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Retracing the life of math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan

DTNext 2019-08-14 08:27:02

While the renowned mathematician’s work in numbers has been acknowledged world over, a recently held walk in the city as part of Madras Day celebrations attempted to understand Ramanujan as a person and his connections to our city.

Participants recently held tour in Royapuram; A portrait of Ramanujan in the museum; photographs of Ramanujan Chennai: Was Srinivasa Ramanujan always a mathematics genius?” heritage enthusiast Rajith Nair asks a group of history lovers from the city gathered at the Lighthouse on the Marina Beach on a sunny morning recently. That was the question his tour intended to answer. Starting from the Marina Beach, the walk takes the group a few kilometres away from Triplicane where the mathematician lived for a few years, via Madras University where he studied and received scholarships for his mathematical prowess, and culminates at the Ramanujan Museum and Math Education Centre in Royapuram where his life has been chronicled in the city through letters, books and photographs.
“When I came across the biography The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel, I grew more interested in his life and was amazed at how much he could achieve despite the many challenges he had to face. Last year when I learnt about a museum dedicated to him in Chennai, I became keen to let others know about it,” says Rajith, the founder of a heritage travel firm The Traveling Gecko. As part of the month-long Madras Day (celebrated on August 22) celebrations, he decided to bring the stories of Ramanujan and the museum tour together.
Ramanujan’s story begins in Erode where he was born into a poor Tamil Iyengar family in 1887. He later grew up in Kumbakonam. “As Ramanujan’s father Kuppuswamy Srinivasa Iyengar was engaged with his job as a clerk at a textile store, he grew up with a close connection to his mother, Komalatammal. She sang at local temples to support the family, and had a huge influence on Ramanujan. Even as a young boy, he was brilliant in studies and passed his primary school examinations with the highest scores in the district. It was in high school that he got introduced to pure mathematics and fell in love with it,” narrates Rajith.
The math whiz began teaching his fellow students, older students and was soon challenging his teachers on various principles. “At the age of 13, he could solve an advanced trigonometry book written by English mathematician SL Loney. But, it was the book A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, that got him completely hooked onto the subject while he attempted about 5,000 theorems,” adds Rajith, as the tour bus stops in front of the Madras University, which is said to house three notebooks containing hundreds of theorems solved by Ramanujan.
He got enrolled at Pachaiyappa’s College in Chennai, where he performed very well in mathematics, but failed in other subjects. Madras University, Sir Francis Spring (who founded the Royal Madras Yacht Club), V Ramaswamy Aiyer (the founder of Indian Mathematical Society) and R Ramachandra Rao (a civil servant) were among those who played a big role in Ramanujan’s life and helped him get to Cambridge in United Kingdom to work with some of the noted mathematicians in the world like GH Hardy, notes Rajith.
Ramanujan also had a very emotional side to him, and had run away from home when he had failed in a few subjects. “He was said to be battling depression while he was living in Cambridge during World War I (1914-1918). He had even once attempted suicide,” recalls Rajith. Even after his tragic death due to ill health at the age of 32, Ramanujan’s work finds applications till date in string theory, crystallography, etc.
As the tour heads into the suburbs of Royapuram, into the Ramanujan Museum, all of these stories come to life through the mathematician’s photographs, hand-written letters and notebooks. Run by ATB Bose and Meena Suresh, the museum and math centre, set up in 1993, celebrates Ramanujan’s life and shares his love for math with children. “We need collective effort to set up a math plaza for students so that we can create more Ramanujans in our country,” concludes Bose.