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<ul><li><p>7/28/2019 Www.hindu.com Thehindu Thscrip Print.pl File=20120127290103300.Htm&amp;Date=Fl2901 &amp;Prd=Fline&amp;</p><p> 1/9</p><p>Vol:29 Iss:01URL: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2901/stories/20120127290103300.htm</p><p>Back</p><p>INTERVIEW</p><p>The enigma of Ramanujan</p><p>R. RAMACHANDRAN</p><p>An interview with Professor Robert Kanigel, biographer of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa</p><p>Ramanujan.</p><p>PROFESSOR Robert Kanigel, the acclaimed author ofThe Man Who Knew Infinity: The Life of the</p><p>Genius Ramanujan, a biography of the enigmatic Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, visited</p><p>India recently on an invitation from the Indian Academy of Sciences on the occasion of the 125th</p><p>anniversary of Ramanujan, which was celebrated in Chennai on December 26. Kanigel wrote the</p><p>biography, which the dust jacket of one of its editions says has all the drama, the richness and cultural</p><p>sweep of a fine historical novel, in 1991.</p><p>A mechanical engineer by training, he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New</p><p>York, in 1966. He later moved to Baltimore, where he held engineering jobs for three years. In 1970,</p><p>he began a career in journalism writing forBaltimore Magazine and the Sunday magazine ofThe</p><p>Baltimore Sun. On the strength of that experience, he decided to be a writer, and has been writing</p><p>books ever since. In the early 1970s, he wrote City Sunrise: Waking Up from the Suburban Dream</p><p>about cities and city living. In his own words, though the title was very good, the book was bad. It</p><p>was never published. He began writing for the magazine of Johns Hopkins University as well. Over the</p><p>years, he has written about 400 articles, essays and book reviews.</p><p>In 1986, he wrote Apprentice to Genius about the powerful role of mentor relationships among elite</p><p>scientists. Beginning in the 1980s, he taught writing at Johns Hopkins University and at the University</p><p>of Baltimore's Yale Gordon College of Liberal Arts. In 1999, he became professor of science writing at</p><p>the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he helped start its Graduate Programme in</p><p>Science Writing. He retired from MIT in August 2011 and has returned to writing full time. Kanigel</p><p>spoke to Science Correspondent R. Ramachandran in Mumbai on December 23. Excerpts from the</p><p>http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/thscrip/print.pl?file=20120127290</p><p> 7/8/2012</p></li><li><p>7/28/2019 Www.hindu.com Thehindu Thscrip Print.pl File=20120127290103300.Htm&amp;Date=Fl2901 &amp;Prd=Fline&amp;</p><p> 2/9</p><p>interview:</p><p>In the Preface to your book The Man Who Knew Infinity, you have said that the publisher</p><p>suggested that you write about Ramanujan even though you had not heard of him. What caughtyour fascination or propelled you to get down to producing the book?</p><p>When the editor first approached my agent, and the agent first approached me, my first reaction was</p><p>that this was not going to work. I didn't know about [G.H.] Hardy [the English mathematician]. I had</p><p>some background in mathematics, not a lot, but some. But I didn't close my mind to the idea. I starteddoing a little initial research at Johns Hopkins University. Then I got hold of a BBC documentary on</p><p>Ramanujan. Until then I hadn't known anything about Hardy. And somehow in there, it was the idea of</p><p>it not being only about Ramanujan but about the kind of tension between Ramanujan and Hardy the</p><p>friendship, the mentoring, and the relationship between two men working at the very highest levels </p><p>that attracted me more. At that time I knew very little about Ramanujan, about South Indian culture,</p><p>about anything. But at that very, very early stage of my interest it was that idea of friendship and</p><p>collaboration at the very highest level that really intrigued me.</p><p>You have dwelt at length on the psychology of Ramanujan the way his character was built, thetemple-town atmosphere in which he grew up, his religiosity to understand his mathematics,</p><p>which seems to give an impression that his spiritual bent of mind had an impact on the kind ofmathematics he did. Do you believe that?</p><p>I don't think that had an influence on the mathematics per se. None. Zero. I tried to describe the world</p><p>from which Ramanujan came. If somebody wishes to trace a connection between any of that and the</p><p>mathematics, they can try, but I don't think they are going to get anywhere. Nonetheless, if we try to</p><p>understand his personality and his character, and the way he lived, we would want to know about his</p><p>upbringing, about his religious influences, about South India, and his relationship with his parents as</p><p>best as we can. So, I would deny any relationship between that and the mathematics itself. There is</p><p>much more to Ramanujan than his mathematics. He is a human being.