The Cultural Meaning and Consequences of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Via Amitava Kumar, Salil Tripathi in the WSJ Online:Agaa653_ramanu_20071004185629

At one level, the Ramanujan story is a fairy tale in which a Westerner recognizes a raw talent abroad and helps it flower. But the political context cannot be ignored. At that time, Britain was the unquestioned global power, basking in the post-Victorian age, believing it could stare down the Kaiser in World War I. India was the subject colony, the Jewel in the Crown. Thomas Macaulay’s famous 1835 speech in the British parliament, the Minute on Indian Education, which laid the basis for spreading English education in India (over instruction in local languages), had created an army of babus, or clerks, just like Ramanujan, to act as interpreters between the rulers and the ruled. Cultural arrogance was at its zenith. Mathematics may have originated in Asia and Arabia, but all known theorems and equations were now developed by Western mathematicians; when Ramanujan proved the equal of their very best, he challenged the notion of colonial superiority.

His mentor Hardy had the humanity to think beyond race, although their friendship faced its share of challenges, too. Unlike Western mathematicians who rigorously noted down their proofs, George Gheverghese Joseph, a historian of mathematics at the University of Manchester, notes that Ramanujan did his sums on a slate using chalk, and wrote down the answers neatly in a notebook. What mattered was the result, not how you got there. This was consistent with Indian and Chinese mathematical traditions, where the masters stated the results and didn’t bother with details, leaving them for the pupils to work out.

Had Ramanujan acquired the right tools, he’d have made even greater progress. “Ramanujan never completely mastered the (step-by-step) process . . . to rigorously cross-check intuition,” says Hartosh Singh Bal, a Delhi-based writer who has recently co-authored a mathematical novel called “A Certain Ambiguity.” “While his intuition led him to results that most mathematicians could not even conceive of, it also at times led him astray. He attributed his intuition to divinity, and when it worked, it was divine, but he erred too.”