Srinivas Ramanujam: Life and legacy
By Siddharth Premnath
Speech prepared for assembly on 22nd December 2015 at DAV Public School, Pune, India.
Today is 22nd December-National Mathematics Day and the birthday of Srinivas Ramanujam, the great Indian mathematician. Let us remember his life and legacy on this day in honor of him.
Good Morning everyone! I am Siddharth Premnath of class 9th H and today, I am here to speak about the life of Ramanujam and the lessons learnt from it.
Ramanujam’s life-story is one of passionate pursuit of knowledge and excellence in very difficult circumstances. His short but inspiring life has shaped and influenced several generations of Indians.
Ramanujam, one of the greatest mathematicians India has ever had was born on 22 December 1887 in Erode, Madras Presidency (now part of Tamil Nadu). His life had a humble beginning with his father being a clerk at a sari shop and his mother being a singer in a local temple. His school education was full of ups and downs — with several transfers and teaching medium changes. But maths was his constant friend. He learnt from college students who came to stay in his house. He mastered Loney’s Trignometry on his own by age 13.
A book, which he received when he was 16, changed his life completely. The book was named ‘A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics’. This book contained a lot of theorems but didn’t have any proofs. So, he sat and proved every single one of the theorems on a slate with a chalk (he could not afford notebooks). He used his elbow to erase the board, which bruised his elbow a lot.
After his schooling, his journey through college was tumultuous. Ramanujam never got a degree from college. He decided to continue independent research in mathematics while eking out a living as a clerk. He lived in extreme poverty and was close to starvation. But fortunately for him, his talent was recognized and he went on to make extra-ordinary contributions in Number Theory and other fields. In a short life of 32 years, he compiled 3900 results – several of which were proven after his death!
Ramanujam’s life also has interesting lessons for all of us as students and the education system we are all part of. The lessons include: a) the importance of passionately pursuing your interests and achieve excellence, b) building excellence often requires deep focus, c) people who are pursuing excellence may not perform as well as all rounders’ but it will be to our detriment if we ignore such “stars”, d) when people reach a peak of excellence, their thoughts seem to form almost effortlessly and intuitively — something we in common words call “genius”. Let me illustrate this with examples.
When Ramanujam was about 10 years old, he did very well in his exams and came first in his district. But, his intermediate was a different story altogether as Ramanujam appeared for his Intermediate four times and failed in all of them. During his First Examination in Arts of 1907, Ramanujam failed in English and Sanskrit and didn’t turn up for his Physiology and History exams. But in Math, he got 85/150. Apparently, he only solved the problems he liked.
Eventually, Ramanujam started publishing articles in the Journal of Indian Mathematician Society where he asked questions on number theory, the branch of mathematics he loved. Number Theory is that branch of Mathematics, which deals with natural numbers and integers.
With the help of some friends, Ramanujam started drafting letters to leading mathematicians at the Cambridge University. His first two letters were not replied to. But, with his third letter, he found Hardy. G.H Hardy was a British mathematician known for his achievements in number theory and mathematical analysis. Hardy wrote back to Ramanujam and invited him to Cambridge .He realized Ramanujam’s brilliance and became Ramanujam’s mentor in 1914. On the 17th of March 1914, Ramanujam departed from Chennai for Cambridge. It was in Cambridge that Ramanujam’s talent could bloom fully. And be recognized. Hardy once said about Ramanujam, “Suppose we rate mathematicians on the basis of pure talent on a scale from 0 to 100, I give myself a score of 25, Littlewood 30, Hilbert 80 and Ramanujam 100.”
Ramanujam was honored with a degree from the University of Cambridge. He also became an elected member of the London Mathematical Society, Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of the Trinity College, Cambridge.
But most importantly, Ramanujam’s story is also about Mathematics! It is about the passion that mathematics has inspired in generations of mathematicians. As Johnathan David Farley has said, “You study mathematics because it is the poetry of the universe. Its beauty transcends mere things.” To Ramanujam, Mathematics was God incarnate. To quote Ramanujam: “Sir, an equation has no meaning for me unless it expresses a thought of GOD.” This also echoes the thoughts of Galileo who said: “Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe.” I hope this beautiful language of the universe also blesses us all with glimpses of its beauty — perhaps some of us will follow the path of Ramanujam while some others will cheer the strides of mathematicians.