Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Dev Patel and Ken Ono
Back from a delightful few days in Cornwall with 2 Grandchildren and 2 of Granddaughters delightful friends. Yesterday to a private viewing of The Man Who Knew Infinity followed by a reception at the Royal Society.

This is based on the story of the great Indian Mathematician Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel) and his collaboration with Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Beautifully acted by both of them, and a strong supporting cast, including Stephen Fry as Sir Francis Spring, Toby Jones as Littlewood and Kevin McNally as Major MacMahon.

Of course if one is a mathematician, a former Trinity Maths Scholar and the son of an FRS one is likely to care more deeply about the story than the aveage filmgoer but I do hope it reaches a wide audience because it is both good and beautiful.  It does to some extent over-play the racism of the time: as Venki Ramakrishnan pointed out in reality Ramanujan lodged initially with a Cambridge academics and his wife, and the wife even bought a vegetarian cookbook (hard to obtain in 1912) to learn to cook for him.

It also doesn't (quite understandably) give enough credit to Sir Francis Spring who apparently lobbied quite hard for official government support for Ramanujan's researches - though he is shown as being very sympathetic to his work.
Venki Ramakrishnan at the RS
Venki was of course greatly influenced by the story of Ramanujan as a brilliant young boy in India - and he was born in quite a similar background. He is of course a Fellow of Trinity as well as an FRS but also a Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society: the first person of Indian origin to be elected. Ramanujan was in fact the second Indian FRS but the first (a distinguished shipbuilder and engineer) was elected when it was a gentelman's club rather than one that required outstanding scientific achievement. JC Bose was elected two years later in 1920 and Raman in 1924 (6 years before he was the first non-white person to win a scientific Nobel).

In addition to meeting Venki I met Ken Ono who was one of the mathematical consultants on the film, and in whose life Ramanujan has played a very important part. His book In search of Ramanujan is about to be published and should be fascinating.  He is concerend about the difficulty in the US of developing scientists and mathematicians who can find deep insights was very pleased to learn about the LMB and its emphasis on long term research. Venki said it was the reason he came to the UK for a 40% pay cut because they would allow him to do this long term work - tackling a problem that a well-funded team in Germany had failed to crack and which he was sure the NIH would therefore refuse to fund. Another triumph for the LMB and the UK system at its best.

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