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More Ramanujans waiting in the wings

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Prof Robert Kanigel is best known in India as the biographer of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematical genius whose fabled notebooks are still pored over by the world's most erudite numbers theorists. In fact, Kanigel, whose book The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of The Genius Ramanujan came out in 1991, compared the 1976 discovery of a "lost notebook" to the hypothetical discovery of Beethoven's Tenth Symphony. Kanigel, who is currently professor of science writing at MIT, is in India to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Ramanujan with a series of lectures and workshops. TOI-Crest caught up with him

You were a mechanical engineer. How did you metamorphose into a writer?


Yes, I began as a mechanical engineer in Brooklyn. I then moved on to Baltimore where I did three engineering jobs in three years and then quit. One day, walking along the 25th street, I passed the offices of an underground newspaper. I went in and talked to the editor about some ideas I had. With the editor's encouragement, I wrote those essays, none of them good, but all of which he published. On the strength of this, I decided I wanted to be a writer and I've been doing it ever since. Apprentice to Genius was no great commercial success, though it's still in print. But it sold me forever on what writers sometimes call "the long form".

How did you end up doing a book on Ramanujan?


A conversation in a New York hotel set me off on the Ramanujan journey. In 1987, in the 100th year of Ramanujan's birth anniversary, The New York Times had carried a piece on the mathematician. I don't know who noticed or did not notice it, but my editor did. She asked me whether I'd be interested in writing a book on him. I asked Ramanujan who? And then she (my editor) told me to read the NYT piece. It changed everything. Understanding the mathematician and the man became my calling. I launched into extensive reading of Ramanujan. I also viewed a BBC documentary and got set to take off to the UK and India. In 1988, I did a 10-week trip spending time at Trinity, Cambridge and then in India. I arrived at Ramanujan's home town, visited all the places he had, to understand what they meant to him, lived for a moment in his house, walked the streets he did. . . did everything that meant something to Ramanujan. That's how my three-year journey into his life began in 1988.

It's been 20 years since you wrote his biography. . .


Ramanujan's life is about mathematics alright, but it's also about genius. His 125th anniversary is an occasion to revisit his genius, a reminder of more geniuses like him tucked away in the hinterlands of India. It is time to discover the unknown and unrecognized. When I look back, I understand I have been lucky in becoming his biographer. Crafting his biography brought me not just satisfaction, it saw me through a difficult period in my life. In these years, people from different parts of the world have written to me about how Ramanujan has become part of their life and what he means to them as man and mathematician. For any writer, this is the greatest satisfaction.

You spent a lot of time researching Ramanujan. What did you take away?.


That genius doesn't always triumph on its own. Genius must find the right people, the right force for it to flower. Ramanujan met the right person in Hardy (English mathematician G H Hardy), at the right time. Ramanujan's rise is as much about the collaboration between Ramanujan and Hardy as it is about Ramanujan himself. Social force fosters genius. Its absence kills it.

Critics say the Ramanujan biography could have had more maths. . .


I was told clearly that every equation I put in the book would reduce readership by 10 per cent. I decided to offer a bit of a flavour of what's involved in the mathematical discourse. I had to be selective about what I would put in the book. I judged that readers will have little tolerance for too much of hard stuff. The book had to be interesting reading.

The relationship between the young clerk and his British guru, under whose tutelage he worked in Cambridge, is quite a complex one. How did you interpret it?


It's very hard to say how close or not Hardy was to Ramanujan. But its true Hardy kind of cared for Ramanujan, he got him all the way from India to Cambridge, he took interest in what Ramanujan had written, he recognized that Ramanujan was offering something very different. That kind of response and recognition is crucial to anybody. There could be a case though to say Hardy should have been much closer to Ramanujan. But it's very hard to say.

What were their mathematical approaches?


Ramanujan was focussed on the output. He would tell Hardy to take it or leave it. Hardy would cry that this was not the way to go about it. Hardy was into process and evidence. Ramanujan would worry about the result. He got there somehow, he wasn't perturbed about how he did it. Hardy was. The relationship shows the kind of difficult negotiations brilliant people have with each other.

What should be the biggest worry for a science writer?


Getting things right. He should worry, feel guilty that he might just screw things up, obsess about accuracy and correctness. He should talk to as many experts as possible, read as much as possible, do all the homework that's humanly possible before embarking on the book. The question he has to always ask is - have I got the idea right? Is this really the nuance of the idea? Get the nuance right and you're home.

Is lack of specialisation a hindrance in science writing?


I have always told my MIT students how people without science backgrounds have made science their specialty. This is possible when a science writer is aware of what he knows and doesn't know. I would argue that it is in fact an obstacle for a science writer to have specialised knowledge because the specialisation gets in the way of grasping and communicating a wide range of domains. While a particular specialisation is not necessary to become a good science writer, the writer should know the subject he is writing about. No matter how he got to know it, he's got to know it.

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