The Man Who Knew Infinity: The Life of the Genius Ramanujan

by Robert Kanigel

©1992 Washington Square Press

Talk about math anxiety. I've got it, bad. So bad, in fact, that when I was at the tender age of fourteen too many years ago and failing algebra, I decided right then and there that I would only marry a man talented in maths and sciences. This desperation led me to hang out in the Engineering lounge at UCLA while an undergrad there, seeking the Nerd of My Dreams, hoping to improve my future gene pool. (And yes, I've been married for nearly 20 years to a techie geek, but it was only after we were married that I found out that he was calculator-dependent. I was mortified, but it was too late.)

Frankly, numbers scare me. And I can't for the life of me understand how they could be interesting. So it was not without some trepidation that I read this book, about the arguably greatest mathematician that ever lived. So intense was Ramanujan's passion for prime numbers, equations, patterns and sequences, that (like so many true single-minded geniuses) he neglected every other aspect of his life. In fact, his self-deprivation and torment ultimately led to his own death at a tragically young age.

Robert Kanigel does an outstanding job of documenting Ramanujan's life, from his years as an impoverished Indian youth who couldn't function in a normal school classroom, to the time he spent under his mentor at Cambridge, the eminent British mathematician G.H. Hardy. The Man Who Knew Infinity is part biography, part adventure story, part thriller. But as a mathematically-challenged person, the greatest thing about this book for me, is Kanigel's ability to transmit the mystical excitement and spiritual quality of numbers as seen through the eyes of Ramanujan's genius - - an accomplishment which is no small feat, indeed. Ramanajun's exercises were the mathematical equivalent of Talmudic pilpul, a form of discourse and argumentative reasoning which takes seemingly unrelated conceptual threads, and neatly and amazingly weaves them together to show a unifying relationship that heretofore may have been unrealized. Here is an example found in Kanigel's book:

But even if you want to skip the parts of the book that demonstrate some of Ramanajun's mathematical findings, you will still find The Man Who Knew Infinity to be nothing less than a remarkable read.

-Galia Berry

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