Biopic Traces a Dance to Infinity ; Film Explores the Bond between Mathematicians from Two Cultures

By Shattuck, Kathryn | International New York Times, April 23, 2016 | Go to article overview

Biopic Traces a Dance to Infinity ; Film Explores the Bond between Mathematicians from Two Cultures


Shattuck, Kathryn, International New York Times


"The Man Who Knew Infinity" depicts the bond between Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy in the early 20th century.

As mathematicians go, Srinivasa Ramanujan isn't exactly a household name. But his genius -- the ability to divine formulas seemingly from thin air that, a century later, are informing computer development, economics and the study of black holes -- has long captivated academics and artists.

For Matthew Brown, the writer-director behind "The Man Who Knew Infinity," mathematics was merely the canvas for a tale of two beautiful minds: Mr. Ramanujan, a South Indian autodidact who believed that an equation held no meaning unless it expressed a thought of God, and G.H. Hardy, a Cambridge professor and atheist who refused to believe in what he could not prove.

Their collaboration -- recreated here by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons -- was "the one romantic incident in my life," Mr. Hardy would later recall.

In 1913, Mr. Ramanujan, an impoverished shipping clerk with little formal education, wrote to Mr. Hardy, a lecturer at Trinity College, in the hope of having his work published. The nine-page letter, filled with astonishing formulas that, as Mr. Hardy wrote, "seemed scarcely possible to believe," prompted him to wonder if Mr. Ramanujan were a fraud. But after discussions with his colleague J.E. Littlewood, Mr. Hardy invited Mr. Ramanujan to Cambridge in the hope of seeing proof of his assertions.

The next year, Mr. Ramanujan, a Tamil Brahmin, lost caste, leaving his family behind in Madras (now Chennai) as he sailed to England to pursue his life's purpose. He stayed for five years -- enduring the hardships resulting from World War I, as well as searing bigotry and a bout of tuberculosis -- and in 1918 became the second Indian to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first Indian Fellow at Trinity. Months later, he returned to India in failing health and died in 1920 at the age of 32, leaving behind just three notebooks and several letters packed with formulas that still inspire awe.

"In a way, he was some kind of prophet," said Ken Ono, a mathematics professor at Emory University; the author (with Amir D. Aczel) of "My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count"; and a consultant on the film. "Whatever inspired him to write down his formulas was magic, because they're precisely the things that we've discovered would be needed long after his death."

Mr. Ramanujan and Mr. Hardy's dance to infinity has been mined before, in works like David Leavitt's novel "The Indian Clerk" and "A Disappearing Number," a play conceived by Simon McBurney and his theater company, Complicite.

"The film is about the cost that comes when people wait out of fear to connect in their relationships," said Mr. Brown, who drew on Robert Kanigel's 1991 biography of the same name.

Still -- despite the success of films like "A Beautiful Mind," about John Nash, and "The Imitation Game," about Alan Turing -- mathematics is a hard sell in Hollywood. And Mr. Brown encountered mockumentary-like difficulties bringing his decade-long project to the screen, like the financier who insisted that Mr. …

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