The Education System Nearly Crushed An Extraordinary Genius

Story of Srinivasa Ramanujan — “the man who knew infinity.”

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Srinivasa Ramanujan. Source: Wikipedia

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a self-taught Indian mathematician. His theories are the starting point of much of current research in mathematics, and his work during his 32 years of a short but remarkable life continues to boggle mathematicians worldwide.

Ramanujan’s story is as inspiring as it is tragic. Despite his ingenuity and an uncanny knack to simplify sprawling mathematical equations, he was far from openly being accepted into the education system. He possessed incredible determination and stubborn faith in his abilities as he struggled with structured education, poverty, and illnesses.

This story is a reminder that the chain of events in his life could have so easily turned out otherwise that with a little less persistence or luck, Ramanujan, “the man who knew infinity,” could have sunk into oblivion.

Ramanujan’s Story

Ramanujan was born to a religious Hindu family in 1887. He was the first child among 6 — three of whom died before they turned one. He was known to be a sensitive, stubborn and a self-willed child, who scarcely spoke.

Growing up, Ramanujan fiercely fought attending school, so much so that there was a time when his family had to hire a local sheriff to scare him into attending classes. After all, the structured education system introduced by British colonialism was designed “to churn out bright, well-rounded young men who could help their British masters run the country, not the ‘restless and ambitious spirits’ ” — as Ramanujan’s biographer Robert Kanigel wrote.

By the time he turned 10, Ramanujan seemed to have adjusted to the school system. He scored the highest rank in the district and therefore showed promise in being an all-around scholar.

While in high school, Ramanujan became interested in mathematics. He studied mathematics independently and found ingenious methods to solve complex problems. At the age of 16, he came across an undergraduate mathematics book written by GS. Carr. This book had a distinct style of presenting mathematical equations which inspired the precocious Ramanujan. It also seemed to have a profound impact on how Ramanujan presented his work later in his life — in a concise, just-the-facts format.

On the strength of his excellent high-school work, he was awarded a scholarship to complete a Fine Arts course, which would allow him to join formal university education.

The Fine Arts course — a boon or a bane?

As per the structured education system in the late 19th century India, a university degree guaranteed a job and the start of a good career. And to earn a university degree, one had to pass a Fine Arts examination. The Fine Arts examination was highly competitive — among the 43 million people, only a few thousand earned the Fine Arts degree, and Ramanujan wanted to be among them.

By the time Ramanujan joined the Fine Arts course, all he wanted to do was study mathematics. As a result of his deep passion just for one subject, he failed in all the other examinations. As a result, his scholarship was terminated, and without any money, he was soon in financial and moral difficulties.

To Ramanujan, the scholarship was not just a matter of prestige; it was a necessity. His parents were under a heavy financial burden. He knew it, and he felt pressure to do well in the other subjects, yet not keep mathematics aside for their sake. He was torn and miserable. So, when his scholarship discontinued, he yielded to the impulse to escape, and at the age of 17, he ran away from home.

Fortunately, about a month after his disappearance, he was found and brought back home safely. Approximately a year after this incident, Ramanujan summoned courage and decided to give college another try. He joined a college in Madras, a city in South India.

Although interrupted by a bout of dysentery disease for three months, his new college’s initial days were filled with promise. His math teacher saw Ramanujan’s capabilities and introduced him to the principal — who immediately awarded him a partial scholarship to complete the degree.

However, Ramanujan faced the same problem of not being able to pass in all the subjects other than mathematics. He failed in his examinations again, and the college discontinued his scholarship.

There was no room for the prodigy in the higher education system in South India. He was highly gifted, and everyone knew it. But that hardly sufficed a university degree, and the education system did not budge.

Times were hard as Ramanujan’s parents made little money through many odd-jobs. Ramanujan had to go hungry occasionally, and sometimes his friends and neighbors gave him some food to eat. In an attempt to earn some money for the family, Ramanujan started tutoring a few students in mathematics. But his unconventional approach to solving problems and unwillingness to yield to his students’ practical needs led to him losing all his students.

As Robert Kanigel rightly wrote in his book,

“Ramanujan had lost all his scholarships. He had failed in school. Even as a tutor of the subject he loved most, he’d been found wanting. He had nothing. And yet, viewed a little differently, he had everything.”

The glass half full

Without a job, Ramanujan now had nothing to distract him from mathematics. For five solid years, Ramanujan was allowed the freedom to think and work independently. He received no guidance or money. Any discouragement from his family was not enough to stop him from doing diligent research. Perhaps his isolation allowed him to develop unconventionally.

In 1910, Ramanujan heard of the newly founded Indian Mathematical Society and its founder, Ramaswami Iyer, and decided to meet him. When Ramanujan handed his notebook filled with mathematical theories and solutions to professor Ramaswami Iyer, the professor was quick to recognize Ramanujan’s prodigious capabilities in mathematics.

