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Srinivasa Ramanujan: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Srinivasa Ramanujan was an Indian mathematical genius whose life was one of the most interesting stories in mathematical history. In this lesson, learn more about his interesting and unusual life.

Who was Srinivasa Ramanujan?

One day in 1913, the English mathematician G. H. Hardy received a very unusual letter in the mail. It had come a long way to reach his desk, all the way from India, and at first, Hardy wasn't sure what to make of it. The letter was from an Indian clerk name Srinivasa Ramanujan, and in it, there were over one hundred mathematical theorems that Ramanujan claimed to have written. He begged for help from Hardy, writing, ''To preserve my brains I want food and this is now my first consideration. Any sympathetic letter from you will be helpful to me here to get a scholarship.''

Ramanujan had already sent similar letters to two other prominent mathematicians and gotten no response from either of them, but this time, things would be different. Hardy read the letter, and then showed it to his friend and collaborator J.E. Littlefield. They both agreed that the theorems in the letter were true, and Hardy set out to find this mysterious Indian clerk and bring him to Cambridge to join the mathematicians there.

Srinivasa Ramanujan
Portrait of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Of course, the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan began long before he sent that fateful letter to G.H. Hardy. How did he become so good at mathematics, and what happened after he finally got the attention of a famous mathematician at Cambridge University?

Early Life in India

Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in December of 1887 in the southern Indian state of Madras. He came from a poor family, but excelled in school from an early age. Then, when he was a teenager, he read a book that would change his life forever. The book, A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, contained lots and lots of mathematical theorems and results and was originally written to help students at Cambridge University students pass a famously difficult mathematics exam. It was not a particularly good book by the standards of most mathematicians at the time, because it didn't contain proofs or explanations of most of the results presented in the book. However, for Ramanujan, it was a revelation.

The home of Srinivasa Ramanujan in India
The home of Srinivasa Ramanujan in India

He studied the book obsessively and fell in love with mathematics. He was so obsessed with mathematics that after he won a scholarship to the University of Madras, he dropped out after a short time. He couldn't bring himself to study any other subjects, and so he failed his exams and lost his scholarships. Broke and unemployed, he still continued to pursue his obsession with mathematics and was only able to survive because of the generosity of his friends.

In 1909, he got married and decided that he finally needed to get a job to support his family. Impressed with his mathematical work, the Indian mathematician Ramachandran Rho offered to support him while he devoted his time to mathematics. He did this for a while, and then Rho helped him to get a full time job as a clerk at the Madras Port Trust.

In 1911, with the support of Rho, Ramanujan published his first paper in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society. He began to receive some recognition for his work in India, and decided to write to mathematicians at Cambridge to see if they could help him further his mathematical education.

Collaboration with G.H. Hardy

It took a few tries, but finally his letter landed on the desk of G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan's life changed forever. Hardy immediately wrote back to Ramanujan and helped him to get a position as a research scholar at the University of Madras, where he made twice as much money as he had as a clerk.

Hardy wanted more for Ramanujan, however. He wanted him to come to England so they could work together, and he was determined to find a way to make it happen. Ramanujan's family was initially opposed to the idea of him leaving India, but finally, in 1914, he left India headed for Cambridge University.

Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy with other mathematicians at Cambridge University
Ramanujan and Hardy with other mathematicians at Cambridge University

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