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Episode
103

Ramanujan

First published on
November 3, 2020
Science & Technology
-
16
minutes
Mathematics
India
University
Geniuses
The British Empire

Discover the amazing story of the Indian mathematical genius who went from accounting clerk at the Port of Madras to the University of Cambridge.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about a fantastic mathematician, a man called Srinivasa Ramanujan.

[00:00:29] He was one of the most famous mathematicians of all time, and his story, from hunger and starvation in India through to the most prestigious of Cambridge colleges is fascinating and inspiring.

[00:00:43] So, let’s waste no time, and learn about the brilliant life of Ramanujan.

[00:00:50] At the end of January 1913 a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, the most prestigious university in the UK, if not the world, for mathematics, received a letter.

[00:01:04] He opened it up, and started reading. It began like this:

[00:01:10] 

[00:01:10] dear Sir,

[00:01:11] I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as "startling".

[00:02:03] The letter then continued to present some amazingly profound and interesting ideas about mathematics, about investigations that this young man had made, proofs that he was working on, and startling discoveries that he had found.

[00:02:20] The letter was signed S. Ramanujan, and it was addressed to G.H. Hardy, who was at the time one of the world’s leading pure mathematicians.

[00:02:32] It was to be the start of an amazing relationship, an enduring friendship, and the discovery of one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of the 21st century.

[00:02:44] To understand Ramanujan though, we need to go a little back. 

[00:02:49] He was only in his 20s when he wrote that letter, so we don’t need to go back too far.

[00:02:55] Srinivasa Ramanujan was born on the 22nd of December 1887 in the town of Erode, in South East India. 

[00:03:06] His father was an accounting clerk, and his mother sang at a local temple. 

[00:03:12] His family were of the Brahmin caste, the Hindu caste of priests, and scholars. 

[00:03:18] It was a high caste, but they were not rich by any standards.

[00:03:23] From an early age, Ramanujan showed a real gift for mathematics. 

[00:03:28] By the age of 10 he was the top student in his class, and he soon spent every spare hour devouring the mathematics textbooks in his school’s library.

[00:03:40] By the age of 12, he was working his way through advanced mathematical ideas. It was clear that the boy was incredibly talented, but it was by no means obvious what this could lead to.

[00:03:54] When he was 16 he managed to get his hands on a copy of a book of mathematical theories from a Cambridge professor, a book that opened up a whole new world for Ramanujan.

[00:04:06] He was just a 16 year old boy from a poor family in a town in India, and this book gave him a view into some of the most advanced ideas in mathematics.

[00:04:19] The book laid out some of the main theories of the day, which we won’t go into because they are obviously very complicated and this is an episode about the humans behind the story, rather than the mathematics. 

[00:04:33] But the point is that, with mathematical research, you need to show the proof of why something is true. 

[00:04:41] The book that Ramanujan found only showed the theories, and so he understandably thought that that was how you did mathematics.

[00:04:52] So when it came to the letter he was later to send Hardy, he sent his mathematical theories without proof, in the same style of the book that he had found when he was 16.

[00:05:03] Anyway, to get back to our story, Ramanujan quickly started working on his own mathematical ideas. He wasn’t content to merely understand what others had found, he was working on his own problems, his own mathematical theories.

[00:05:20] He was too poor to afford much pen and paper though, so he would do most of his work on slate with chalk - a slate is a kind of rock - and then he only wrote on pen and paper when he had actually figured something out.

[00:05:38] As he was clearly a genius, not just ‘top of his class’ but really ‘in a different league’, he won a scholarship to a Government Arts College. 

[00:05:48] However, he devoted all of his attention to mathematics, which meant that he failed his non-mathematical exams, and ended up losing his scholarship

[00:06:00] He transferred to what was then Madras, and is now called Chennai, to enrol in another college, but again he failed his non-mathematical exams.

[00:06:11] He was miserably poor, and had completely devoted himself to the study of mathematics. Every last piece of money he had he used to pay for pen and paper, and he was said to be constantly hungry.

[00:06:28] Nevertheless, he was making substantial mathematical developments, despite working almost completely on his own, thousands of miles away from the centres of mathematical scholarship in Europe and North America.

[00:06:42] By 1910 or so, when he was 23, he found some odd jobs as a mathematics tutor, started to join circles of people who were also interested in mathematics, and stumbled across some good fortune by meeting a government official called Ramaswamy Aiyer, who had founded the Indian Mathematical Society. 