The professor wrote later, “I was struck by the extraordinary mathematical results contained in it [notebook].” He did not want to stifle Ramanujan’s genius by giving him a job in lowly governmental positions. Instead, he introduced Ramanujan to a few influential mathematicians. Eventually, some who recognized Ramanujan’s incredible abilities supported Ramanujan financially until he accepted a clerk’s job in 1912.

Life now opened up for Ramanujan, and his work slowly started getting noticed among the academic circles in Madras. A few academicians made several attempts to get him a scholarship at the University of Madras. But it was particularly challenging as Ramanujan had not passed his Fine Arts examinations. Finally, repeated recommendations from a few influential people led to Ramanujan becoming a research scholar with a monthly stipend at the University. It was the first such appointment in the history of the university.

Ramanujan had now become a professional mathematician. The academicians who helped him realized that for Ramanujan’s extraordinary gift to be recognized, he would need the colonial rulers solidly on his side. And so they lobbied on Ramanujan’s behalf. While some British officials were not willing to take a risk on Ramanujan, some interpreted his abilities equivalent to a skilled calculating boy. But, as the pressure kept building, colonial officials in India started asking — what they should do with Ramanujan.

Simultaneously, many of Ramanujan’s well-wishers advised that he should turn to Cambridge or elsewhere in the West for more support and expertise, as no one in India had understood him correctly. So in 1912 and 1913, Ramanujan started writing to renowned mathematicians at Cambridge University and shared samples of his work with them.

He appealed to two professors, who unfortunately declined to help. Finally, it was professor G.H. Hardy, a world-famous mathematician who agreed. He identified Ramanujan’s exceptional abilities and went to great lengths to bring him to Trinity College and carefully hone his mathematical genius.

G.H. Hardy’s efforts to bring Ramanujan to England finally materialized in March 1914. Henceforth, Ramanujan’s, and G.H. Hardy’s career in mathematics, was filled with thrilling mathematical discoveries. Hardy called Ramanujan —

“beyond question the best Indian mathematician of modern times…. He will always be rather eccentric in his choice of subjects and methods of dealing with them…. But of his extraordinary gifts there can be no question; in some ways he is the most remarkable mathematician I have ever known.”

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Source: Charles F. Wilson, Ramanujan22.jpg

Ramanujan stayed in London from 1914 to 1919. He published 37 research papers, some jointly with G.H. Hardy. In 1918, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and Trinity College.

The University of Madras, now, rose to the occasion and granted Ramanujan an unconditional allowance and professorship upon his return to Madras.

But, Ramanujan’s health during his stay in London kept declining. In his final year abroad, he spent his time in and out of nursing homes, with no apparent reason for his illnesses — perhaps previous uncured diseases, his irregular eating habits, food shortage during wartime, overwork, or climate predisposed him to ill health.

As soon as he got a little better, he returned to India in April 1919. But, upon his return, his health condition deteriorated further, and he died on April 26th, 1920, at the age of 32.

Ramanujan’s legacy

Three books and one box of manuscripts are all that is left of his legacy. The three books are kept at the University of Madras, and the box is held at Trinity College. The last book (about 100 sheets of paper), which contains Ramanujan’s discoveries in the last year of his life, was found at the Wren Library at Cambridge University in 1976. It is called “the Lost Notebook,” and it contains over 600 mathematical formulas, which mathematicians today are still trying to solve.

“Genius will out”… but not always

Ramanujan’s story is of one man and his stubborn faith in his abilities. It is also the story of how social and educational systems matter as it can sometimes nurture talent but can also mercilessly crush it. Indeed, the education system’s failure to cultivate such a gifted mathematician could serve as a textbook example of how bureaucratic systems and rules matter. People, as individuals, appreciated and respected Ramanujan. But the system failed to find a place for him.

In India, the economic class was (and arguably still is) trivial compared to a one’s caste. Ramanujan was poor and sometimes did not have food to eat. But, he belonged to the Brahmin caste, which is the highest social class in India. A Brahmin identity gave him access to people, circles, and resources that would have been closed otherwise. The people Ramanujan sought help from were Brahmin. Had Ramanujan belonged to a different community, there was little chance that he would have received the same support from wealthy and influential caste men.

Also, traditionally, Brahmins received charity and temple sacrifices, and earning a livelihood was never an urgent calling as it was for others. So, being a Brahmin perhaps gave Ramanujan the freedom to seek “constructive idleness,” a luxury that many could not afford.

Sadly, attitudes and the system have undergone little change over the years. If you think about it, there may be so many such “Ramanujans” around us, unrecognized and unknown. And many of us locked in educational, racial, caste, or economic bubbles, fail to be aware of them. Ramanujan’s story, therefore, brings us closer to this daunting thought,

“What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who can’t afford an education?” — Unknown

It’s time we learn from history!

This article was first published on on August 10, 2020

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