Letters From an Indian Clerk

I have never done anything useful. No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or for ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil. And outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. The case for my life then, or for anyone else who has been a mathematician in the same sense that I have been one is this: That I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more, and that these somethings have a value that differ in degree only and not in kind from that of the creations of the great mathematicians or any of the other artists, great or small who’ve left some kind of memorial behind them. 

I still say to myself when I am depressed and and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people “Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.” — G. H. Hardy (A Mathematician’s Apology)

In March of 1914, against social and religious taboo, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught Indian mathematician, left his wife and family in India to sail to Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He was just twenty-six years old. With almost no formal training in pure mathematics, Ramanujan made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. When his skills became apparent to the wider mathematical community, he began a famous partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy.

During his short life, Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3900 results. Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct. He stated results that were both original and highly unconventional, such as the Ramanujan prime and the Ramanujan theta function, and these have inspired a vast amount of further research.

This documentary was produced in 1987 during the centenary of Ramanujan’s birth, and tells the fascinating story of a humble clerk working at the Port Trust Office in Madras, and who came to the attention of G.H. Hardy in 1913, a Cambridge mathematician and Fellow of Trinity College, when he received a ten-page letter containing many mathematical formulae and theorems which Ramanujan had put forth.


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