When I was in fourth grade in elementary school, I encountered long division. Until then I never had a problem with mathematics, but I had a rude awakening. I had trouble mastering it, and my inability to attain instant success in the subject forever prejudiced my attitude towards math, so much so that when I entered college I chose my major field of study based upon the major not requiring any math courses. I realized as I went through high school that I had no gift for mathematics.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who has a gift for mathematics. The year is 1910. Born in poverty in a small town in India, he works at a number of menial jobs. His boss notices that he is good at math and enlists his aid in the accounting section of his business. Soon his employer, college educated himself, discovers that Ramanujan has more than simple mathematical skills and encourages him to apply to Trinity College in Cambridge where he can receive the mentoring to further develop his mathematical abilities.
Ramanujan takes his suggestion and begins writing to university professors of mathematics. G.H. Hardy, an eminent mathematics professor, invites him to come to Cambridge.
Coming to Cambridge presents challenges to Ramanujan. He has to leave his young wife and attend a college in a country whose cultural landscape is much different from India. Moreover, he has to confront an establishment of theoretical mathematicians who are reluctant to accept Ramanujan into their elite circle of scholars. They view him as an outsider, a foreign and intuitive genius who cannot conform to the rigors of classic theoretical mathematics. While they recognize the originality of his work, they don’t see his intuitive approach to mathematics as worthy of study. It is too spontaneous for their taste.
Under G. H. Hardy’s influence and mentoring, Ramanujan eventually publishes one of his theories in a major journal. But this is only the beginning of an arduous process towards obtaining Ramanujan a fellowship at the college. It is a journey that is both tragic and inspirational.
Although my secular field of study is not mathematics but literature, I connected with the depiction of G.H. Hardy’s supportive mentoring role in Ramanujan’s academic journey. When I was a doctoral student at Georgia State University, I had a full-time job, a devoted wife, and a family of six children. Given those personal responsibilities, it was difficult for me to pass all of my doctoral examinations and the university suggested that I leave the program.
I was blessed to have a supportive mentor, Dr. William Sessions, who believed in me and encouraged me to persevere. As a result, the doctoral program that I began in 1972 finally reached a happy conclusion in 1984. The five-year program took me twelve years to complete. Mentors can truly make a difference.
The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, encourages us “to make for yourself a mentor.” One of the Sages points out that this means one must look for people who can guide you and give you an objective perspective on important matters of life. The person should not simply tell you what to do; rather he should encourage you to think for yourself and work through a challenging situation. Moreover, the mentor can support you and give you confidence during tough times, enabling you to persevere in the face of adversity. Having a mentor means you are not alone on the battlefield.
Ramanujan is not alone is his quest for excellence in theoretical mathematics. G. H. Hardy is by his side. Together, they make mathematical history. The Man Who Knew Infinity reminds us that mentorship can change the course of a person’s life and ultimately bring him professional success no matter what the obstacles.