[00:07:07] Aiyer was amazed at the work that Ramanujan had done, and was still doing, and put him in touch with another of his mathematical friends, a man called Ramachandra Rao. 

[00:07:20] Rao initially couldn’t believe that the work was real, and thought that Ramanujan must be a fraud

[00:07:29] It was only after talking to him, and witnessing his genius that he was persuaded that Ramanujan was the real deal, and offered him a job at the Port of Madras as an accounting clerk.

[00:07:44] An accounting clerk was, essentially, a human calculator, and Ramanujan, who had dazzled his school friends by being able to recite Pi to hundreds of digits, was an incredibly good human calculator. 

[00:08:00] But of course, just doing calculations for the Port of Madras was a huge waste of Ramanujan’s talents.

[00:08:08] Luckily, he was able to continue his research, and he also met several other keen mathematicians, many of whom British expats, who soon realised that he had some special talents.

[00:08:21] The most important of these was a man called Francis Spring, an Irish engineer, who had been living in British India for most of his adult life. He recognised the genius of Ramanujan, put him in touch with other expat mathematicians, and started writing to mathematicians in the UK to see whether they were interested in the work that Ramanujan had been doing.

[00:08:48] Initially there wasn’t much interest. Ramanujan was, after all, merely an accounting clerk for the Indian government. 

[00:08:58] His theories were often messy, not as detailed as these professional academics were used to.

[00:09:05] You can understand why - Ramanujan was almost completely self-taught, he hadn’t even completed university.

[00:09:13] On the 16th of January, 1913, Ramanujan took it upon himself to write to G.H. Hardy, a professor of mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, the most famous college of the most famous university for mathematics in the world.

[00:09:30] Hardy was struck by the contents of the letter. 

[00:09:34] The theories proposed by Ramanujan were astounding, and he thought that if this was the sort of thing that this young man could come up with without any real support or help, just imagine what he might be capable of if he were allowed to come and continue his studies at a place like Cambridge.

[00:09:56] Ramanujan couldn’t afford to leave, of course. 

[00:09:59] He had an annual salary of around £20, and there was no way he could ever be able to leave without external help.

[00:10:09] Hardy replied to the letter, saying “I was exceedingly interested by your letter and by the theorems which you state”, but that he wanted to see proof of Ramanujan’s theories.

[00:10:22] There was a bit of back and forth, a bit of an exchange of letters. 

[00:10:27] Showing proofs was a bit of a problem for Ramanujan because he hadn’t really been used to this way of working, and a lot of his research was through intuition - he just instinctively knew, or at least believed, something to be true.

[00:10:45] As this exchange of letters was happening, Hardy was trying to set the wheels in motion for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. 

[00:10:54] It wasn’t easy though. 

[00:10:56] Firstly, despite showing signs of being one of the best mathematical brains in the world, Ramanujan hadn’t actually got an undergraduate degree. How could Cambridge give him a position as a postgraduate if he hadn’t actually completed undergraduate university?

[00:11:16] The problems weren’t just on the British side though. When the suggestion was raised of Ramanujan coming to Cambridge, he initially rejected it. 

[00:11:26] His family were in India, his mother and his young wife. 

[00:11:30] His religious beliefs also prohibited him from leaving India, and the idea of going to a country on the other side of the world was of course a big decision.

[00:11:42] Eventually, Ramanujan was persuaded, Cambridge offered him a scholarship for two years, and he set sail for London.

[00:11:51] Two weeks later, on April 14th 1914 he arrived, was picked up by Hardy and whisked up to Cambridge to begin his postgraduate studies.

[00:12:04] Life in Cambridge was, to state the obvious, a big change to Madras. 

[00:12:09] From the evident cultural differences to the fact that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian, adjusting to life at a British university took a while for this brilliant young man.

[00:12:22] Then, two months after he arrived, World War I broke out. 

[00:12:27] Many of his fellow academics joined the war effort, and were sent off to be killed on the fields of Northern France.

[00:12:35] Ramanujan continued to publish, making startling discoveries. 

[00:12:40] Now that he was attached to Cambridge University, doors were open that never were when he was a mere accounting clerk at the Port of Madras. 

[00:12:49] He was taken seriously, and his reputation continued to grow.

[00:12:54] However, he had always suffered from bad health, likely due to a poor diet earlier on in life.

