The Man Who Knew Infinity

200px-Ramanujan_biography_coverThe Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan

by Robert Kanigel | 438 Pages | Genre: Mathematics/Biography | Publisher: Penguin Books| Year: 2000 | My Rating: 10/10

“Dear Sir,

I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at madras on a salary of only 20 GBP per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as ‘startling’. I would request you …………….. Being inexperienced I would very highly value any advice you give me. Requesting to be excused for the trouble I give you.

I remain, 

Dear Sir,

Yours truly,

S. Ramanujan”

– Excerpts from a letter dated “Madras, 16th January 1913” to Cambridge Mathematician, G.H. hardy.

This brilliantly researched and well written book by Kanigel is a biography of an incredibly genius and among the greatest Mathematician of all times in the same league of Jacobi or Euler, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, commonly known as ‘Ramanujan’. Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3900 results (mostly equations and identities).  Most of his claims have now been proven correct even after 90 years of his death inspiring a wide range of new research, which is still continuing.

In 1913, while working as a clerk at Madras Port Trust, Ramanujan wrote a letter to the premier English Mathematician of his time, G. H. Hardy, and thus began one of the most productive and unusual scientific collaborations in history, that of an English don and an impoverished and unparalleled genius from India. Hardy arranged a fellowship for Ramanujan to sail for England and come to Cambridge University, leaving behind his wife and family in Madras. Ramanujan’s isolation from his family and the intensity of his work eventually took their toll, and within seven years of leaving India he was dead due to tuberculosis at a young age of 32. Ramanujan was creative and an original thinker, more so than perhaps any other mathematician in history. Hardy had said for his formulas, “They must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”

This biography with all the drama, the richness with an insatiable love for numbers, and the cultural sweep of a fine historical novel is my Read of the Week.

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Zero

zeroZERO: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

by Charles Seife | 248 Pages | Genre: Mathematics/Science | Publisher: Penguin Books| Year: 2000 | My Rating: 10/10

“The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time, the quest for the theory of everything. Used unwisely, Zero has the power to destroy logic.”

Charles Seife has presented the complexity of esoteric math and philosophy for popular readership without taking the beauty of numbers throughout his book, Zero. The books starts with the prehistory of numerals, before the number system was discovered. It was only with the advent of numerical notation and arithmetic that zero as a discrete concept became necessary, first as a simple place holder in the Babylonian number system, and later, with the Greeks, as an important astronomical tool even though they didn’t like zero at all.

It was India that first domesticated zero, through the Hindu familiarity with the concepts of infinity and the void. Rigveda states, ‘There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the skywhich is beyond. What stirred? Where?’ Zero is between the void and the absolute.

This elegant and enlightening book about the strangest number in the universe is my ‘Read of the Week’.

The Art of the Infinite

books“We commonly think of ourselves as little and lost in the infinite stretches of time and space, so that it comes as a shock when the French poet Baudelaire speaks of ‘cradling our infinite on the finite seas’. Really? Is it ourself, our mind or spirit, that is infinity’s proper home? Or might the infinite be neither out there nor in here but only in language, a pretty conceit of poetry?”   – Robert Kaplan & Ellen Kaplan, The Art of the Infinite: Our Lost Language of Numbers

The Kaplans have brought out the beauty of math through an engaging mix of history, philosophy, science and lyrical prose, equations, geometric projections, exposition and explanation of a unique range of topics from Alcibiades  to Godel to Gauss.

Being a lover of numbers, this delightful book ‘The art of the infinite’ is my ‘Read of the Week’.

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