Alexander Kol Harris
March 5, 2016
Merriam-Webster defines a role model as “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others,” and hero as “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities” or “a person who is greatly admired.” Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician, is my role model. He hasn’t done any great or brave acts, but he has several qualities and behaviors that I try to emulate.
Ramanujan was born on December 22nd, 1887, in Erode, Madras Presidency, (now Tamil Nadu), in India, to a rather poor family. This poverty was something he must have worked hard to change and persevered to overcome, and that perseverance is one reason that he is my role model. Throughout Ramnujan’s childhood, his mother gave birth to children who died in infancy. A similar thing almost happened to him; he had smallpox as a child but recovered. He moved to different schools often, sometimes because his family moved, and once because his paternal grandfather, who was his caretaker at the time, died. Usually, his mother looked after him because his father worked. He first began to showcase his mathematical and academic talents at the Kangayan Primary School. In December 1887 (just before he turned 10), he passed his primary examinations in English, Tamil, geography, and math with the highest scores in his district.
By age 13, Ramanujan mastered a book on advanced trigonometry by S.L. Loney and was discovering sophisticated theorems on his own. At age 14, he was receiving academic awards and merit certificates, and he helped his school with the logistics of assigning its 1,200 students (each with their own needs) to the school’s approximately 35 teachers. I find his incredible abilities at a young age enormously impressive, and realize the hard work he had to do to achieve them.
Soon, something very important happened. At age 16, Ramanujan obtained from a friend a library-loaned copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics. The book contained 5,000 theorems, which he reportedly studied in detail. The book was accredited with “awakening the genius of Ramanujan.”
Ramanujan was awarded the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics upon his graduation from the Town Higher Secondary School in 1904 by the school’s headmaster, Krishnaswami Iyer. Iyer introduced him as “an outstanding student who deserved scores higher than the maximum possible marks.” He received a scholarship for the Government Arts College, Kumbakonam. However, nobody is perfect, and Ramanujan was so focused on math that he completely neglected his other subjects and failed most of them, losing his scholarship in the process. I can relate to this, and I think it’s good for me to have a role model I know is human. To idolize a godlike, flawless, human being, and to try to emulate him, would be impossible, and unhealthy to strive for, since you can never be perfect.
In August 1905, he ran away from home (likely seeking another opportunity) and soon enrolled in Pacchaiyappa’s College in Madras (now Chennai). He again excelled in math, but did badly in other subjects. He failed his Fellow of Arts exam in December 1905 and again a year later in 1906. He left college without a degree and pursued mathematical research independently, living in extreme poverty and often on the brink of starvation. I admire how, dipping in and out of poverty, Ramanujan still had the motivation to continue.
On July 14th, 1909, at age 21, he married a ten-year-old bride, Janaki Ammal (the age differential was the norm in India at the time). Soon he began looking for a job. He stayed with friends in Madras while going door-to-door looking for a clerical position. To supplement his income, he tutored some students at Presidency College who were studying for their F.A. exam. Late in 1910, Ramanujan fell ill, possibly as a result of a surgery earlier that year; he soon recovered.
Afterwards, he convinced R. Ramachandra Rao (district collector for Nellore and secretary of Indian Mathematical Society), with the help of V. Ramaswamy Aiyer (deputy collector and founder of Indian Mathematical Society) to give him work and financial aid. Ramanujan, with Aiyer’s help, got his work published in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.
Of one of his early papers, ‘“Some Properties of Bernoulli’s Numbers,’” Journal editor M.T Narayana Iyengar wrote: “Mr. Ramanujan’s methods were so terse and novel and his presentation so lacking in clearness and precision, that the ordinary [mathematical reader], unaccustomed to such intellectual gymnastics, could hardly follow him.” Ramanujan continued to provide problems in the Journal until early 1912.
Soon after, he took a temporary job in the Madras Accountant General’s office, which lasted for a few weeks, and then got a job under the Chief Accountant of the Madras Port Trust as a Class III, Grade IV accounting clerk. He easily completed work that he was given, and his boss, Sir Francis Spring, along with Narayana Iyer, a colleague and treasurer of the Indian Mathematical Society, encouraged Ramanujan with his mathematics.
In the spring of 1913, Narayana Iyer, Ramanchandra Rao, and E. W. Middlemast presented Ramanujan’s work to British mathematicians. One, M. J. M. Hill of University College London stated that “Ramanujan’s papers were riddled with holes,” and that “Ramanujan had a ‘taste for mathematics, and some ability,’” [but] he lacked the educational background and foundation needed to be accepted by mathematicians.” Hill did not offer to take on Ramanujan as a student, but he “did give thorough and serious professional advice on his work,” and, with the help of friends, Ramanujan drafted letters to leading mathematicians at Cambridge University. Ramanujan was able to continue after being rejected by experts in England and India, and was able to take criticism and move forward. I am not very good at taking criticism myself, and his willingness to accept it is something I am definitely trying to emulate.
The first two professors returned the papers without comment, but the third, G. H. Hardy, was very impressed. Hardy asked J. E. Littlewood, a colleague, to look at the papers. After discussing with Littlewood, Hardy stated the letters were “certainly the most remarkable [he had] received.” On February 8th, 1913, Hardy wrote a letter to Ramanujan, “expressing interest in his work,” and Hardy contacted the Indian Office to plan for Ramanujan’s trip to Cambridge. However, his parents were against it, and in accordance with his Brahmin upbringing, he refused to leave his country to go to a foreign land. Hardy’s relations with him worsened after he learned this, but soon, he agreed to go to because his parents were no longer opposed. His mother “had a vivid dream in which the family Goddess, the deity of Namagiri, commanded her ‘to stand no longer between her son and the fulfillment of his life’s purpose.’”
Ramanujan boarded the S. S. Nevasa on March 17th, 1914, and arrived in London on April 14th. He collaborated with Hardy and Littlewood in Cambridge for almost five years. Over this time, he was awarded a Bachelor of Science (later renamed PhD), elected to the London Mathematical Society, became a Fellow of the Royal Society (the second Indian to do so), and “became the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Additionally, his work was not just confined to one field of math; he “made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions.” He was able to achieve so much in just five years in England, a testament to how hard he worked.
Ramanujan had health problems his entire life, and living far from home and obsessed with math, his health worsened in England. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and a severe vitamin deficiency and was confined to a sanatorium. He returned to Kumbakonam, Madras Presidency in 1919 and died in 1920, at only 32.
His obsession with math and neglect of everything else may have made Ramanujan a flawed person, but he was still persevering and hard working (he compiled nearly 3,900 results in his short lifetime). And while I may not be the mathematical prodigy that he was, I can still try to emulate his perseverance and hard work when facing seemingly impossible challenges, in school and in life.