[00:13:02] In 1917 he fell very ill with a liver infection, thought to be caused by a parasite that had been with him since he left India. 

[00:13:12] No British doctors could diagnose what was wrong with him, and this infection caused him great pain for months on end, making him depressed and even suicidal.

[00:13:25] Despite his sickness, he continued his research, publishing and publishing, and became a Fellow, a member, of something called the Royal Society, the country’s top scientific society, in May 1918.

[00:13:40] He was still unwell though, and so traveled back to India in March 1919. 

[00:13:48] He continued his studies from India, but unfortunately he died a year later, aged only 32.

[00:13:56] He left a huge legacy in the field of mathematics, and indeed many of his theories have only relatively recently come to be understood. He couldn’t always prove them, but it seems that he had a rare ability for just knowing when something was right, even if he couldn’t always understand why it was right.

[00:14:19] He has become the poster boy for Indian genius, and his story certainly is amazing, inspiring, albeit tragic in its end.

[00:14:30] So there you have it, Ramanujan, the boy from the town in South East India with an empty stomach so that he had enough money for paper who, despite all the odds, became one of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century, and whose work has had and will have an impact for generations of mathematicians to come.

[00:14:52] It’s a brilliant story, and who knows what he could have achieved if he had only lived just a little bit longer.

[00:15:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Srinivasa Ramanujan.

[00:15:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:15:10] If you are interested in mathematics, then there is obviously a huge amount of his work for you to read up on. 

[00:15:17] I guess if you’re a mathematician you will know his story already, but as I was researching this episode I have to confess I did get quite sidetracked reading some of his work. It is, of course, fascinating.

[00:15:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:15:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:15:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about a fantastic mathematician, a man called Srinivasa Ramanujan.

[00:00:29] He was one of the most famous mathematicians of all time, and his story, from hunger and starvation in India through to the most prestigious of Cambridge colleges is fascinating and inspiring.

[00:00:43] So, let’s waste no time, and learn about the brilliant life of Ramanujan.

[00:00:50] At the end of January 1913 a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, the most prestigious university in the UK, if not the world, for mathematics, received a letter.

[00:01:04] He opened it up, and started reading. It began like this:

[00:01:10] 

[00:01:10] dear Sir,

[00:01:11] I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as "startling".

[00:02:03] The letter then continued to present some amazingly profound and interesting ideas about mathematics, about investigations that this young man had made, proofs that he was working on, and startling discoveries that he had found.

[00:02:20] The letter was signed S. Ramanujan, and it was addressed to G.H. Hardy, who was at the time one of the world’s leading pure mathematicians.

[00:02:32] It was to be the start of an amazing relationship, an enduring friendship, and the discovery of one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of the 21st century.

[00:02:44] To understand Ramanujan though, we need to go a little back. 

[00:02:49] He was only in his 20s when he wrote that letter, so we don’t need to go back too far.

[00:02:55] Srinivasa Ramanujan was born on the 22nd of December 1887 in the town of Erode, in South East India. 

[00:03:06] His father was an accounting clerk, and his mother sang at a local temple. 

[00:03:12] His family were of the Brahmin caste, the Hindu caste of priests, and scholars. 

[00:03:18] It was a high caste, but they were not rich by any standards.

[00:03:23] From an early age, Ramanujan showed a real gift for mathematics. 

[00:03:28] By the age of 10 he was the top student in his class, and he soon spent every spare hour devouring the mathematics textbooks in his school’s library.

[00:03:40] By the age of 12, he was working his way through advanced mathematical ideas. It was clear that the boy was incredibly talented, but it was by no means obvious what this could lead to.

[00:03:54] When he was 16 he managed to get his hands on a copy of a book of mathematical theories from a Cambridge professor, a book that opened up a whole new world for Ramanujan.

[00:04:06] He was just a 16 year old boy from a poor family in a town in India, and this book gave him a view into some of the most advanced ideas in mathematics.

[00:04:19] The book laid out some of the main theories of the day, which we won’t go into because they are obviously very complicated and this is an episode about the humans behind the story, rather than the mathematics. 

[00:04:33] But the point is that, with mathematical research, you need to show the proof of why something is true. 

[00:04:41] The book that Ramanujan found only showed the theories, and so he understandably thought that that was how you did mathematics.

[00:04:52] So when it came to the letter he was later to send Hardy, he sent his mathematical theories without proof, in the same style of the book that he had found when he was 16.

