to maturity. For readers who can share at least in a small way in Ramanujan’s obsession, Kanigel provides generous samples of his subject’s work, yet readers who skip the equations altogether will not feel cheated. The text is supplemented by photographs, notes, a selected bibliography, and an index.