The enigma of Ramanujan

Published : Jan 27, 2012 00:00 IST

An interview with Professor Robert Kanigel, biographer of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

PROFESSOR Robert Kanigel, the acclaimed author of The Man Who Knew Infinity: The Life of the Genius Ramanujan, a biography of the enigmatic Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, visited India recently on an invitation from the Indian Academy of Sciences on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Ramanujan, which was celebrated in Chennai on December 26. Kanigel wrote the biography, which the dust jacket of one of its editions says has all the drama, the richness and cultural sweep of a fine historical novel, in 1991.

A mechanical engineer by training, he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, in 1966. He later moved to Baltimore, where he held engineering jobs for three years. In 1970, he began a career in journalism writing for Baltimore Magazine and the Sunday magazine of The Baltimore Sun. On the strength of that experience, he decided to be a writer, and has been writing books ever since. In the early 1970s, he wrote City Sunrise: Waking Up from the Suburban Dream about cities and city living. In his own words, though the title was very good, the book was bad. It was never published. He began writing for the magazine of Johns Hopkins University as well. Over the years, he has written about 400 articles, essays and book reviews.

In 1986, he wrote Apprentice to Genius about the powerful role of mentor relationships among elite scientists. Beginning in the 1980s, he taught writing at Johns Hopkins University and at the University of Baltimore's Yale Gordon College of Liberal Arts. In 1999, he became professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he helped start its Graduate Programme in Science Writing. He retired from MIT in August 2011 and has returned to writing full time. Kanigel spoke to Science Correspondent R. Ramachandran in Mumbai on December 23. Excerpts from the interview:

In the Preface to your book The Man Who Knew Infinity, you have said that the publisher suggested that you write about Ramanujan even though you had not heard of him. What caught your fascination or propelled you to get down to producing the book?

When the editor first approached my agent, and the agent first approached me, my first reaction was that this was not going to work. I didn't know about [G.H.] Hardy [the English mathematician]. I had some background in mathematics, not a lot, but some. But I didn't close my mind to the idea. I started doing a little initial research at Johns Hopkins University. Then I got hold of a BBC documentary on Ramanujan. Until then I hadn't known anything about Hardy. And somehow in there, it was the idea of it not being only about Ramanujan but about the kind of tension between Ramanujan and Hardy the friendship, the mentoring, and the relationship between two men working at the very highest levels that attracted me more. At that time I knew very little about Ramanujan, about South Indian culture, about anything. But at that very, very early stage of my interest it was that idea of friendship and collaboration at the very highest level that really intrigued me.

You have dwelt at length on the psychology of Ramanujan the way his character was built, the temple-town atmosphere in which he grew up, his religiosity to understand his mathematics, which seems to give an impression that his spiritual bent of mind had an impact on the kind of mathematics he did. Do you believe that?

I don't think that had an influence on the mathematics per se. None. Zero. I tried to describe the world from which Ramanujan came. If somebody wishes to trace a connection between any of that and the mathematics, they can try, but I don't think they are going to get anywhere. Nonetheless, if we try to understand his personality and his character, and the way he lived, we would want to know about his upbringing, about his religious influences, about South India, and his relationship with his parents as best as we can. So, I would deny any relationship between that and the mathematics itself. There is much more to Ramanujan than his mathematics. He is a human being.

What I meant was that the title of your book, your reference to the fact that Ramanujan related zero and infinity to something divine and, for instance, your example of values that 2n 1 took as an equation that Ramanujan talked of representing the thought of God

That is one story, one anecdote. The fact is it is not me but some South Indians in the world that he grew up in who saw some direct connection between his religiosity and his mathematics. I am telling that story. I am giving it a place in the book. But that is different from saying that there is a direct, intimate connection between his religiosity and his mathematics. If you are writing a biography or reading a biography, it's a mistake to be too quick to make direct one-to-one correspondences between A and B. I think in something like a biography you can't say that A caused B. You can say that it has influences on his personality, on his life, on his character.

You do not say that in so many words, but your emphasis on his religious upbringing and the religiosity in him gives the impression that it is perhaps that which drove him to explore the kind of extraordinary mathematics that he did, which was beyond any ordinary mathematician and was inexplicable.

