Friday, May 27, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity

I generally avoid movies about mathematicians, or mathematics.

I didn't watch Beautiful Mind, or even the Imitation game. Often, popular depiction of mathematics and mathematicians runs as far away from the actual mathematics as possible, and concocts all kinds of strange stories to make a human-relatable tale.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it defeats the point of talking about mathematics in the first place, by signalling it as something less interesting.

So I was very worried about going to see The Man Who Knew Infinity, about Srinivas Ramanujan and his collaboration with G. H. Hardy. In addition to all of the above, watching movies about India in the time of the British Raj still sets my teeth on edge.

To cut a long story short, I was happy to be proven completely wrong. TMWKI is a powerful and moving depiction of someone who actually deserves the title of genius. The movie focuses mostly on the time that Ramanujan spent at Cambridge during World War I working with Hardy. There are long conversations about the nature of intuition and proof that any mathematician will find exquisitely familar, and even an attempt to explain the partition function. The math on the boards is not hokey at all (I noticed that Manjul Bhargava was an advisor on the show).

You get a sense of a real tussle between minds: even though the actual discussions of math were only hinted at, the way Hardy and Ramaujan (and Littlewood) interact is very realistic. The larger context of the war, the insular environment of Cambridge, and the overt racism of the British during that period are all signalled without being overbearing, and the focus remains on the almost mystical nature of Ramanujan's insights and the struggle of a lifelong atheist who finally discovers something to believe in.

It took my breath away. Literally. Well done.

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