[00:05:03] Anyway, to get back to our story, Ramanujan quickly started working on his own mathematical ideas. He wasn’t content to merely understand what others had found, he was working on his own problems, his own mathematical theories.

[00:05:20] He was too poor to afford much pen and paper though, so he would do most of his work on slate with chalk - a slate is a kind of rock - and then he only wrote on pen and paper when he had actually figured something out.

[00:05:38] As he was clearly a genius, not just ‘top of his class’ but really ‘in a different league’, he won a scholarship to a Government Arts College. 

[00:05:48] However, he devoted all of his attention to mathematics, which meant that he failed his non-mathematical exams, and ended up losing his scholarship

[00:06:00] He transferred to what was then Madras, and is now called Chennai, to enrol in another college, but again he failed his non-mathematical exams.

[00:06:11] He was miserably poor, and had completely devoted himself to the study of mathematics. Every last piece of money he had he used to pay for pen and paper, and he was said to be constantly hungry.

[00:06:28] Nevertheless, he was making substantial mathematical developments, despite working almost completely on his own, thousands of miles away from the centres of mathematical scholarship in Europe and North America.

[00:06:42] By 1910 or so, when he was 23, he found some odd jobs as a mathematics tutor, started to join circles of people who were also interested in mathematics, and stumbled across some good fortune by meeting a government official called Ramaswamy Aiyer, who had founded the Indian Mathematical Society. 

[00:07:07] Aiyer was amazed at the work that Ramanujan had done, and was still doing, and put him in touch with another of his mathematical friends, a man called Ramachandra Rao. 

[00:07:20] Rao initially couldn’t believe that the work was real, and thought that Ramanujan must be a fraud

[00:07:29] It was only after talking to him, and witnessing his genius that he was persuaded that Ramanujan was the real deal, and offered him a job at the Port of Madras as an accounting clerk.

[00:07:44] An accounting clerk was, essentially, a human calculator, and Ramanujan, who had dazzled his school friends by being able to recite Pi to hundreds of digits, was an incredibly good human calculator. 

[00:08:00] But of course, just doing calculations for the Port of Madras was a huge waste of Ramanujan’s talents.

[00:08:08] Luckily, he was able to continue his research, and he also met several other keen mathematicians, many of whom British expats, who soon realised that he had some special talents.

[00:08:21] The most important of these was a man called Francis Spring, an Irish engineer, who had been living in British India for most of his adult life. He recognised the genius of Ramanujan, put him in touch with other expat mathematicians, and started writing to mathematicians in the UK to see whether they were interested in the work that Ramanujan had been doing.

[00:08:48] Initially there wasn’t much interest. Ramanujan was, after all, merely an accounting clerk for the Indian government. 

[00:08:58] His theories were often messy, not as detailed as these professional academics were used to.

[00:09:05] You can understand why - Ramanujan was almost completely self-taught, he hadn’t even completed university.

[00:09:13] On the 16th of January, 1913, Ramanujan took it upon himself to write to G.H. Hardy, a professor of mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, the most famous college of the most famous university for mathematics in the world.

[00:09:30] Hardy was struck by the contents of the letter. 

[00:09:34] The theories proposed by Ramanujan were astounding, and he thought that if this was the sort of thing that this young man could come up with without any real support or help, just imagine what he might be capable of if he were allowed to come and continue his studies at a place like Cambridge.

[00:09:56] Ramanujan couldn’t afford to leave, of course. 

[00:09:59] He had an annual salary of around £20, and there was no way he could ever be able to leave without external help.

[00:10:09] Hardy replied to the letter, saying “I was exceedingly interested by your letter and by the theorems which you state”, but that he wanted to see proof of Ramanujan’s theories.

[00:10:22] There was a bit of back and forth, a bit of an exchange of letters. 

[00:10:27] Showing proofs was a bit of a problem for Ramanujan because he hadn’t really been used to this way of working, and a lot of his research was through intuition - he just instinctively knew, or at least believed, something to be true.

[00:10:45] As this exchange of letters was happening, Hardy was trying to set the wheels in motion for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. 

[00:10:54] It wasn’t easy though. 

[00:10:56] Firstly, despite showing signs of being one of the best mathematical brains in the world, Ramanujan hadn’t actually got an undergraduate degree. How could Cambridge give him a position as a postgraduate if he hadn’t actually completed undergraduate university?

