Rediscovering Ramanujan

Mathematician Ken Ono on how a chance letter from Ramanujan’s wife changed the way he looked not only at the world of numbers but at life itself.

Published - April 16, 2016 04:20 pm IST

My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count; Ken Ono & Amir D. Aczel, Springer.

My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count; Ken Ono & Amir D. Aczel, Springer.

In the pursuit of sharply-defined goals, we can at times forget that the journey itself holds riches that, by far, outweigh the goals. Life’s journeys hold all kinds of signs and messages that reveal new destinations that are far more intimately connected with the self than with preset goals. My Search for Ramanujan is the story of one such journey.

The first author of the book, mathematician Ken Ono, is a professor at Emory University. Born to Sachiko and Takashi Ono, who was himself a leading mathematician, Ono’s future in mathematics appeared set. However (and that’s what this book is about), his life was far from being smooth or dictated by logic. Ono had to undertake his own version of a hero’s journey before coming in contact with a mathematics he could call his own; before, in fact, being able to embrace with love his “tiger parents”.

Ono was, even as a child, groomed to become a first-class mathematician, and the demands played havoc with his self-esteem. Being a prodigiously talented teenager did not help either. Violin lessons and mathematics were the two activities he was encouraged to focus upon. And focus he did, at great expense to his self-worth and motivation. As it happened, when the pressure rose to an intolerable degree, he decided to quit music lessons and school.

The day he decided to quit and break the news to his father, a letter arrived from Janaki Ammal, widow of renowned mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. In the letter, Janaki thanked Ono’s father for making a contribution towards building a small statue of Ramanujan.

Ono harboured no real hope of his father permitting him to leave school. Strangely, perhaps triggered by Janaki’s letter, his father — with his thoughts now dwelling on how Ramanujan’s life was tragically cut short by neglect, malnutrition and tuberculosis —half-heartedly accepted Ono’s idea of taking a break and going bike tour.

Ono undertook his journey around the world, where he ultimately found mentors, mathematics and freedom from the voices of disapproval he had internalised. His journey took him full circle, and he finally returned home to make peace with his parents. Despite being brought up to deny anything irrational, he even went on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Kumbakonam, Ramanujan’s birthplace, where more signs and treasures awaited him.

The journey is, at one level, literally that, as Ono moved from place to place, institute to institute, learning, teaching, failing, recovering and, most importantly, discovering the mathematics of Ramanujan.

There are many other threads to Ono’s complex story — an Asian-American teenager growing up at the interface of incompatible cultures and breaking free; an arc of recovery of an individual suffering from low self-esteem and lack of motivation; a young, bright mathematician moving from bookish knowledge to an appreciation of what is divine about math.

The long sections devoted to describing his life story apart, Ramanujan makes his presence felt in other ways too. Beckoning from his world of numbers, Ramanujan slowly reveals the secrets of his mathematics to Ono. Subtly, the reader is drawn to understand the difference between problem-solving and theory-building in mathematics, and how Ramanujan fits into neither category, but is an anticipator of mathematics.

In his short lifetime and brief stint at Trinity College, Ramanujan spewed out ideas and theorems on number theory at a furious rate. Ramanujan was a supernova among mathematicians, throwing out multiple ideas, which no one recognised then and few do now.

Guided by this presence, and nurtured by mathematicians such as Basil Gordon and Paul Sally, to whom this book is dedicated, Ono chooses to work on the underlying theories in the apparently disconnected statements made by Ramanujan, and not just work on his ideas. Ramanujan used to jot down his ideas methodically in notebooks, in green ink. One of these, called the ‘lost notebook’, was discovered in the Trinity College library by mathematician George Andrews in 1976, and later published as a book. Ono made a discovery about elliptic curves recently that was prompted by Ramanujan’s comments in his notebooks.

Ono and his co-author Amir D. Aczel have woven real-life incidents into a story that is engaging while prodding the reader to explore the world. The book will make a great turning point not only for young and aspiring mathematicians but also for others who have a voice in their heads telling them they are on the wrong road.

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