Friday, February 18, 2011

Srinivasa Ramanujan

One of the most intriguing tales in the modern history of mathematics involves Indian-born mathematician and genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) who traveled to England to work with G H Hardy (1877-1947).  Poet Jonathan Holden, who writes often of matters mathematical, offers this portrait of the Indian prodigy: 

Ramanujan     by Jonathan Holden

          It was Mr Littlewood (I believe) who remarked that "every
          positive integer was one of his [Ramanujan's] personal friends."
                                  -- G. H. Hardy

This modest, mousy little boy from India
could reel off pi's digits to any
decimal place his classmates dared him to.
No mean feat.  But for Ramanujan it
was a breeze.  Pi was merely one of his
first cousins, in fact a favorite.
And his cousins were innumerable.
Each day whcn school let out he'd retire
to the silent playground where they waited,
a windless plot with neither sun nor moon.
A silent playground -- it was a funny place,
part civilized and partly wilderness.
It had some cultivated sections, but
all the rows, like footprints in the snow,
simply petered out into a white
fastness that was neither far nor near.
There was no definite horizon there.

Without a word, Ramanujan would sit
down among his friends and question them.
Some were persnickety at first, but if
he scattered seed and sat still long
enough, they'd hop right up to him.
Like sparrows, the'd eat out of his hand.
And once a number had confessed, Ramanujan
was its intimate.  Each face touched off
for him its sly Gestalt, it pulled the trigger
that the kindly puss of your old car pulls
as you pick it out among the traffic,
idling with its crotchety click-click,
it was the smell of home cooking.
When Hardy once casually remarked
that the integer one seven two nine
on a taxi seemed "quite dull," Ramanujan
quickened.  Why no, it was the smallest sum
of two cubes expressible in just two ways.

When he died, his room was packed.  The walls,
the clock, the close air bristled with his friends.
As he expired, softly they slipped off,
those countless cousins, all without a word,
without jostling a single speck of dust,
without leaving the slightest trace behind,
without touching anything, fled back
to haunt that playground where for thirty years
he'd shuffled out and sat.  The rest of us,
still stuck here in the shambles, go right on
sneezing with the seasons and galumph around
grabbing the daffodils too hard, bruising
the fruit, ordering the weeds to state their names,
waiting for the scent after the thunderstarm,
the shot, the drenching accident, to be
the Ramanujans of experience.

"Ramanujan" is found in Holden's collection UR-Math (State Street Press Chapbooks, 1997).   Holden's "Integrals" may be found  in an earlier posting on 22 January.   G H Hardy is best known today for his 1940 essay A Mathematician's Apology (on which I made brief comment on 30 December 2010).