Movie Review: “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

How often are we accustomed to saying that a book was better than the movie? Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young Indian clerk is effectively profiled in a 2016 film called, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” based on a book of the same name written by Robert Kanigel. The book is indeed better than the movie, the reason being that in 373 pages of text Kanigel has room and time to plunge into a really complex problem. The puzzle of intuition, examined in my own book using Michael Polanyi’s tacit theory of knowledge as a guide, collapses into an enigmatic cognitive black hole when applied to the task of explaining Ramanujan’s mental magic. The finest mathematicians of our century admit defeat. Ramanujan’s capability is, to a degree, inexplicable. The movie skillfully illustrates the problem but fails to give a viewer the full perspective needed to understand the significance. We watch Ramanujan, played magnificently by Dev Patel, making an effort to earn a living for himself, a new, young wife, and his mother. Unfortunately, details of his early schooling are missing from the film. Throughout the movie, we watch Ramanujan rattling off seemingly complicated formulas. However, where did they come from? His mentor Hardy (played by Jeremy Lyons) not only wants to know but reasonably insists they be accompanied by formal, logical proofs. We are not informed that Ramanujan was provided access to several key books while a pre-college student. The first was a text on trigonometry that by age 13 Ramanujan had fully absorbed. The other was an improbable tutor summary of all the mathematics needed to pass a formidable Trinity College exam at the time. A first Ramanujan mystery presents itself. Why was he so singularly enthralled with mathematics to the degree of obsessively studying the 5,000 formulas in the exam preparation book? Scholars have subsequently poured over this book trying to find within its pages a pathway to his eventual brilliance. Aside from its expectation that a reader should prove all the assertions displayed therein, analysis of the books contents fail to display how Ramanujan might have extracted divine inspiration from its pages. Perhaps we may infer that Ramanujan received, in effect, an undergraduate degree in mathematics through his self-studies and some unidentified math courses taken at local colleges (before flunking out over a refusal to bother with any courses other than math). Today we apply the term “grit” to describe his unyielding passion.
The movie essentially begins with Ramanujan filling his notebooks with conjectures and theorems of a highly original nature. These gained the attention and admiration of Indian mathematicians leading to his introduction to Professor Hardy at Trinity College in England. We watch his arrival in England and subsequent relationship with Hardy. The film makes much of the drama surrounding Ramanujan leaving his wife at home in India but this story is probably more Hollywood than reality.
The primary mystery of Ramanujan is the source of his inspiration. Kanigel in his biography of Ramanujan describes a warning by the great mathematician, Jacobi, that excessive control over the form and pace of learning will constrain the future capacity of the learner to be creative. Ramanujan escaped that formal control by exploring mathematics on his own filling notebooks without reference to the usual problems listed at the end of textbook chapters. This characteristic of Ramanujan’s early process of learning offers a hint toward our understanding of his creativity. However, it is not enough.
The movie then gives us a sketchy and truncated version of how Ramanujan ended up at Trinity College. Most of the film shows us the problems he faced there and his interesting intellectual and semi-friendship with Hardy who skillfully managed his transition from a largely self-taught genius to a gifted mathematician capable of explaining and proving his assertions. During the sparring matches between Ramanujan and Hardy (the highlight of the film), Hardy asks in exasperation just where the magical-seeming assertions came from. Ramanujan mysteriously attributes his wisdom to whispers from his family goddess or dreams planted in his head by the same divine source. The ever practical and atheistic Hardy simply cannot understand such mystical claims. I continue to search within the tacit theory of knowledge developed by Michael Polanyi and the related new neurological research on avalanches of neural networks lurking underneath our conscious scenes for an answer. Meanwhile, I highly recommend the film and then more eagerly recommend the book.