Men Who Doubt Infinity
In Oxford, the moon shines with a particular intensity. At least, it certainly seemed that way to me. Every evening, once darkness had stretched fully across the night sky, like a blanket of fresh ink, the moon would appear and compel my gaze. Its cosmic, cyclical transformations provided a mysterious sort of reassurance and stability as I sought to acclimatize to the city’s peculiarities and specificities.
The moon found me at different places on different days. Sometimes we met as I was crossing the bridge that separates Cowley Road from High Street. At times, I glimpsed her while walking north from Blackwell’s Bookshop to my house on Woodstock Road. But most often, I would gaze at the moon from my bedroom window. The window looked out onto the Radcliffe Observatory, which served as Oxford’s astronomical headquarters for almost two hundred years. Atlas, a figure from Greek mythology, stands at the observatory’s highest point, holding up the World with a considerable amount of strain, and only partial success.
There are reasons why so many people on Earth pray that their kids might attend schools like Oxford, or Cambridge. There is something unspeakably profound about living in a place that stands at the center of Western notions of merit, inquiry, and devotion to knowledge. This awe is compounded by the fact that these schools have stood for these qualities since before the dawn of Western modernity — and Western colonialism.
Last fall, a movie was made called The Man Who Knew Infinity. The film tells the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy. Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel) was born in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and has gone down in history as one of the most brilliant mathematicians of all time. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons) was a well-respected professor at Cambridge, who recognized Ramanujan’s genius and invited him to England to develop his ideas.
The collaboration between these two men is typically remembered as rather glorious — a meeting of the minds which advanced the discipline of mathematics in unparalleled and unprecedented ways. But The Man Who Knew Infinity tells a more complex story. It shows us the personal dimensions of Ramanujan’s time in Cambridge — the hostility, illness, and loneliness that severely tainted his experience, and arguably led to his death at the age of thirty two. The film made me cry so deeply that I felt my heart itself had turned into a well of tears.
Ramanujan was a soft-spoken, Hindu vegetarian who first wrote out his brilliant equations on a temple floor. He regarded math as a cosmic practice — a reflection of infinity, and the divine. In his words:
An equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.
But the Cambridge that Ramanujan encountered on the eve of World War I was an utterly foreign place. The people he met had virtually no knowledge of the social, cultural and spiritual context that he came from. Nor did they appreciate the centrality of his life in India to both his work and his well-being.
Every evening, they served him mutton and potatoes cooked in lard (a meal that no vegetarian would ever dream of eating). They did not inquire after his health, even when he developed a cough that in time gave way to tuberculosis. They did not consider the emotional and social sacrifices that Ramanujan had made by crossing the seas. In the hollow streets of Cambridge, he was beaten and bullied by British soldiers who resented the fact that he continued to study while they fought in the war. And when the temperature dropped and the nights grew longer, Ramanujan huddled in his room, attempting to eat rotten vegetables (the only sustenance he could find), crying out in pain from an illness that he was ashamed to speak of, while a small statue of Ganesh (the Hindu elephant god, remover of obstacles) looked down at him from the edge of his desk. It was at this point in the film that I began to cry.
Hardy, meanwhile, is oblivious to all this until the very end of Ramanujan’s time in the UK. He is thrilled that Ramanujan has come to Cambridge, and his primary concern is purely instrumental: He believes that Ramanujan will not be taken seriously unless he explains his thought process through proofs. To paraphrase Hardy’s words, he tells Ramanujan that this ‘thought of God’ sentiment will never earn him the respect he needs in order to publish his work. He says that Ramanujan’s ‘intuition’ cannot substitute for the rigorous empiricism that Cambridge is known for. Essentially, Ramanujan’s ideas — true as they are — are without merit unless he is able to explain how a white, male, atheist would reach the same conclusions.
Ramanujan’s humanity, and to a certain extent his genius, are denied strictly because he moves through the world in ways that people at Cambridge do not personally understand.
By the time Ramanujan dies, he has earned the respect of Cambridge’s mathematicians, thanks in part to some rousing speeches that Hardy gives in his defense. This is perhaps cause for celebration; but at this point in the story, it does not really feel that way. At the end of The Man Who Knew Infinity, viewers are left to contemplate the raw, newly exposed truth that Ramanujan’s fame came at an unnatural, heart-wrenching cost. His life also testifies to a fundamental sadness which, in my opinion, continues to mar our attempts at conversing across boundaries.
To put it briefly: In spite of so much evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe that the best solutions to the problems we face will come out of institutions in the so-called ‘Global North.’ We assume that they’ll come from the US, the UK, and other European countries. It seems less likely to us that they’ll come from countries in the ‘Global South.’
I am concerned by the fact that many of us seem to have tacitly agreed that the world’s best opportunities lie in cold but prestigious institutions. And for those of us who grew up in the tropics and move to these places, we deal with our loneliness, our doubts, and (in some cases) the simple fact that we are freezing cold by saying that this is where we are meant to be. This is, after all, where our so-called merits and dreams have inevitably taken us.
But by this logic, who has the authority to make the most crucial and powerful decisions? And what do those people say when they are asked to speak on behalf of others? How do these narratives of success affect the many millions of people who have found peace, wisdom, truth, and excellence through other means?
Looking at the sky every night at Oxford, I often marveled at how the moon has been rendered and regarded in different ways by different people. The Spanish writer Federico García Lorca wrote a profoundly romantic poem about the moon. Western astronomers looked through carefully crafted telescopes and marveled at her elegant movements and dimensions. Hindu sages wrote chants that celebrate the moon, and other sacred features of our Earth. And India’s kathakali dancers trained their eyes by following the moon as she rose and set.
Each of these renderings of the moon stir our minds and souls differently. And each one adds to our knowledge and appreciation of the world around us. In this case, we see clearly that our understanding of the universe is made stronger by the simultaneous existence of these varied perspectives.
Yet in spite of this, we continue to measure truth and progress in ways that alienate and disrespect much of the wisdom of the world’s people. And if such thinking has killed brilliant spirits like Ramanujan, then surely we can do better. We must recognize the limitations of our own efforts. We must acknowledge what we do not yet know, and truly respect those who may know more than we do on a particular matter. We must consider that truth and progress have multiple sources, and thus the solutions to our problems have as many origins as there are stars in the night sky.