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Math genius Ramanujan inspires films, plays and prize

November 2006
Math genius Ramanujan inspires films, plays and prize

Considered a 20th-century genius even before his untimely death in 1920, mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan has inspired a renewed burst of interest in his life and work. A couple of theatrical productions were recently presented, two new film projects have been announced, and a math prize in his honor was instituted just last year. Despite the rich cinematic possibilities, Ramanujan's extraordinary saga hasn't yet been fully captured on the silver screen. An earlier film, The Enigma of Srinivasa Ramanujan, was a short documentary. Born into an impoverished Brahmin family in South India, the self-taught mathematician who'd failed to gain university admission – or even a proper job in India – produced highly complex work that dazzled many leading mathematicians of the day. With the help of G.H. Hardy, a Cambridge don who became a crucial collaborator, Ramanujan arrived in England during the First World War. Poor health and disorienting cultural differences didn't stop him from writing papers and a dissertation (on highly composite numbers) that earned him an advanced degree. More accolades followed, culminating in his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge. But sadly, not long afterwards, he died in India at the age of 33.

��� Now more than eight decades later, director Dev Benegal is teaming up with British actor/comedian/writer/director Stephen Fry for a feature film on Ramanujan that will be shot in Tamil Nadu and Cambridge. Both Benegal, who learnt about Ramanujan when he was doing a documentary about the Cauvery river twenty years ago, and Fry, a Cambridge graduate, have long been fascinated by India's most famous mathematician from the last century. Ramanujan's pioneering work in partition theory, especially, has proved to be useful in the design of contemporary machines like ATMs. A biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, is a catalyst for another feature film, which will be made by Edward Pressman and Matthew Brown. Also worth noting is a play, David Freeman's First Class Man, which takes on the highly unlikely yet deep friendship between two people (Ramanujan and Hardy) who had little in common beyond math. Another theatrical production on the life of Ramanujan, Ira Hauptman's Partition, was presented in Boston earlier this year. Finally, a Ramanujan Prize was established in 2005 for young mathematicians from developing nations. Worth $10,000, the first award went to Brazilian Marcelo Viana. The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics and the International Mathematical Union picks the winner jointly.

Compiled by Murali Kamma

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