I wouldn't say so. I would say that that is part of his life and part of his personality. Many of his friends, many of his associates and some of these anecdotal accounts are by people who themselves may have been very pious, very religious, and very devout Hindus may have been quicker to make [these] connections than I or you. But it is part of the story and it is part of the mystery too. Everybody seems to agree that someone [who] is a level of genius beyond what we encounter is almost automatically propelled into the region of the mysterious. Once having been propelled into the region of great mystery at the highest level of human intellect, you find yourself scratching your head as to what could possibly explain it. So I did the best I could.

Do we understand Ramanujan now or does he still remain mysterious?

I think he does. I think you could say the same thing about literature, the arts. What is the genius of Picasso? People will try to explain it in easy ways, but I think they are unjustified in doing so. I think some people really are a few steps beyond where the rest of us live. We are forced to view those intellects, those artistic sensibilities to whatever it is, as a little bit mysterious or a little beyond what is the common realm.

There is a second aspect though. There are many people out there, very smart, brilliant, and they don't do anything with their lives. They are just stuck there. There are personal characteristics that propel people to do what they do, that is beyond the actual work that they are doing a kind of an ambition, a kind of a drive, a kind of a pushing force [for them to say] I am going to make something of myself and nothing is going to get in my way. And I think that's part of an understanding of how a Picasso or a Ramanujan come into the world.

Did that push in his case come from...It came from his mother.

You think it was the mother alone or was it also his religiosity?

I don't know but his mother seems to have been a dynamic character.

You come back to this towards the end of the book when you refer to Jaques Hadamard's statement on creativity, where again there is this implication of a kind of a divine intervention in creativity and you place it against Hardy's own rejection of any such linkage, which again gives the same impression.

That perhaps is an interpretation that you are bringing to it, and I am not going to deny it. I would just posit a connection certainly but maybe a loose and tenuous one, between one side of his life and the other, and exactly what that link is is quite in the realms of neurobiology, what happens in the brain more than anything else. We are going to have a tough time figuring that one out. This is something that I obviously struggled with in the course of writing the book. Who am I, an American, coming from a very different culture trying to make sense of this? Of course, you always encounter this sort of problem. I write about many different kinds of subjects, not just about mathematics, and you are always up against the edge of what you know. You have to be a little bit respectful of what you don't know as well as what you know. So probably it is built into my personality not to make claims that I am not 100 per cent certain about.

Did you have a preconceived plan about how you were going to go about things when you came down here to explore? Or did you let the information come to you as you went around and structure the book accordingly?

I had done a fair amount of reading before I came here, and I had spent two or three weeks, I think, in Cambridge. Basically, I structured my time to go to the places that figured in Ramanujan's life. I did my best to observe something of Ramanujan's world by visiting those places, making allowances all the time that this was 1988 and Ramanujan had lived in the early years of the 20th century. So things change, but I had to start somewhere, and that was my approach to visit those places that he had visited.

Your description of places and events almost seem as if you were there in that period and you had met Ramanujan. For example, you describe how Ramanujan walked. How would anybody know how Ramanujan had walked when you came and talked to people?

Other people had written about Ramanujan and there were stories. [S. R.] Ranganathan, [P.V.] Seshu Iyer, Ramachandra Rao, [E.H.] Neville, Hardy himself, and there were other people. These people had taken little snippets of Ramanujan, and I absorbed all these snippets and I tried to put them together. Always looking for areas where they agreed and areas where they didn't and tried to make sense of that. So I know how Ramanujan waddled down the street. I have been doing this for a long time. I have been a professional writer for 40 years and this is what I do for a living. Trying to somehow create worlds out of disparate material and trying to make it vivid for my reader all the while having respect for what is true and not going beyond that slippery line between non-fiction and fiction.

In that sense it is certainly different from other biographies that are dry accounts of life and events

There has been a movement at least in the U.S. I don't know whether there is one in India or elsewhere in the past 30 years. It gets called new journalism, immersion journalism, or narrative non-fiction, all of which represent an attempt to move away from what you just described boring, tedious, simple statement of facts to blow true stories out of what we know from facts, and I consider myself something like that, in that tradition.

May be that is why people are trying to turn your book into a film now. What is happening to the film proposal?

For six or seven years now a screenwriter has purchased something called an option where he has access to use my book and the title and the information there to make a film. He has written the screenplay through many versions, through many iterations, and the efforts of the past six years have been to secure financing. It is now very, very close to signing on the dotted line, and my understanding is that the Indian actor Madhavan has agreed to play Ramanujan in this film, and the screenwriter and the producer, Edward Pressman, have been negotiating with possible financiers.

