The Man Who Knew Infinity

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S. Ramanujan.

And again, a fascinating story, a fascinating life, is twisted and contorted into a Hollywood-ized biopic. I vaguely knew of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, an imaginative genius of humble origins who came to Cambridge around World War I and then died at a tragically young age, his promise barely realized. His real life, and the contributions he made to experimental mathematics, are recounted in some detail here; I highly recommend this blog post by Stephen Wolfram, as it gives a very measured and insightful description of the characters and concepts tackled by the movie — and the movie pales dreadfully in comparison.

What The Man Who Knew Infinity does is set up a simplistic redemption on two levels: (1) the unfeeling professor (that’s Jeremy Irons as Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy) who doesn’t know how to be a friend is ennobled and enlightened through his contact with the pure and idealistic savant, and (2) the narrow-minded, xenophobic academic institution as a whole is uplifted and enlarged by recognizing the genius who has quietly dwelt among them, patiently enduring their abuse and scorn. And then, of course, his task of enlightenment completed, the martyr dies. This variant on the “magic Negro” trope makes Ramanujan’s story an Occidental one.

Jeremy Irons as G. H. Hardy and Dev Patel as Ramanujan.

 

The truth was apparently much more interesting — and actually much more inspiring. The collegiality of science trumped petty racism (and I have been racking my brain: I know I read last year of a situation where German U-boat incursions near Britain were temporarily suspended during World War I in deference to a scientific mission — another example of a shared recognition of the boundarylessness of scientific truth). Further, Ramanujan’s genius was recognized by his peers in England, and the issue was less about breaking his spirit, as Bertrand Russell accuses Hardy of in the film, than it was of filling in gaps in his knowledge and providing discipline and structure for his creative leaps. And, as Wolfram points out, Hardy and Ramanujan came to math from two very different viewpoints: Hardy built up to conclusions from proofs, and Ramanujan boldly inferred/extrapolated from mathematical phenomena. I have probably not expressed that properly, but the point is that one is a bottom-up, incremental approach, and the other a sweeping, experimental attitude. Very different, and yet complementary.

So the conflicts the movie establishes didn’t really exist. Neither did the heightened romantic longing for his left-behind wife, or the cruel purloinment of her letters by his jealous mother (who in actuality forbade the daughter-in-law to write Ramanujan lest it distract him), or his TB (thought now to be hepatic amoebiasis; see Wikipedia), or the imperialist bigotry of his boss in India (in reality, Sir Francis Spring was a mentor to Ramanujan).

The gaps between the fictionalized and actual versions of Ramanujan’s life could be overlooked — or at least forgiven — if they were in service of pursuing a larger truth. But The Man Who Knew Infinity failed to move me with its portrait of a Christ-like outsider (even though I heard our fellow attendees in the Showroom’s little upstairs theater sobbing as the credits rolled). Overall, I found the film blatantly manipulative and simplistic, despite fine performances, in particular by Jeremy Irons. Even so, three quite impressive cinematic moments stood out for me, salvaging much of the movie for me by stimulating my imagination and introspection:

  • When, on Ramanujan’s arrival at Trinity College, his companion, mathematician John Littlewood, points out a tree, laconically explaining that it’s the one under which Isaac Newton discovered gravity.
  • When, during the narrative wrap-ups scrawled on the screen before the end credits, we see Ramanujan’s “lost notebook,” with the note that his formulae are being used in understanding black holes.
  • When a huge, motionless zeppelin blotted out the Cambridge sky and rained sudden death on those below.

The first two of these speak to the prosaic origins of profound scientific discoveries: how so much is rooted in so little, and how the trivial should not be overlooked. In this context, note the lovely quote, included in the movie, by Littlewood about Ramanujan: “Every positive integer is one of his personal friends.” The last speaks to the tremendous waste of war with its indiscriminate destruction of youth, promise, and intellect. Both concepts can be further distilled to a message of mindfulness: wonder at the awesome magnificence of this world and attempt to, if not understand, at least appreciate it, as it can all end all too quickly.

Not a bad place to end up in, even if via a rather mundane film.

 

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