</p><p>What I meant was that the title of your book, your reference to the fact that Ramanujan relatedzero and infinity to something divine and, for instance, your example of values that 2n 1 took asan equation that Ramanujan talked of representing the thought of God</p><p>That is one story, one anecdote. The fact is it is not me but some South Indians in the world that he</p><p>grew up in who saw some direct connection between his religiosity and his mathematics. I am telling</p><p>that story. I am giving it a place in the book. But that is different from saying that there is a direct,</p><p>intimate connection between his religiosity and his mathematics. If you are writing a biography or</p><p>reading a biography, it's a mistake to be too quick to make direct one-to-one correspondences between</p><p>A and B. I think in something like a biography you can't say that A caused B. You can say that it has</p><p>influences on his personality, on his life, on his character.</p><p>You do not say that in so many words, but your emphasis on his religious upbringing and thereligiosity in him gives the impression that it is perhaps that which drove him to explore the kind</p><p>of extraordinary mathematics that he did, which was beyond any ordinary mathematician and</p><p>was inexplicable.</p><p>V. GANESAN</p><p>http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/thscrip/print.pl?file=20120127290</p><p> 7/8/2012</p></li><li><p>7/28/2019 Www.hindu.com Thehindu Thscrip Print.pl File=20120127290103300.Htm&amp;Date=Fl2901 &amp;Prd=Fline&amp;</p><p> 3/9</p><p>ROBERT KANIGEL: "I tried to describe the world from which Ramanujan came."</p><p>I wouldn't say so. I would say that that is part of his life and part of his personality. Many of his</p><p>friends, many of his associates and some of these anecdotal accounts are by people who themselves</p><p>may have been very pious, very religious, and very devout Hindus may have been quicker to make</p><p>[these] connections than I or you. But it is part of the story and it is part of the mystery too.</p><p>Everybody seems to agree that someone [who] is a level of genius beyond what we encounter is</p><p>almost automatically propelled into the region of the mysterious. Once having been propelled into the</p><p>region of great mystery at the highest level of human intellect, you find yourself scratching your head</p><p>as to what could possibly explain it. So I did the best I could.</p><p>Do we understand Ramanujan now or does he still remain mysterious?</p><p>I think he does. I think you could say the same thing about literature, the arts. What is the genius of</p><p>Picasso? People will try to explain it in easy ways, but I think they are unjustified in doing so. I thinksome people really are a few steps beyond where the rest of us live. We are forced to view those</p><p>intellects, those artistic sensibilities to whatever it is, as a little bit mysterious or a little beyond what is</p><p>the common realm.</p><p>There is a second aspect though. There are many people out there, very smart, brilliant, and they don't</p><p>do anything with their lives. They are just stuck there. There are personal characteristics that propel</p><p>people to do what they do, that is beyond the actual work that they are doing a kind of an ambition,</p><p>a kind of a drive, a kind of a pushing force [for them to say] I am going to make something of</p><p>myself and nothing is going to get in my way. And I think that's part of an understanding of how a</p><p>Picasso or a Ramanujan come into the world.</p><p>Did that push in his case come from...</p><p>It came from his mother.</p><p>You think it was the mother alone or was it also his religiosity?</p><p>I don't know but his mother seems to have been a dynamic character.</p><p>You come back to this towards the end of the book when you refer to Jaques Hadamard's</p><p>statement on creativity, where again there is this implication of a kind of a divine intervention in</p><p>http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/thscrip/print.pl?file=20120127290</p><p> 7/8/2012</p></li><li><p>7/28/2019 Www.hindu.com Thehindu Thscrip Print.pl File=20120127290103300.Htm&amp;Date=Fl2901 &amp;Prd=Fline&amp;</p><p> 4/9</p><p>creativity and you place it against Hardy's own rejection of any such linkage, which again givesthe same impression.</p><p>That perhaps is an interpretation that you are bringing to it, and I am not going to deny it. I would just</p><p>posit a connection certainly but maybe a loose and tenuous one, between one side of his life and the</p><p>other, and exactly what that link is is quite in the realms of neurobiology, what happens in the brain</p><p>more than anything else. We are going to have a tough time figuring that one out. This is something</p><p>that I obviously struggled with in the course of writing the book. Who am I, an American, coming from</p><p>a very different culture trying to make sense of this? Of course, you always encounter this sort ofproblem. I write about many different kinds of subjects, not just about mathematics, and you are</p><p>always up against the edge of what you know. You have to be a little bit respectful of what you don't</p><p>know as well as what you know. So probably it is built into my personality not to make claims that I</p><p>am not 100 per cent certain about.</p><p>Did you have a preconceived plan about how you were going to go about things when you camedown here to explore? Or did you let the information come to you as you went around andstructure the book accordingly?