[00:11:16] The problems weren’t just on the British side though. When the suggestion was raised of Ramanujan coming to Cambridge, he initially rejected it. 

[00:11:26] His family were in India, his mother and his young wife. 

[00:11:30] His religious beliefs also prohibited him from leaving India, and the idea of going to a country on the other side of the world was of course a big decision.

[00:11:42] Eventually, Ramanujan was persuaded, Cambridge offered him a scholarship for two years, and he set sail for London.

[00:11:51] Two weeks later, on April 14th 1914 he arrived, was picked up by Hardy and whisked up to Cambridge to begin his postgraduate studies.

[00:12:04] Life in Cambridge was, to state the obvious, a big change to Madras. 

[00:12:09] From the evident cultural differences to the fact that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian, adjusting to life at a British university took a while for this brilliant young man.

[00:12:22] Then, two months after he arrived, World War I broke out. 

[00:12:27] Many of his fellow academics joined the war effort, and were sent off to be killed on the fields of Northern France.

[00:12:35] Ramanujan continued to publish, making startling discoveries. 

[00:12:40] Now that he was attached to Cambridge University, doors were open that never were when he was a mere accounting clerk at the Port of Madras. 

[00:12:49] He was taken seriously, and his reputation continued to grow.

[00:12:54] However, he had always suffered from bad health, likely due to a poor diet earlier on in life.

[00:13:02] In 1917 he fell very ill with a liver infection, thought to be caused by a parasite that had been with him since he left India. 

[00:13:12] No British doctors could diagnose what was wrong with him, and this infection caused him great pain for months on end, making him depressed and even suicidal.

[00:13:25] Despite his sickness, he continued his research, publishing and publishing, and became a Fellow, a member, of something called the Royal Society, the country’s top scientific society, in May 1918.

[00:13:40] He was still unwell though, and so traveled back to India in March 1919. 

[00:13:48] He continued his studies from India, but unfortunately he died a year later, aged only 32.

[00:13:56] He left a huge legacy in the field of mathematics, and indeed many of his theories have only relatively recently come to be understood. He couldn’t always prove them, but it seems that he had a rare ability for just knowing when something was right, even if he couldn’t always understand why it was right.

[00:14:19] He has become the poster boy for Indian genius, and his story certainly is amazing, inspiring, albeit tragic in its end.

[00:14:30] So there you have it, Ramanujan, the boy from the town in South East India with an empty stomach so that he had enough money for paper who, despite all the odds, became one of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century, and whose work has had and will have an impact for generations of mathematicians to come.

[00:14:52] It’s a brilliant story, and who knows what he could have achieved if he had only lived just a little bit longer.

[00:15:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Srinivasa Ramanujan.

[00:15:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:15:10] If you are interested in mathematics, then there is obviously a huge amount of his work for you to read up on. 

[00:15:17] I guess if you’re a mathematician you will know his story already, but as I was researching this episode I have to confess I did get quite sidetracked reading some of his work. It is, of course, fascinating.

[00:15:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:15:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:15:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about a fantastic mathematician, a man called Srinivasa Ramanujan.

[00:00:29] He was one of the most famous mathematicians of all time, and his story, from hunger and starvation in India through to the most prestigious of Cambridge colleges is fascinating and inspiring.

[00:00:43] So, let’s waste no time, and learn about the brilliant life of Ramanujan.

[00:00:50] At the end of January 1913 a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, the most prestigious university in the UK, if not the world, for mathematics, received a letter.

[00:01:04] He opened it up, and started reading. It began like this:

[00:01:10] 

[00:01:10] dear Sir,

[00:01:11] I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as "startling".

[00:02:03] The letter then continued to present some amazingly profound and interesting ideas about mathematics, about investigations that this young man had made, proofs that he was working on, and startling discoveries that he had found.

[00:02:20] The letter was signed S. Ramanujan, and it was addressed to G.H. Hardy, who was at the time one of the world’s leading pure mathematicians.

[00:02:32] It was to be the start of an amazing relationship, an enduring friendship, and the discovery of one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of the 21st century.

[00:02:44] To understand Ramanujan though, we need to go a little back. 

[00:02:49] He was only in his 20s when he wrote that letter, so we don’t need to go back too far.

[00:02:55] Srinivasa Ramanujan was born on the 22nd of December 1887 in the town of Erode, in South East India. 

[00:03:06] His father was an accounting clerk, and his mother sang at a local temple. 

