Guest post by Steve Hussung.
The history of math, as often told, is very white. And this is not a true telling: there are stories of different kinds of people woven throughout the history of mathematics. For one (of many), algebra was invented in Asia, not in Europe.
Today the field is becoming more and more diverse, and perhaps the right way to think about this diversity is that cultures that have done mathematics are mixing and communicating. This is different from groups that have never done math becoming mathematicians—although they are a part of the story as well.
Matthew Brown’s film The Man Who Knew Infinity is a story of a spectacular mathematician: someone who brought beautiful results seemingly out of nowhere, someone who bridged between cultures, and an absolutely incredible mathematician, all else put aside.
We meet Ramanujan in India, and quickly move to England, where he meets Drs. G. H. Hardy and John E. Littlewood. Other than Ramanujan, we follow these two most closely in the film—especially Hardy.
Although there had been mathematics in Southeast Asia for a very, very long time, Ramanujan was mostly self-taught, and because of his brilliance and determination, he became extremely advanced. He rediscovered piles of results hard won by mathematicians in Europe, working mainly by himself in India. He also discovered many results which were unknown to Western mathematicians at the time, and these were some of the theorems he worked on at Cambridge University.
The scene where he is first discussing his work at Cambridge is great: That moment after the book drop is one of the highlights of the film.
As with any movie about an advanced subject for a wide audience, the plot and dialogue must choose carefully how to deal with the subject matter. While a movie like The Imitation Game focuses on the social aspects of being Alan Turing, and the drama of discovery, The Man Who Knew Infinity focuses primarily on navigating a university, a foreign country, and trying to square two very different ways of doing mathematics.
We see the difficulties for Ramanujan living in a foreign country in several ways: he has difficulty communicating home while in England, and even has problems just finding enough to eat as a vegetarian forced into navigating the vegetables of England, instead of the vegetables of his home country..
The conflicts and triumphs are some of the most memorable parts of the movie. It’s rewarding watching Hardy and Littlewood realizing, bit by bit, just how incredible Ramanujan is. Like any moment in a story where our hero is recognized for what they truly are—it’s a lot of fun.
We also see a divide between Ramanujan and the Cambridge professors driven by how they do mathematics—how they search for results and verify that they are true. This is a central point of the film, but also one that deserves skepticism.
The movie shows an interesting dichotomy between the established, old, (and perhaps “British”) way of doing math and the intuitive, sacred methods Ramanujan uses. I want to point out that this was not a turning point in the history of math where we began to see the merits of raw intuition over rigorous argument. Ramanujan was just good: good in ways that cannot begin a trend because too few could possibly follow.
If anything, math has become more rigorous since the time of Ramanujan. Not because or in spite of him, by any means, but in an effort to avoid error and keep mathematics on solid ground.
We see a scene in the movie where Ramanujan is shown that he is wrong. We can see what this does to him, in particular, but it should be understood that many mathematicians—those who believe they get their ideas from god, and those who don’t—deeply hate being wrong.
Regardless, the movie does a brilliant job of showing Ramanujan’s passion for mathematics, and even the numbers themselves. One of the most famous stories of Ramanujan is played out near the end of the film, and this led to Littlewood mentioning that “Every positive integer was one of Ramanujan’s closest friends.” A positive integer being a whole number like 1, 2, 3, etc.
However Ramanujan found his results, it is undeniable that he loved mathematics, and loved mathematical objects and ideas themselves. The title of the movie is beautifully appropriate here: it isn’t called “The Man Who Knew About Infinity.” It communicates much more familiarity. I consider this theme one of the strongest parts of the movie.
I hope The Man Who Knew Infinity gives you a sense of the emotion involved in doing mathematics, as well as an appreciation for the person and work of Ramanujan. Mathematics is a work of passion for many of us, and I hope this film lets you share in it and inspires you to work at your own passion—whatever it is that you love to do.
I am not a biographer of Ramanjuan, so I cannot comment entirely on the accuracy of the film. I have pointed out portions that I think were misleading, but I did not intend to fully rectify the movie and reality.
I am also not a scholar of British-Ruled India—I am not entirely sure how to differentiate between someone born under British rule (everyone in the film, including Ramanujan), and those who live in England (the Cambridge professors pictured). I apologize for any missteps here.
The Man Who Knew Infinity directed by Matthew Brown screens at IU Cinema on Monday, April 17, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. as part of the Science on Screen Series. A panel discussion with scholars David Fisher (Mathematics, Indiana University), Michael Larsen (Mathematics, Indiana University), Elon Lindenstrauss (Fields Medalist, Mathematics, Hebrew University), and Susan Seizer (Anthropology, Indiana University) will follow the screening.
Steve Hussung is a PhD student in the IU Mathematics Department. He studies Partial Differential Equations, a branch of math involving calculus. Specifically he studies shock waves in fluids and gases from a mathematical perspective. He also enjoys playing bluegrass mandolin, and he currently plays Overwatch and Rocket League on the computer–both very badly.