</p><p>I had done a fair amount of reading before I came here, and I had spent two or three weeks, I think, in</p><p>Cambridge. Basically, I structured my time to go to the places that figured in Ramanujan's life. I didmy best to observe something of Ramanujan's world by visiting those places, making allowances all the</p><p>time that this was 1988 and Ramanujan had lived in the early years of the 20th century. So things</p><p>change, but I had to start somewhere, and that was my approach to visit those places that he had</p><p>visited.</p><p>Your description of places and events almost seem as if you were there in that period and youhad met Ramanujan. For example, you describe how Ramanujan walked. How would anybodyknow how Ramanujan had walked when you came and talked to people?</p><p>Other people had written about Ramanujan and there were stories. [S. R.] Ranganathan, [P.V.] Seshu</p><p>Iyer, Ramachandra Rao, [E.H.] Neville, Hardy himself, and there were other people. These people had</p><p>taken little snippets of Ramanujan, and I absorbed all these snippets and I tried to put them together.</p><p>Always looking for areas where they agreed and areas where they didn't and tried to make sense of</p><p>that. So I know how Ramanujan waddled down the street. I have been doing this for a long time. I</p><p>have been a professional writer for 40 years and this is what I do for a living. Trying to somehow</p><p>create worlds out of disparate material and trying to make it vivid for my reader all the while having</p><p>respect for what is true and not going beyond that slippery line between non-fiction and fiction.</p><p>In that sense it is certainly different from other biographies that are dry accounts of life andevents</p><p>There has been a movement at least in the U.S. I don't know whether there is one in India or</p><p>elsewhere in the past 30 years. It gets called new journalism, immersion journalism, or narrativenon-fiction, all of which represent an attempt to move away from what you just described boring,</p><p>tedious, simple statement of facts to blow true stories out of what we know from facts, and I</p><p>consider myself something like that, in that tradition.</p><p>May be that is why people are trying to turn your book into a film now. What is happening to the</p><p>film proposal?</p><p>For six or seven years now a screenwriter has purchased something called an option where he has</p><p>access to use my book and the title and the information there to make a film. He has written the</p><p>http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/thscrip/print.pl?file=20120127290</p><p> 7/8/2012</p></li><li><p>7/28/2019 Www.hindu.com Thehindu Thscrip Print.pl File=20120127290103300.Htm&amp;Date=Fl2901 &amp;Prd=Fline&amp;</p><p> 5/9</p><p>screenplay through many versions, through many iterations, and the efforts of the past six years have</p><p>been to secure financing. It is now very, very close to signing on the dotted line, and my understanding</p><p>is that the Indian actor Madhavan has agreed to play Ramanujan in this film, and the screenwriter and</p><p>the producer, Edward Pressman, have been negotiating with possible financiers.</p><p>Before you get to describing Ramanujan's life in Cambridge, you devote a lot of pages to</p><p>describing Hardy himself his world, the Cambridge life, even the Apostles Society to which hebelonged, and his personal life. Why did you feel it was necessary to dwell on Hardy at such</p><p>length and in so much of detail to understand the relationship between the two mathematicians?</p><p>In some respect I consider this almost a dual biography, of Ramanujan and Hardy. Let's say you have</p><p>other authors writing the biography. All of them would have included Hardy as a major character in the</p><p>book. The question is how much. For me, Hardy played such an important role that their chemistry,</p><p>their tension, their friendship, their relationship played a central role mathematically and personally in</p><p>Ramanujan's life, and I felt that it was really important for the reader to come to understand Hardy as</p><p>well as Ramanujan.</p><p>V. GANESAN</p><p>A PHOTOGRAPH OF the English mathematician G.H. Hardy, displayed at the RamanujanMuseum and Math Education Centre at Royapuram in Chennai.</p><p>However, towards the end you do say that while Hardy was interested in the mathematics ofRamanujan, there was no emotional attachment between the two even as friendship, in the sense</p><p>that Hardy did not care so much personally for Ramanujan. He treated him more for hismathematics as a kind of a master, and Ramanujan wanted to obey him.</p><p>I agree with everything you said up until the end. I don't know about the master and obey. ButHardy's relationship with Ramanujan was a little bit problematic for me. I think it does come across in</p><p>the book. And I think I was more explicit in that case than in some other areas. As much as Hardy did</p><p>for Ramanujan, and as good a person that he basically was and he cared in his own way. Nonetheless, I</p><p>don't think Hardy was the best friend that Ramanujan could have had in England and that somebody</p><p>more emotionally compatible might have been better for Ramanujan those days.</p><p>Do you think the absence of a real friendship affected the mathematics that Ramanujan wasproducing there?</p><p>http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/thscrip/print.pl?file=20120127290</p><p> 7/8/2012</p></li><li><p>7/28/2019 Www.hindu.com Thehindu Thscrip Print.pl File=20120127290103300.Htm&amp;Date=Fl2901 &amp;Prd=Fline&amp;</p><p> 6/9</p><p>I don't...</p></li></ul>