Srinivasa Ramanujan: The Great Mathematician


We celebrate the genius of the greatest Indian mathematician of the 20th Century!


Born into a poor Brahmin accountant's family on December 22, 1887, Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan lived a short life of only 32 years, but his achievements within that short span of time have ensured his place in history.


Better known as Ramanujan, he was a genius in mathematics and this was evident even when he was as young as 5 years. When he started primary school in Kumbakonam, he surprised his teachers and classmates with his rapid calculations of long complex mathematical problems. In 1900, at the Town High School at Kumbakonam, he began working on complex geometric and arithmetic concepts. Later, in 1902, when he was taught cubic equations, he went right ahead and evolved his own method to solve complicated mathematical equations called quartics.


Ramanujan's headmaster in school, M Mahadeva Rao recalled that when a sum would take his other classmates 10 minutes, Ramanujan would solve it in less than two minutes. In his primary school final examinations, he passed in the first division and topped amongst all the students in his district. But because a classmate scored 43 out of 45 in arithmetic while he got 42, he wept bitterly. By the time Ramanujan was in his teens, his critical ability in mathematics was so bright that he would not accept even a teacher's explanations unless he was completely convinced by then. One such instance occurred when he was in class 4. A teacher explaining the rules of division said that when a number was divided by itself, the answer would be one. For example, when four mangoes were divided among four children, each child would get one. Ramanujan perplexed his teacher by asking how each person could get one mango if there were no people and no mangoes, in other words, how could 00=1? Ramanujan was also in class 4 when a senior sent him the equation √x + y = 7, √y + x = 11 and asked him to solve it. Within half a minute, Ramanujan came up with the values, x = 9 and y = 4. 


At the young age of 13, Ramanujan was assigned the task of making the school timetable for six higher sections with 40 students each. This required analytical skills of a high order, but Ramanujan was able to do it without any problems. during his years in college, when a complex problem was explained to the class, Ramanujan would stand up and offer another solution which was easier and involved fewer steps. During this time, his mathematics professors, particularly Ramanujachari and Mudaliar, quickly realised the worth of their talented student.


Ramanujan worked at the Madras Port Trust for a short while, where his manager Narayana Iyer was fascinated by his mathematical brilliance and mentioned his talents to Sir Francis Spring, the then Chairman of the Port Trust. One day, amongst the files sent by Ramanujan to Sir Spring, he accidentally included two sheets of his mathematical scribbling. Sir Spring saw the papers and was very impressed. On meeting Ramanujan, he pretended to be angry at first and scolded him for pursuing mathematics during his work hours. But later, Sir Spring gave Ramanujan a quiet place in the office to work and even used his influence to get Ramanujan recognition.


Professor Hardy's name will forever be linked with Ramanujan's and there are a number of anecdotes about them. One such anecdote relates to when Hardy visited a very sick Ramanujan in hospital. On this visit, Hardy mentioned that the number of his taxicab was 1729, which he found very "dull." Ramanujan immediately said that far from being dull, it was the smallest number expressible as a sum of cubes in two different ways (103 + 93 = 123 + 13).


Ramanujan's next stay in the UK was marred by frequent and prolonged illnesses, so much so that he decided to return to India in 1919 after a five-year stay at Cambridge. Ramanujan died at the very young age of 32 in April 1920, but he has left behind a legacy of mathematical work including 4,000 original theorems that academicians were still editing and working on even 50 years after his death.


This series is written by Vikas Verma, a business strategist and Founder and CEO of The Colour Factory.