Before you get to describing Ramanujan's life in Cambridge, you devote a lot of pages to describing Hardy himself his world, the Cambridge life, even the Apostles Society to which he belonged, and his personal life. Why did you feel it was necessary to dwell on Hardy at such length and in so much of detail to understand the relationship between the two mathematicians?

In some respect I consider this almost a dual biography, of Ramanujan and Hardy. Let's say you have other authors writing the biography. All of them would have included Hardy as a major character in the book. The question is how much. For me, Hardy played such an important role that their chemistry, their tension, their friendship, their relationship played a central role mathematically and personally in Ramanujan's life, and I felt that it was really important for the reader to come to understand Hardy as well as Ramanujan.

However, towards the end you do say that while Hardy was interested in the mathematics of Ramanujan, there was no emotional attachment between the two even as friendship, in the sense that Hardy did not care so much personally for Ramanujan. He treated him more for his mathematics as a kind of a master, and Ramanujan wanted to obey him.

I agree with everything you said up until the end. I don't know about the master and obey. But Hardy's relationship with Ramanujan was a little bit problematic for me. I think it does come across in the book. And I think I was more explicit in that case than in some other areas. As much as Hardy did for Ramanujan, and as good a person that he basically was and he cared in his own way. Nonetheless, I don't think Hardy was the best friend that Ramanujan could have had in England and that somebody more emotionally compatible might have been better for Ramanujan those days.

Do you think the absence of a real friendship affected the mathematics that Ramanujan was producing there?

I don't know. Certainly, we all have problematic relationships of one kind or another with our parents. A tension is in there. Some parents are more distant and separate and not involved and have very high expectations from their children, and the children, maybe they don't feel that close to their parents but respond to their expectations. I think it might have been a little bit like that between Ramanujan and Hardy. I am just making a vague connection, not a one-to-one. I don't think Hardy was the ideal friend that Ramanujan could have had. Maybe he was the ideal taskmaster to extract the mathematics out of him. I don't know. But I think Ramanujan certainly felt that he had to produce, at least he wanted to. And he was the man in all of Europe maybe that he was closest to mathematically, and it would be natural that he wanted to please him.

Are there still some pieces in your story that remain unexplored for you to understand them better, both together and individually?

Sometimes book reviews churn out phrases like This is the definitive biography of and I don't believe in that idea. I think there is always another approach to take, more research avenues to pursue, other directions, other things to look at, other aspects just as when you take a photograph, by the very act of framing, you exclude other things that are not in your frame. It is like that in any kind of ambitious writing also. You may do a very good job of what you are doing but by the very nature of it you cannot do everything. And I expect that some day some other biographer will come around and take another approach to the story of Ramanujan and Hardy and bring new insights.

That is what I meant. Did you come across other things that you had missed that could have lent a different perspective to the whole thing?

After the book came out, there was new theorising about what Ramanujan actually died from. That would have been interesting to bring to light. Other than that I don't know whether [any] new material has been brought to light. But I expect it will come to light.

Have you been in touch with people in India who knew about his life closely?

Not since the book has come out. V. Viswanathan, Narayana Iyer's grandson, has written and [Bruce C.] Berndt has that about the relationship between Narayana Iyer and Ramanujan at the Port Trust. That is another little area. If I were going back 25 years later and writing a sequel to this, I would bring in that sort of material.

Did you ever actually get down to looking at those notebooks and papers? What kind of impression did those give you as the writer of a biography rather than as a mathematician? The manner in which he wrote, the scribblings, the physical look, and so on. Did the feel of it give you some insight into the man?

The closest I came in there was when I started working on the notebooks early on; that what you see in the notebooks is his coming back to it again and again and again, and I think I compared [that] with playing scales for a musician and making sketches for an artist. To me as a writer, I like words, I like language, and it's never hard for me to go back and revise and revise and revise. It's not painful. I like it. I think it must have been something like that for Ramanujan. I think that was the closest I could come to saying what I saw in those notebooks. That this was a landscape he enjoyed inhabiting. What does it mean to know infinity. Obviously, you cannot know infinity. The way I pictured it when it first came to me was imagine somebody in the Himalayas who knows the area around where he grew up and has this kind of intimacy with it which you and I certainly don't [know] because they are with it all the time. In that sense he knew infinity. That's what I meant.

