In Conversation Books

I wanted children to see that maths could be an adventure: Amy Alznauer

The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan; Amy Alznauer, illustrated by Daniel Miyares; Candlewick Press.  

In 1914, a young college dropout from Chennai, who had reinvented much of modern mathematics, was “discovered” and invited to the University of Cambridge to lead the life of a scholar. Srinivasa Ramanujan worked with his British peers and published some of his original research, but he also fell critically ill. At the end of World War I, he returned to India, where he died at the age of 32.

Even as Ramanujan lay dying, he continued to record his findings. Later, distinguished mathematicians would spend years proving results he had intuited. His work found applications in areas of science that did not exist in his lifetime: black holes, the string theory, and space travel, to name only a few.

Amy Alznauer’s illustrated children’s book, The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity, tells the story of a young Ramanujan. Booklist, an American Library Association publication, calls it one of the top 10 biographies for young readers for 2020. The author, who teaches mathematics at the Northwestern University in Chicago, also has a great backstory about the rediscovery of Ramanujan. Excerpts from an interview.

You connection to Ramanujan’s work is deeply personal.

In 1976, my father George Andrews, an American mathematician, had a conference to attend in France. Turned out, he would get a better airfare deal if he stayed longer. He decided to visit the University of Cambridge, where he had a standing invitation to rummage through the papers of G.N. Watson who had been tasked with providing proofs for Ramanujan’s theorems. Watson’s interest faded by the 1930s, and in 1965, he died, leaving behind a messy box of papers which got deposited at the library.

I wanted children to see that maths could be an adventure: Amy Alznauer

In the uncatalogued box, my father discovered a sheaf of 138 handwritten pages. From a letter Ramanujan had written to his mentor G.H. Hardy in Cambridge, mathematicians knew he had been working on “mock theta functions” on his deathbed. (Ramanujan had probably named them after the Mock Turtle from Alice in Wonderland. Whenever he won a prize for mathematics in school, he was often given a book of English poems!) These functions were the topic of my father’s dissertation and held a special interest for him.

Right away, my father got the manuscript xeroxed. This spectacular find, which he called the ‘Lost Notebook’, was responsible for the mathematical community’s renewed interest in the work of the genius. Ramanujan was rediscovered half a century after his death — almost entirely by chance.

In some sense, you have wanted to tell Ramanujan’s story ever since.

When we had accompanied our father on that trip to Europe, I was just a little girl. In college, I majored in mathematics, but enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh much later. In 2004, I won a scholarship and went on a five-week trip to India to do research on the life of Ramanujan.

I went to Kumbakonam where Ramanujan grew up to get a tangible feel for the places where Ramanujan lived, walked, and did his work. I went to his school, his home, which is now a museum, and the nearby Sarangapani temple where he experimented with numbers on the floors of the dark corridors when it was blazing hot outside.

I wanted to write the story of the ‘Lost Notebook’ but when I became a mother, my interest in children’s books grew. I did this picture biography.

I wanted children to see that maths could be an adventure: Amy Alznauer

Your framing of young Ramanujan’s story is so fresh.

The mathematician Ramanujan’s story is well known, but for me his boyhood is marvellous — this young child who falls in love with maths and figures out almost everything on his own, just for the love of it. I wanted children to see the possibility of maths being more than textbooks, more than answers to problem sets. I wanted them to see that maths could be an adventure, a quest.

You’ve have made the genius a relatable character. The book is a visual delight.

The biography by Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity, gave me some specific incidents from the prodigy’s childhood. Another resource was Ramanujan: Letters and Reminiscences, edited by P.K. Srinivasan, a maths educator from Chennai. This collection of essays has contributions by people who had known Ramanujan.

On my visit to Chennai, I saw kolams, the geometric designs which women in South India draw with rice powder on their doorsteps every morning. I was fascinated by these patterns — their symmetry and precision. The kolam maker looks to create something beautiful, but there are complex mathematical principles hidden in that amazing everyday piece of art. Such illustrations organically became part of the picture book, enriching the narrative.

The interviewer is a Boston-based science journalist.

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