Saturday 17 December 2016

The Man who knew Infinity.....

One day in the summer of 1913, a twenty-year-old Bengali from an old and prosperous Calcutta family stood in the chapel of King's College in the medieval university town of Cambridge, England. A glorious, grandly proportioned place, more cathedral than chapel, it was the work of three kings of England going back to 1446. Light streamed in through stained glass panels ranging across the south wall. Great fluted columns reached heavenward, flaring out into the massive splayed vault of the roof.

Prasantha Chandra Mahalanobis was smitten. Scarcely off the boat from India and planning to study in London, he had come up on the train for the day to sightsee. But now, having missed the last train back to London and staying with friends, he couldn't stop talking about the chapel and its splendors, how moved he'd been, how ...

Perhaps, proposed a friend, he should forget London and come to King's instead. That was all Mahalanobis needed to hear. The next day he met with the provost, and soon, to his astonishment and delight, he was a student at King's College, Cambridge. He had been at Cambridge for about six months when his mathematics tutor asked him, "Have you met your wonderful countryman Ramanujan?"

He had not yet met him, but he had heard of him. Ramanujan was a self-taught mathematical prodigy from a town outside Madras, in South India, a thousand miles from the sophisticated Calcutta that Mahalanobis knew best, a world as different from his own as Mahalanobis's was from England. The South, as educated North Indians were wont to See it, was backward and superstitious, scarcely brushed by the enlightened rationality of Bombay and Calcutta. And yet, somehow, out of such a place, from a poor family, came a mathematician so alive with genius that the English had practically hand-delivered him to Cambridge, there to share his gifts with the scholars of Trinity College and learn whatever they could teach him.

Among the colleges of Cambridge University, Trinity was the largest, with the most lustrous heritage, home to kings, poets, geniuses. Isaac Newton himself had studied there; since 1755, his marble likeness, holding the prism he'd used to explore the polychromatic nature of light, stood in its chapel. Lord Byron had gone to Trinity. So had Tennyson, Thackeray, and Fitzgerald. So had the historian Macaulay, and the physicist Rutherford, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell. So had five English prime ministers. And now, Ramanujan was at Trinity, too.

Soon Mahalanobis did meet him, and the two became friends; On Sunday mornings, after breakfast, they'd go for long walks, talk about life, philosophy, mathematics. Later, looking back, Mahalanobis would date the flowering of their friendship to one day in the fall following Ramanujan's arrival. He'd gone to see him at his place in Whewell's Court, a three-story stone warren of rooms built around a grassy quadrangle laced with arched Gothic windows and pierced at intervals by staircases leading to rooms. One such portal led to Ramanujan's small suite, on the ground floor, a step or two off the court.

It had turned cold in Cambridge and as Mahalanobis came in, he saw Ramanujan, with his fleshy, pockmarked face, sitting huddled by the fire. Here was the pride of India, the man whom the English had moved heaven and earth to bring to Cambridge. But well-laid plans had gone awry. It was the shameful year of 1914, and Europe had gone to war. The graceful arched cloisters of Nevile's Court, Sir Christopher Wren's eternal stamp on Trinity, had become an open-air hospital. Thousands had already left for the front. Cambridge was deserted. And cold.

Are you warm at night? asked Mahalanobis, seeing Ramanujan beside the fire. No, replied the mathematician from always-warm Madras, he slept with his overcoat on, wrapped in a shawl. Figuring his friend hadn't enough blankets, Mahalanobis stepped back into the little sleeping al-cove on the other side of the fireplace from the sitting room. The bedspread was loose, as if Ramanujan had just gotten up. Yet the blankets lay perfectly undisturbed, tucked neatly under the mattress. Yes, Ramanujan had enough blankets; he just didn't know what to do with them. Gently, patiently, Mahalanobis showed him how you peeled them back, made a little hollow for yourself, slipped inside ... 

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