By Paramanund Soobarah
The article with the above title in last week’s MT was most welcome, in addition to being interesting and informative. Sadly I find that the youths of today do not take much interest in the history of Science and Mathematics. In my view that is the most pleasant and the most reliable way of learning about the meaning of Science. But I would like to bring up a couple of points about the article which may interest readers.
First is the omission of the name of Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) from it. He was an Indian mathematician from a very poor background; because of his interest in mathematics, he flunked his other subjects and was thrown out of Madras University as a failure. He was helped to a small job as clerk, but those who took an interest in his work encouraged him to write to English academics who they thought might be better able to appreciate his work. After a few trials he hit upon Prof G.H. Hardy who invited him to Cambridge, England. Prof Hardy was overwhelmed by his genius, and helped him publish his work.
Ramanujan behaved more like a mystic than a common rational mathematician – he would say that his equations came from God. He has been compared to a bursting supernova who illuminated the darkest corners of Mathematics. He was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) – the first Indian to be so honoured. He died of TB at the young age of 33. Some of the equations he left behind from his deathbed have only recently been understood, and used in computations relating to the astronomical entities known as black holes. Our compatriot Dr S Sangeelee often writes about this great genius and I would not like to tread further on his turf, but I do think Ramanujan’s name was a serious omission from the article.
My own interest in Ramanujan stems from the fact that he gave two very close ruler-and-compasses constructions for “squaring the circle” – the more complicated one giving the value of pi to eight places of decimal (the fourth root of 2143/22, i.e. 3.141592653 – the value of pi given by calculators being different in only last figure which is 4 instead of 3). This degree of accuracy is more than enough for calculating distances on the globe. Another result which is also of great interest to mathematicians, and for which Ramanujan gave a very close approximation, is the circumference of an ellipse, given that the terrestrial globe is very nearly an ellipsoid, and its sections are ellipses.
The only other similar genius, but whose work fell considerably short of Ramanujan’s in volume – he died much younger – was French mathematician Evariste Galois, whose work is important in higher algebra. He was killed at the tender age of 20 in a duel over a love affair.
Ramanujan, such an unparalleled genius, would not have been known even in India if it had not been for the English mathematician G.H. Hardy. This is the other point I wish to raise about last week’s article. Somehow we only pay attention to an idea originating from an Indian if somebody from the West says it is a great idea. This is a theme that is of great concern to thinking Indians. One of the leading scholars pursuing this theme very actively is Rajiv Malhotra, founder and president of Infinity Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey. Those interested in the subject may find his lecture at website http://beingdifferentbook.com/iit-mumbai-april-1-2013/ most instructive. I would not wish to spoil their enjoyment of the lecture by providing details of it. People interested even in the latest bits of “science”, including neuroscience, will encounter multiple examples of Rajiv Malhotra’s U-Turn Theory almost at every step.
* Published in print edition on 10 May 2013