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No. 53: Sep-Oct 1987

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A "MAGICAL GENIUS"

"If ever there were an exemplar of inborn mathematical ability it would be Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor, uneducated Indian, born 100 years ago, who was one of the greatest and most unusual mathematical geniuses who ever lived. Although he died young -- at age 32 -- Ramanujan left behind a collection of results that are only now beginning to be appreciated.

"Ramanujan's story is one of the great romantic tales of mathematics, made all the more haunting because of the mystery surrounding the man. No one, no matter how much they try, has ever been able to understand the workings of Ramanujan's mind, how he came to think of his results, or the source of this incredible outpouring of mathematics."

Ramanujan has been termed a "magical genius." In contrast, "ordinary geniuses" are merely an order of magnitude of two smarter than you and me. In Ramanujan's case, no one knows where his voluminous results came from. They appeared as if by magic, in a manner transcending ordinary human mental activity.

Ramanujan did complete high school, but his entire mathematical education seems to have come from the reading of just two books. Nevertheless, he was invited to Cambridge on the basis of a letter he wrote to G.H. Hardy in 1913. The letter contained about 60 theorems and formulas stated without proof. After some study, Hardy concluded that Ramanujan's results must be true be cause, "if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them."

Ramanujan lived for mathematics. He would work 24-36 hours and then collapse. He died in 1919, leaving behind three notebooks crammed with some 4000 "results," again stated without proof and again seeming to come from no where. Step by step, his results are being proved. Ramanujan evidently saw their truth without going through laborious proofs.

(Kolata, Gina; "Remembering a 'Magical Genius,'" Science, 236:1519, 1987.)

From Science Frontiers #53, SEP-OCT 1987. 1987-2000 William R. Corliss