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Remembering Ramanujan: India Celebrates Its Famous Mathematical Son

India, home of the number zero, ends a yearlong math party in unique fashion



Konrad Jacobs, Oberwolfach Photo Collection

December 22, 2012, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of legendary Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. An intuitive mathematical genius, Ramanujan's discoveries have influenced several areas of mathematics, but he is probably most famous for his contributions to number theory and infinite series, among them fascinating formulas ( pdf ) that can be used to calculate digits of pi in unusual ways.

Last December Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared 2012 to be a National Mathematics Year in India in honor of Ramanujan's quasiquicentennial. Ramanujan's story is dramatic and somewhat larger than life. It is even the subject of an opera by Indian-German composer Sandeep Bhagwati, a novel and two plays . Largely self-taught, he dropped out of college, took a job as a clerk in Madras and attracted the attention of British mathematician G. H. Hardy through written correspondence in 1913. Although Ramanujan's mother believed that as a Brahmin (the highest class in the Indian caste system, which was in place at the time) he should not travel overseas, Ramanujan, aged 27, went to England in 1914 and spent the ensuing war years working with Hardy and other mathematicians  at the University of Cambridge. He grew quite ill in England, and in 1919 he returned to India where he died in 1920. Since his death at age 32 mathematicians have analyzed his notebooks ( pdf ), which are full of formulas but light on justification. Most of the formulas have turned out to be correct, and researchers continue to learn from his work while trying to understand and prove them.

India's mathematical heritage extends far beyond Ramanujan's time. The nation is considered home of the concept of zero. Babylonians had used a space as a placeholder (similar to the role of "0" in the number 101), but this space could not stand alone or at the end of a number. (In our number system, as in theirs, this could be problematic; imagine trying to tell the difference between the numbers 1 and 10 by context alone.) In India, however, zero was treated as a number like any other. India is also the home of our decimal numeral system.

Indian government and mathematical societies pursued several projects to celebrate their year of mathematics, from enrichment programs for students and teachers to the "Mathematical Panorama Lectures" that occurred around the country. This series of 20 short lecture courses, which will continue into 2013, brings prominent mathematicians from different fields to Indian universities to deliver five or six lectures. M. S. Raghunathan, president of the Ramanujan Mathematical Society and chair of the organizing committee for the National Mathematics Year, wrote in an e-mail that he hopes the lectures will facilitate an infusion of Indian talent into fields that lack it right now.

Indeed, a primary purpose of the year of mathematics is to reinvigorate mathematical education in India. In his speech announcing the event, Prime Minister Singh said that although India has produced many distinguished mathematicians, "for a country of our size, the number of competent mathematicians that we have is badly inadequate." He mentioned concerns about the rigidity of India’s academic system, which some believe might squelch rather than nurture mathematical curiosity and achievement. "A genius like Ramanujan would shine bright even in the most adverse of circumstances, but we should be geared to encourage and nurture good talent which may not be of the same caliber as that of Ramanujan," he said. Singh also mentioned the need to prevent attrition of mathematically interested people. "There is a general perception in our society that the pursuit of mathematics does not lead to attractive career opportunities," he said. "This perception must change." Lectures for undergraduates, camps for motivated youngsters and educational programs designed to acquaint teachers with new topics and pedagogical ideas have all been part of the attempt to nurture mathematical interest at all levels.

Two longer-term projects begun this year could help as well: a documentary on the history of Indian mathematics and a mathematics museum in Chennai. Raghunathan hopes that the documentary will be available in 2014 and the museum will open its doors in 2015.

This yearlong fete is culminating in "The Legacy of Srinivasa Ramanujan," a conference at the University of Delhi from December 17 to 22. Included are technical lectures on mathematics influenced by Ramanujan's work, public presentations on Ramanujan's notebooks, dance performances and a film about Ramanujan's life. The annual SASTRA Ramanujan Prize, which recognizes a mathematician age 32 or younger who works in a field influenced by Ramanujan, will be awarded as well. The awardee this year is Zhiwei Yun of Stanford University, whose work lies at the intersection of geometric representation theory, algebraic geometry and number theory.

*Correction (12/22/12): The caption was edited after posting to correct Ramanujan's year of birth.

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