Sunday, December 30, 2007

But can science be art?

I've spent Xmas 2007 devouring a biography of the late, great S. Ramanujan. For those unfamiliar with his name, he was perhaps the most intuitive mathematical genius the world has ever know. Originally a clerk who had failed college due to his lack of interest in anything other than mathematics, he died at the tender age of 32, having sketched thousands of remarkable theorems, lemmas and formulae in number theory that left highly schooled, eminent mathematicians of the day slack-jawed in wonder. To this day, there is a cottage industry in mathematics set around proving his intuition-led assertions.

The biography, by Robert Kanigel, I recommend to you most heartily. It is carefully researched, but most of all, Kanigel demonstrates a surprising degree of intuition about matters that must have been extremely unfamiliar to him, particularly life in traditional Brahmin communities of South India a century back. It is also incredibly moving. Picturing a mortally sick Ramanujan lying on a mattress in Chetput (a locality in Madras), scribbling in his slate about properties of mock-theta functions, brought a lump to my throat.

What stands out in comments by other mathematicians about Ramanujan's work is the sheer beauty of it. One eminent scholar compared the experience of first absorbing some of his work as simliar to suddenly coming upon a great work of art. It is remarkable how, at certain rarified heights, abstract scientific (mathematical) reasoning transcends the ordinary realm of logic and is elevated to an artistic plane.