I interpreted it somewhat differently. I felt you referred to his spiritual leanings and God and things like that.

Well, that's fine. One of the things about language is that it does have many different ways of responding to it, and that was part of my intent that there was this layer on top of the mathematical symbol of infinity that does call for the suggestion of God, religion and spiritual connection. Absolutely.

When you met people here in India, their recall factor must have coloured what they told you and what you understood of the man. Where did you find contradictions and inconsistencies?

There is always some degree of inconsistency. Certainly, on the religious issue that you started out with. Some people thinking that it had nothing to do with him and some people viewing him as a highly devout and pious person. That was less with people I was talking to and more with anecdotes and documents that had come through Ranganathan's and Seshu Iyer's work. There is some discrepancy between all of those accounts, and that's one of the reasons why there is always going to be some uncertainty. You have to be very careful about what you say because of exactly what you are saying.

Did you find that you were really missing something in understanding the man when you came here so many years later. That there were pieces that required a lot more filling up than what you were presented with at that point of time?

When you come away from writing a book like this, you obviously feel a sense of satisfaction, but you also become acutely aware of everything that you don't know as well as you do know. I would have loved to have spent some time in Ramanujan's company, to have actually seen him in flesh, instead of hearing second or third hand about him. I would have liked to see some more letters. I would have liked to be inside Ramanujan's head when he was dealing with Hardy. I would have liked to be in London and then in Cambridge when Ramanujan stepped out onto the docks, into an altogether different culture, after spending a whole life in South India. Yes, I would have liked to have known in much more detail about all these aspects of his life.

How much time did you spend moving around in India for your research?

About a month and a half.

Was that sufficient? Your book seems to give the impression that perhaps you would have spent a lot more time than that.

Well, lot of people said that. I had a limited budget. My on-site research was supplemented by a whole lot of documentary resources. You have got that going as well as your personal responses to what you see.

You came here in 1988, but when did you start on the project itself?

I think about three or four months before that.

Is that all! I thought it would have been much more than that to do the kind of research you did on the man.

I don't recollect exactly how much, but it was certainly less than a year.

You have probably written other biographies. How do you compare this effort with the others you have essayed?

The book that I wrote before Apprentice to Genius was a kind of an ensemble biography. It was not really a biography. It had biographical elements. For the book that I wrote on the first efficiency expert [ The One Best Way: Frederick Winslaw Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency], there was a whole room devoted to him at the Taylor Archives in New Jersey. Next, I am probably going to write a biography of Jane Jacobs, who is an extremely influential urban visionary, somebody who has refashioned ideas about city living. So every subject presents its own problems. In the case of Taylor, one of the problems was that he was not such a nice, friendly personality. He was a complicated character, but there are plenty of resources on him.

In the case of Ramanujan, I was facing a three-part problem. India, England and mathematics. Mathematics is hard, an American coming to India is presented with difficulties. It's all across a 75-year historical gap. And England, too. People think that for an American that should be easy. It's not. So, all of these were part of the complications in writing this particular biography. But every biography presents its own problems. In the case of Ramanujan, what I wrote was the first Western biography [on him]. Some people write biographies of people like Charles Dickens or Isaac Newton, where 20 biographies have come before and their problem is to find something new to write. But I didn't have that problem, but I had these other problems. So it's always different. If you ask if it was a more difficult biography than the others, I wouldn't say so. Each presents different problems.

Would you say that the barriers that this presented were more challenging than the others?

I guess I will have to say that. The fact that the mathematics is so difficult. The fact of trying obviously, with not much success to penetrate South Indian culture, plus the English culture.

If you started out today, how different would it be?

That's a great question. Well, I will start with The Man Who Knew Infinity. Of course, it will be different. No question about that. Twenty-five years have elapsed. I am a much older person. I might see things differently. Frankly, it depends in part on your financial resources; whether you can spend more time. I don't know. I would be interested in laying my hands on the letters that Neville might have written about Ramanujan to various people. It would be interesting to track down his children or something. But I don't think he had any children and that may have been the problem [that they don't figure in the book]. I still think I would devote so much on Hardy. Berndt has made it his life's work and he has published several books in English that contain nothing more than some of this new material that he has located in English and some in Tamil about Ramanujan. I would probably start with those new materials. I make a distinction in my own mind between the raw material and the final product itself. Some of that material is good raw material.

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