Maths, maths understanding and racism

The Maths Scholars Scheme reviews The Man Who Knew Infinity 
Director: Matt Brown
Stars: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones

Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel)

The Man who saw Infinity but didn’t show us.

The mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is the subject of this biopic: The Man Who Knew Infinity.

With a cast that includes: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones and a cameo role from Stephen Fry the potential to be a great film was put in place. Throw in the photogenic grounds of Trinity Hall Cambridge and Madras, India and the film is always going to be pretty to watch but, but, but….

How do you manage to make a film about a mathematician without really focusing on the mathematics? Scribbling formulae and mentioning prime numbers and partitions seems to be what film-makers think the public can handle. Once again when dealing with matters of mathematics or intellect it’s all an approximation, a light wash across the paper to give a sense.

Therefore at the heart of the film there really is a black hole. I guess I wasn’t really expecting a mathematical tour de force but what we received instead was a shameful expose of twentieth century racism, an exploration of otherness, professional jealousy and small mindedness.

Scene from The Man Who Knew Infinity

Maths teachers will you inspire or stifle?

Bearing in mind, Ramanujan’s mentor, Prof Hardy is a self-confessed inadequate when it comes to human relationships it’s no wonder that the Indian scholar is left to waste away without anyone realising they are witnessing his physical demise. We had to suspend our disbelief as Dev Patel never actually looked any thinner or frailer, but I digress. Tom Hanks would have starved for the role, for sure!

Everyone in the film has an agenda. No one pulls together and the victim, ultimately, is the world that is deprived of the truly inspirational, left field intellect that Ramanujan possessed. Throughout the film almost everyone displays varying degrees of egocentricism. From Ramunjan’s mother hiding her daughter in law’s letters to prompt her son’s return to India.

On the other hand, the Cambridge academics all had reputations to protect and by God were they going to stick to  that. To say the racism and total ignorance and racism displayed to Ramanujan were uncomfortable to watch is probably an understatement. Not being able to find vegetarian food in halls Ramanujan almost starves. His professor notices his student’s lack of health and says: ‘are you eating enough?’ But Ramanujan knows that good manners and the ‘stiff upper lip’ dictates he should say yes. 

But what is at stake in this film is academia’s inability to acknowledge intellect that is not ground in proofs.  Ramanujan’s otherness marks him out and elicits what we might have hoped to be an enlightened academic community’s latent racism and prejudice. If you cannot prove then you are finished  “Intuition can only carry you so far,” say Hardy to Ramanujan. 

maths formulas

Maths teaching and Maths needs to be more visible

Divine inspiration is dismissed. Although the director ensures we understand what motivates the Indian mathematician when he explains to Prof Hardy:

 “My God speaks to me. He puts formulas on my tongue,” Hardy is shown to be a man who will not believe anything he cannot prove. We are shown the difference’s between East and West’s philosophy. Bearing in mind India’s mathematical supremacy, the irony of middle class white men refusing to acknowledge Indian genius, is not lost.

The beating Ramanujan receives from white soldiers is the physical distillation of the academic beating he receives from Trinity College. Expelling Bertrand Russell for ‘unpalatable’ and unpatriotic views demonstrates that at least they were prepared to persecute everyone that stepped out of line!

I found the film flawed but incredibly moving. Trinity had to accept Ramanujan’s genius eventually. You might say Hardy’s insistence on Ramanujan’s playing the proof game’ helped the final outcome. But the racism and inability to look beyond the western academic hegemony robbed all of us of an intellect. The world is a poorer place after the early death of Ramanujan.