Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose 131st birth anniversary is celebrated as National Mathematics Day, is a shining example of a “mathematics genius’.
Born on 22 December, 1887, in Erode (now Tamil Nadu) to an orthodox Tamil Iyengar family, Ramanujan was a good student in his school days. After passing subjects like English, Tamil, geography and arithmetic with flying colours, he entered secondary school, where his interest in mathematics began.
At an age when students struggle with complex algebra, trigonometry and arithmetic problems, Ramanujan not only mastered them but also found theorems to solve many trigonometric problems. It was during his school days that he obtained a library copy of the book A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, which many believe proved to be a turning point in his life.
By 17, he had won a scholarship to study at Government Arts College in Kumbakonam. However, his obsession with mathematics was such that he failed in most of the other subjects, in turn losing his scholarship too. But Ramanujan continued with his pursuit of mathematics, even enrolling in the Pachiyappa College in Madras (now Chennai) for a degree. However, he couldn’t overcome his “maths mania” and dropped out.
Penniless and without a degree despite two attempts in 1906 and 1907, Ramanujan began tutoring students for mathematics for a living and later held a temporary position in the Madras Accountant General’s office. Meanwhile, networking with some of the top mathematicians of South India helped him sustain his daily life in Chennai. Ramanujan began contributing to the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society, developing equations and investigating the properties of Bernoulli numbers (a concept in number theory).
Ramanujan’s mathematical genius has been attributed to his undying faith in Namagiri – his family deity. According to the 1991 book, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Ramanujan credited his ideas to his family deity, who helped decipher mathematical theorems in his dreams.
Ramanujan’s life took a major turn in 1913, when his 10-page letter containing statements of theorems on infinite series, improper integrals, continued fractions, and number theory reached Professor GH Hardy. Impressed by his mathematical ingenuity, Hardy invited Ramanujan to University of Cambridge. The 26-year-old reached Cambridge just before the outbreak of World War I and cemented a five year-long partnership with Hardy. It was during his stay in England that Ramanujan was awarded a BSc (later renamed PhD) and made the youngest Fellow of Royal Society.
Now an acclaimed mathematician, Ramanujan returned to India after World War I but years of stay in an unfamiliar climate in England took a toll on his health, resulting in his untimely death due to tuberculosis on 26 April, 1920. In his lifetime, he compiled more than 3,000 results on equations and identities, many of them posthumously proven right.
In his memory, the Government of India marked 2012, the 125th year of his birth, as National Mathematics Year and declared 22nd December as annual National Mathematics Day.
India’s contribution to mathematics
Ramanujan is not the only Indian to have reached dizzying heights in mathematics. Many of his contemporaries as well as later generations of mathematicians contributed to the international study of mathematics.
Prominent among them are Satyendra Nath Bose, a mathematician who lent his name to the Higgs-Boson particle – popularly known as the God Particle. Along with legendary scientist Albert Einstein, Bose developed the Bose-Einstein Condensatet – a state of matter under which extremely cold atoms clump together to act as a single atom, according to Live Science.
CP Ramanujam is yet another mathematician who, like his namesake, lived a short life. Associated with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, he was known to simplify complex mathematical equations for students. A polyglot, he taught himself German, Italian, Russian and French to understand mathematical works in their original language.
Perhaps the most popular female Indian mathematician has to be Shakuntala Devi, who was nicknamed the human computer. While not formally trained in the subject like many of her contemporaries, Shakuntala could solve complex mathematical problems in seconds. In 1980, she entered the history books after successfully solving 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779 within 28 seconds.
Manjul Bhargava, the Indian-origin Canadian number theorist is arguably the most popular mathematician alive. A professor at Princeton University, Bhargava was awarded the Fields Medal for “developing powerful new methods in geometry of numbers.” It is said that he helped edit the Dev Patel-starrer The Man Who Knew Infinity to keep mathematical discussions in the film as real as possible.
Mathematics teaching in India
However, on the whole, statistics paint a grim picture of maths education in India. A National Achievement Survey conducted in November last year showed that students in government schools progressively perform poorly in mathematics as they advance through the grades.
One may detest maths but can’t deny that superior maths skills help people succeed in modern-day higher-order jobs, as per an OECD report. In fact, a 2017 study noted that there is a positive co-relation between better performance in mathematics and higher-order skills like critical thinking and problem solving. These two skills are considered the skills of the future by the World Economic Forum.