The Man Who Knew Infinity (Mathematical Movie!)

Hi! For this post, I thought I would take a break from posting math riddles and take a brief moment to draw your attention to an exciting new movie premiering in the United States this week – “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, a biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan directed by Matthew Brown, based on the book of the same name by Robert Kanigel. Starring some serious screen talent – including Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons – “The Man Who Knew Infinity” chronicles Ramanujan’s life and mathematical talents, mainly focusing on his time spent in Cambridge and his relationship with his mentor, G. H. Hardy. I had the good fortune to be able to attend an advance showing of the movie with several other graduate students, and it was a great experience. Read on for more details!

Born in India in 1887, Ramanujan’s story is one of the most intriguing and famous stories in all of mathematics, not least because of his unusual mathematical style. Although he excelled in mathematics from a young age, Ramanujan did poorly in other subjects while in college (presumably because he spent all his time focusing on math) and eventually dropped out. Without a degree, Ramanujan had to endure several years of extreme hardship and poverty before finding a stable job. Despite the fact that he had little to no formal training, during these years he continued doing independent research in mathematics, and eventually managed to send samples of his results to the leading mathematicians of England at the time. Although initially viewed as a crank, Ramanujan’s work caught the eye of G. H. Hardy, one of the pre-eminent mathematicians of the era. After reading some of Ramanujan’s theorems, Hardy is famously quoted as saying: “They must be true, because, if they were not true, no-one would have the imagination to invent them.”

After overcoming the objections of his parents, Ramanujan sailed to Cambridge, where the movie really picks up. Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons do a stellar job of capturing the friction and mathematical differences between Ramanujan and his mentor Hardy. Ramanujan, who many biographers describe as devoutly orthodox, often simply wrote down fantastic identities and formulas without formal proof, claiming that he had been inspired by religious figures in his dreams. This often infuriated Hardy, who insisted on a more rigorous approach. Nevertheless, Hardy recognized Ramanujan’s genius, and indeed the significance of many of their discoveries is only being understood and explored today. It is unclear how Ramanujan, especially with no formal training, could have possibly anticipated several decades of work carried out by number theorists over half a century after his time.

One of the great selling points of the movie is that its discussion of both mathematics and the mathematical process feels deeply authentic, with the contrived presentation of mathematics often found in popular science movies kept to a comparative minimum. (Indeed, the movie was written with input from actual number theorists – Professors Ken Ono and Manjul Bhargava!) In addition to superb acting (I cannot stress how much I enjoyed Jeremy Irons’ performance), “The Man Who Knew Infinity” manages to capture the spirit of Ramanujan’s work and genuinely intertwine it with the human element of the story in a way that is accessible but still not watered-down.

If my brief foray into movie-reviewing has convinced you, check out the new Ramanujan movie in more detail at http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-man-who-knew-infinity!  This is an independent film  playing select theatres, so be sure to see it while it lasts.  Trailer and movie times available here.

About Irving Dai

Irving is a third-year graduate student studying topology and geometry at Princeton University. His mathematical interests include gauge theory and related Floer homologies. In his spare time he plays the violin (occasionally, and usually badly). He is fond of cats.
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