“The Man Who Knew Infinity”: A Nickell-odeon Review

May 20, 2016

Buffeted by forces ranging from poverty to romantic estrangement, academic strictures, outright racism, and profound illness, math visionary Srinivasa Ramanujan lived a brief life that has yielded a rich study in perseverance and the triumph of genius. It is titled, The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Leaving his native India, Ramanujan (1887–1920)—played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire)—accepts an invitation to Cambridge to work with mathematical theorist G.H. Hardy. Hardy wondered at the brashness of a largely untutored young man who would claim “to give meaning to negative values of the gamma function,” among other wonders.

Alternately skeptical and impressed, Hardy—an outspoken atheist and colleague of Bertrand Russell—is a fierce taskmaster. Himself all but bereft of friends and family, Hardy ironically mentors one who needs both, who misses his native land and his loving (if illiterate) wife.

Chided by Russell, Hardy tries to be more understanding—especially of one who naively believes his intuitive skills are visions from God. At least the pair share interest in infinity, as well as an aversion to the encroachments of World War I.

Hardy mostly offers a needed tough love. While Ramanujan’s intuitive insights are astonishing, nevertheless—as Hardy continually rails—they require “proofs.” (Such a proof is essentially an argument establishing that something mathematically stated is true.) Proofs do begin to come, and eventually the prodigy is made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Spoiler alert: Ramanujan dies young, but his legacy increasingly gathers steam—furthered by the discovery of a “lost notebook” in 1976. His story has continued through several documentaries, a biography (by Robert Kanigel), a play, and other venues, and now a major American/British film (based on the Kanigel book whose title it adopted).

In the tradition of The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, The Man Who Knew Infinity is about following one’s dreams (as Thoreau urged), to live the life one has imagined.

Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)

Three and a half Nickels
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