[00:03:12] His family were of the Brahmin caste, the Hindu caste of priests, and scholars. 

[00:03:18] It was a high caste, but they were not rich by any standards.

[00:03:23] From an early age, Ramanujan showed a real gift for mathematics. 

[00:03:28] By the age of 10 he was the top student in his class, and he soon spent every spare hour devouring the mathematics textbooks in his school’s library.

[00:03:40] By the age of 12, he was working his way through advanced mathematical ideas. It was clear that the boy was incredibly talented, but it was by no means obvious what this could lead to.

[00:03:54] When he was 16 he managed to get his hands on a copy of a book of mathematical theories from a Cambridge professor, a book that opened up a whole new world for Ramanujan.

[00:04:06] He was just a 16 year old boy from a poor family in a town in India, and this book gave him a view into some of the most advanced ideas in mathematics.

[00:04:19] The book laid out some of the main theories of the day, which we won’t go into because they are obviously very complicated and this is an episode about the humans behind the story, rather than the mathematics. 

[00:04:33] But the point is that, with mathematical research, you need to show the proof of why something is true. 

[00:04:41] The book that Ramanujan found only showed the theories, and so he understandably thought that that was how you did mathematics.

[00:04:52] So when it came to the letter he was later to send Hardy, he sent his mathematical theories without proof, in the same style of the book that he had found when he was 16.

[00:05:03] Anyway, to get back to our story, Ramanujan quickly started working on his own mathematical ideas. He wasn’t content to merely understand what others had found, he was working on his own problems, his own mathematical theories.

[00:05:20] He was too poor to afford much pen and paper though, so he would do most of his work on slate with chalk - a slate is a kind of rock - and then he only wrote on pen and paper when he had actually figured something out.

[00:05:38] As he was clearly a genius, not just ‘top of his class’ but really ‘in a different league’, he won a scholarship to a Government Arts College. 

[00:05:48] However, he devoted all of his attention to mathematics, which meant that he failed his non-mathematical exams, and ended up losing his scholarship

[00:06:00] He transferred to what was then Madras, and is now called Chennai, to enrol in another college, but again he failed his non-mathematical exams.

[00:06:11] He was miserably poor, and had completely devoted himself to the study of mathematics. Every last piece of money he had he used to pay for pen and paper, and he was said to be constantly hungry.

[00:06:28] Nevertheless, he was making substantial mathematical developments, despite working almost completely on his own, thousands of miles away from the centres of mathematical scholarship in Europe and North America.

[00:06:42] By 1910 or so, when he was 23, he found some odd jobs as a mathematics tutor, started to join circles of people who were also interested in mathematics, and stumbled across some good fortune by meeting a government official called Ramaswamy Aiyer, who had founded the Indian Mathematical Society. 

[00:07:07] Aiyer was amazed at the work that Ramanujan had done, and was still doing, and put him in touch with another of his mathematical friends, a man called Ramachandra Rao. 

[00:07:20] Rao initially couldn’t believe that the work was real, and thought that Ramanujan must be a fraud

[00:07:29] It was only after talking to him, and witnessing his genius that he was persuaded that Ramanujan was the real deal, and offered him a job at the Port of Madras as an accounting clerk.

[00:07:44] An accounting clerk was, essentially, a human calculator, and Ramanujan, who had dazzled his school friends by being able to recite Pi to hundreds of digits, was an incredibly good human calculator. 

[00:08:00] But of course, just doing calculations for the Port of Madras was a huge waste of Ramanujan’s talents.

[00:08:08] Luckily, he was able to continue his research, and he also met several other keen mathematicians, many of whom British expats, who soon realised that he had some special talents.

[00:08:21] The most important of these was a man called Francis Spring, an Irish engineer, who had been living in British India for most of his adult life. He recognised the genius of Ramanujan, put him in touch with other expat mathematicians, and started writing to mathematicians in the UK to see whether they were interested in the work that Ramanujan had been doing.

[00:08:48] Initially there wasn’t much interest. Ramanujan was, after all, merely an accounting clerk for the Indian government. 

[00:08:58] His theories were often messy, not as detailed as these professional academics were used to.

[00:09:05] You can understand why - Ramanujan was almost completely self-taught, he hadn’t even completed university.

[00:09:13] On the 16th of January, 1913, Ramanujan took it upon himself to write to G.H. Hardy, a professor of mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, the most famous college of the most famous university for mathematics in the world.

