The Man Who Knew Infinity

There are not many movies about mathematics or mathematicians and there are even less popular movies about the subject (Good Will Hunting,  A Beautiful Mind  are a couple of examples).  So when I saw the movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity” on Netflix I eagerly watched it.  I remember seeing a picture of Srinivasa Ramanujan in my math text book when I was a high school student and reading a small caption about him telling me that he was a brilliant mathematician who developed theorems despite having grown up in poverty without formal education.  I wanted to watch the movie because I wanted to know his life story, how and why did he do mathematics?  What struggles did he endure?  What was he like as a person?

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is based on a biography (with the same title) written by Robert Kanigel about the life and academic career of Srinivasa Ramanujan an Indian mathematician with almost no formal education who earns admittance to Cambridge University where he makes extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. While at Cambridge Ramanujan was under the guidance of  fellow mathematician G.H. Hardy who in real life is only 10 years older than Ramanujan but is portrayed as being much older in the movie.  It is the uniqueness of these two characters that make this movie interesting.  Ramanujan’s  determination  and self belief to defy the odds is inspiring while Hardy is brilliant but socially inept man who learns to become more humane.

In other movies about mathematicians such as Good Will Hunting, or A Beautiful Mind the heart of the story is about the people involved who happen to be mathematician.    Will Hunting is an orphan who happens to be gifted in mathematics and is given an opportunity to utilize his potential when discovered by a MIT mathematics professor,  while in A Beautiful Mind John Nash is a mathematician whose life is forever changed as he suffers from schizophrenia.  The Man Who Knew Infinity makes mathematics a bigger part of the story.  One of the things that comes through in the movie is how intuitive mathematics is, Ramanujan revels that he believes that mathematics is about “writing down the thoughts of God”.  One of the main story lines in the movie is the tension that is created by Ramanujan’s untrained intuition and Hardy’s demand for rigorous proofs.  The movie makes it clear that both intuition and rigor are important parts of mathematics.

My only bone to pick about the movie is the way it depicts the discrimination and isolation Ramanujan must have faced when he was on the Cambridge University campus.  The movie has scenes that depict the discrimination in a very dramatic fashion , he gets beat up by a group of British soldiers and bullied by a math professor.  I would imagine the discrimination and snobbery he dealt with was much more subtle (but every bit as alienating and cruel)  than it was depicted in the movie.     It would have been a great accomplishment if the movie was able to depict the discrimination and isolation Ramnujan faced without resorting to simply creating scenes where he is literally being yelled at or shoved around physically.

Far too many people see mathematics as just a tool or a symbol for something else of interest.  Not enough people see math as a thing in itself or mathematicians  as interesting people.  I am glad that The Man Who Knew Infinity  is a movie that tells the story of  interesting people who are mathematicians and why they work on math.

 

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