It is one of the most romantic stories in the history of mathematics: in 1913, the English mathematician G. H. Hardy received a strange letter from an unknown clerk in Madras, India. The ten-page letter contained about 120 statements of theorems on infinite series, improper integrals, continued fractions, and number theory (Here is a .dvi file with a sample of these results). Every prominent mathematician gets letters from cranks, and at first glance Hardy no doubt put this letter in that class. But something about the formulas made him take a second look, and show it to his collaborator J. E. Littlewood. After a few hours, they concluded that the results "must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them".
Thus was Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) introduced to the mathematical world. Born in South India, Ramanujan was a promising student, winning academic prizes in high school. But at age 16 his life took a decisive turn after he obtained a book titled A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics. The book was simply a compilation of thousands of mathematical results, most set down with little or no indication of proof. It was in no sense a mathematical classic; rather, it was written as an aid to coaching English mathematics students facing the notoriously difficult Tripos examination, which involved a great deal of wholesale memorization. But in Ramanujan it inspired a burst of feverish mathematical activity, as he worked through the book's results and beyond. Unfortunately, his total immersion in mathematics was disastrous for Ramanujan's academic career: ignoring all his other subjects, he repeatedly failed his college exams.
As a college dropout from a poor family, Ramanujan's position was precarious. He lived off the charity of friends, filling notebooks with mathematical discoveries and seeking patrons to support his work. Finally he met with modest success when the Indian...
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