[00:09:30] Hardy was struck by the contents of the letter. 

[00:09:34] The theories proposed by Ramanujan were astounding, and he thought that if this was the sort of thing that this young man could come up with without any real support or help, just imagine what he might be capable of if he were allowed to come and continue his studies at a place like Cambridge.

[00:09:56] Ramanujan couldn’t afford to leave, of course. 

[00:09:59] He had an annual salary of around £20, and there was no way he could ever be able to leave without external help.

[00:10:09] Hardy replied to the letter, saying “I was exceedingly interested by your letter and by the theorems which you state”, but that he wanted to see proof of Ramanujan’s theories.

[00:10:22] There was a bit of back and forth, a bit of an exchange of letters. 

[00:10:27] Showing proofs was a bit of a problem for Ramanujan because he hadn’t really been used to this way of working, and a lot of his research was through intuition - he just instinctively knew, or at least believed, something to be true.

[00:10:45] As this exchange of letters was happening, Hardy was trying to set the wheels in motion for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. 

[00:10:54] It wasn’t easy though. 

[00:10:56] Firstly, despite showing signs of being one of the best mathematical brains in the world, Ramanujan hadn’t actually got an undergraduate degree. How could Cambridge give him a position as a postgraduate if he hadn’t actually completed undergraduate university?

[00:11:16] The problems weren’t just on the British side though. When the suggestion was raised of Ramanujan coming to Cambridge, he initially rejected it. 

[00:11:26] His family were in India, his mother and his young wife. 

[00:11:30] His religious beliefs also prohibited him from leaving India, and the idea of going to a country on the other side of the world was of course a big decision.

[00:11:42] Eventually, Ramanujan was persuaded, Cambridge offered him a scholarship for two years, and he set sail for London.

[00:11:51] Two weeks later, on April 14th 1914 he arrived, was picked up by Hardy and whisked up to Cambridge to begin his postgraduate studies.

[00:12:04] Life in Cambridge was, to state the obvious, a big change to Madras. 

[00:12:09] From the evident cultural differences to the fact that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian, adjusting to life at a British university took a while for this brilliant young man.

[00:12:22] Then, two months after he arrived, World War I broke out. 

[00:12:27] Many of his fellow academics joined the war effort, and were sent off to be killed on the fields of Northern France.

[00:12:35] Ramanujan continued to publish, making startling discoveries. 

[00:12:40] Now that he was attached to Cambridge University, doors were open that never were when he was a mere accounting clerk at the Port of Madras. 

[00:12:49] He was taken seriously, and his reputation continued to grow.

[00:12:54] However, he had always suffered from bad health, likely due to a poor diet earlier on in life.

[00:13:02] In 1917 he fell very ill with a liver infection, thought to be caused by a parasite that had been with him since he left India. 

[00:13:12] No British doctors could diagnose what was wrong with him, and this infection caused him great pain for months on end, making him depressed and even suicidal.

[00:13:25] Despite his sickness, he continued his research, publishing and publishing, and became a Fellow, a member, of something called the Royal Society, the country’s top scientific society, in May 1918.

[00:13:40] He was still unwell though, and so traveled back to India in March 1919. 

[00:13:48] He continued his studies from India, but unfortunately he died a year later, aged only 32.

[00:13:56] He left a huge legacy in the field of mathematics, and indeed many of his theories have only relatively recently come to be understood. He couldn’t always prove them, but it seems that he had a rare ability for just knowing when something was right, even if he couldn’t always understand why it was right.

[00:14:19] He has become the poster boy for Indian genius, and his story certainly is amazing, inspiring, albeit tragic in its end.

[00:14:30] So there you have it, Ramanujan, the boy from the town in South East India with an empty stomach so that he had enough money for paper who, despite all the odds, became one of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century, and whose work has had and will have an impact for generations of mathematicians to come.

[00:14:52] It’s a brilliant story, and who knows what he could have achieved if he had only lived just a little bit longer.

[00:15:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Srinivasa Ramanujan.

[00:15:06] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:15:10] If you are interested in mathematics, then there is obviously a huge amount of his work for you to read up on. 

[00:15:17] I guess if you’re a mathematician you will know his story already, but as I was researching this episode I have to confess I did get quite sidetracked reading some of his work. It is, of course, fascinating.

[00:15:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:15:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:15:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.