How Do You Know?

“I just do,” is the reply Srinivasa Ramanujan is portrayed as having answered a professor in the film The Man Who Knew Infinity, starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as his Trinity College mentor and fellow mathematician, G.H. Hardy. The movie attempts to follow the main threads of Ramanujan’s too-brief life story as an Indian under British colonial rule, relatively uneducated but with the gift of a savant, invited to study, work, and think with some of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, in an environment dismissive of and hostile to him as the subjected “other.”

Ramanujan confounded his lettered peers with his groundbreaking and sophisticated formulas, all the more because he did not get to them in the ways that the rigor of mathematics requires — that is, he did not get to them by proofs. As he later reiterates to Hardy (Irons), the knowledge just “came to me.” Eventually, he will ask Hardy to believe that his (Ramanujan’s) god delivers the knowing to him.

Ramanujan’s relationship to the math, as emphasized by the film, was not about the proofs — the calculations — as knowledge for the sake of knowledge. For him, the knowing of the math was the knowing of his god. As he put it, “An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of god.”

For Ramanujan, science and religion are not separate but entirely related. For him, the formulas are the language — the word, if you will — of his god. But how do we know which god? And when does revelation require proofs, or not?

 

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