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December 22 – National Mathematics Day

Today marks the birth anniversary of a man who left an indelible mark on the world of mathematics, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Born in 1887, Ramanujan had humble beginnings. He worked as clerk at the Port Trust office in Madras. That was his day job, however. Like so many geniuses before him, he dedicated the after-office hours to working on his passion.

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Mathematics was his unparalleled fixation.

It is said that the book central to his inspiration was A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics (1880) by George Shoobridge Carr.

The book was full of theorems. He read the book in 1903 when he was barely 15. By now, he had started to discover complex theorems on his own. He particularly worked on divergent series and the results of his work startled many local mathematicians.

So the voyage that started with a book took him deep into the subject of mathematics and by the time he left this world at 32, he had proven over 3000 theorems and equations.

Ramanujan was 23 when he first came to the attention of European mathematicians. Buoyed by the his part-time work and the results he was getting, Ramanujan sent a 10-page letter to the department of mathematics at Trinity College, requesting if something could be made of his work.

Mind you, he had no formal university education until this point.

The letter containing over 100 statements of theorems on infinite series and number theory, was received by a prominent British mathematician of the time, G.H. Hardy.

After a famous correspondence between the two, Hardy made all the arrangements for Srinivasa Ramanujan to travel to England and collaborate with him in further research. He immediately knew that the Hindu clerk from India was a hidden gem who could be polished to shine brighter.

“Some of the formulae defeated me completely, I had never seen anything like them before. A single look at them is enough to show that they could only be written down by a mathematician of the highest calibre.”

G.H. Hardy, Letters from an Indian Clerk

Ramanujan traveled to England in 1914. Under Hardy’s tutelage, he worked out the Riemann series, the elliptic integrals, hypergeometric series, the functional equations of the zeta function, and his own theory of divergent series.

There is one specific anecdote about Ramanujan that has taken on a cult status. Ramanujan was recovering from his bout of serious stomach illness in a hospital in Putney, Southwest London. Hardy took a taxi to visit him.

Hardy, the story goes, greeted Ramanujan with the words: “The number of the taxi-cab that brought me here was 1729. It seemed to me rather a dull number.

Ramanujan replied: “Not at all, Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. i.e, 1729=1³+12³=9³+10³.”

The number 1729 is also known as the Hardy-Ramanujan number after the famous exchange between the two mathematicians.

Ramanujan’s health continued to deteriorate. In 1918 he became a fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and was subsequently offered a fellowship at Trinity College.

However, he chose to return to India in 1919, owing to health issues. He passed away in 1920.

Two decades after Ramanujan’s death, Hardy when asked about his greatest contribution to mathematics, replied: “It was the discovery of Ramanujan.”

In the honor his contribution, his birthday, December 22, is celebrated as National Mathematics Day in India.

The inspiration drawn from Srinivasa Ramanujan can go a long way in shaping our approach to learning and I hope that on this day every budding mathematician looks at him for their dose of inspiration.

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