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Srinivasa Ramanujan (1) : A maths prodigy from Madras became so wrapped up in his sums that he forgot to pass his examinations.
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Part one

Acknowledgements to ‘Srinivasa Ramanujan - His life and his genius’ by Professor V. Krishnamurthy, ‘A Mathematician’s Apology’ by GH Hardy, and ‘Srinivasa Ramanujan: World famous mathematical genius’ by the Old Boys’ Association of Town Higher Secondary School, Kambukonam.

In 1914, a young Indian mathematician with no formal qualifications came to England. Some thought his scribbled theorems were a pastiche of half-understood fragments, or even that he was a fraud, but others sensed they were gazing into the depths of one of the most mysterious mathematical minds they had known.

SUCH was Srinivasa Ramanujan’s passion for numbers that at eleven, two college maths students who lodged with his family in Kumbakonam, near Madras, could no longer satisfy his burning curiosity. At sixteen, he borrowed a book with thousands of problems in Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry and Calculus, and worked out solutions for them all.*

It was Srinivasa’s genius to work his own way, but the price was high. He lost his scholarship at Government Arts College, Kumbakonam, in 1904, by scoring just 3% in English. At Pachaiyappa’s College in Madras, he paid such scant attention that he failed his Finals in 1907, disqualifying himself from the University career his natural talent deserved.

In 1911, Ramanujan, whose father was a draper’s clerk, sought something similar in the Madras tax office, but Deputy Collector Ramaswamy Aiyer, a mathematician himself, passed him on to the less hectic Madras Port Trust, knowing that chief accountant Narayana Iyer and Chairman Sir Francis Spring were anxious to foster Ramanujan’s academic career.*

* The book was ‘A Synopsis Of Elementary Results In Pure Mathematics (1886)’, by George Shoobridge Carr. Few of the examples had solutions, and it was a characteristic of Ramanujan that he himself rarely provided proofs for his own conjectures.

* Edgar Middlemast, Professor of Mathematics at the Presidency College, Madras, wrote a strong letter of recommendation in support of Ramanujan. One of the heartwarming features of Ramanujan’s lifestory was the number of people, Indian and British, who made every effort to help a stranger who had failed most of his exams.

Acknowledgements to ‘Srinivasa Ramanujan - His life and his genius’ by Professor V. Krishnamurthy, ‘A Mathematician’s Apology’ by GH Hardy, and ‘Srinivasa Ramanujan: World famous mathematical genius’ by the Old Boys’ Association of Town Higher Secondary School, Kambukonam.

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Picture: From the Notebooks of Srinivasa Ramanujan, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
In 1913, Ramanujan sent nine stale sheets of handwritten theorems to GH Hardy at Trinity College in Cambridge, with a covering letter in quaintly Victorian English. Some of his solutions were trivial, others completely baffling. Later that day, Hardy called over his friend John Littlewood, and they spread the sheets out. “Before midnight they knew, and knew for certain” wrote Hardy’s biographer, CP Snow. “The writer of these manuscripts was a man of genius.”
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