Tales Of The Slate: An Ode To Math God Srinivas Ramanujan

Wish you a Powerful birthday, Mr. Ramanujan.

Powerful is of significance here. In keeping with your nature, you may be thrilled to learn that this happens to be your 125th birth anniversary. 125, being what you would refer to as a Powerful Number.

Today the idle mind travels back a century to the intriguing life that you led – and could have led – had you not succumbed to the invitations of death far too early in life. Apologies Sire, we have never understood nor appreciated mathematicians very well; most times, not at all. It may not surprise you that a hundred years since, little has changed in this respect.

You presented to the world a vivid picture of what raw genius looked like. Genius appears in various degrees; spine-tingling, probably being appropriate when referring to yours. The kind of genius that is easily given to mass misunderstanding, and its logical extension, avoidance. That very few of the best teachers or compatriots could comprehend your ability bears testimony to the vast reservoirs of genius that you were gifted with.

A soul not given to the shackles of commonly accepted norms, and largely untainted by the fangs of education, you showed the world the values of harnessing one’s deepest interests in an area by flunking repeatedly in subjects others than Mathematics. The system tried its best to smother your talents; little has changed since you passed the world. We continue to be committed to building well-rounded individuals.

Most of us do not see beauty hidden in numbers. The ornate unending continuum of continued fractions – one of your favourites – to the very depths of Infinity, fails to excite but a handful amongst us. We love our Music, being moved to tears by pathos and left euphoric by uplifting tunes. When reminded that the wiggling notes are permutations and combinations of the twelfth root of 2, displeasure sets in. We do not appreciate Math detracting from our appreciation of Music. Breaking emotions down to wiggling roots of 2 is patently unromantic, bordering almost on the blasphemous. We like to appreciate the message, whilst dismissing the messenger.

Fault us not, Sire, for we see little utility in much of what you devoted your life to; abstract mathematics. An area replete with such gruesome arcana that all but the best, and/or the most persistent, of minds get lost in the abyss. Perhaps there is a class of beauty, that lies beyond the limits of our imagination, that is accessible only to a select few. The limits of our aesthetic powers inhibits our appreciation.

There are few things more disconcerting than the act of trying to express beauty, to an audience not gifted with the right eyes. The only thing more disconcerting, is to be at the receiving end, as a mathematically blind bystander. We, Sire, find it much easier to remind ourselves of the apparent non-utility of a subject area as daunting as yours. Brushing aside intimidating genius is easier than owning up to the limits of our comprehension.

Few possess the gift to channelise the power of the human mind in forging new pathways. Fewer still are endowed with the ability to carve multiple pathways to a destination. Most of us wilt not far from the starting point. There is probably a thin line separating a freak from a genius; we seek benefit of doubt in the former.

In this age of vast computing power, it is unthinkable to contemplate what you achieved, working mostly with a rundown slate, a chalk, and your elbow standing in for an eraser. A true rags to mathematical riches story.

Divinity probably exists. The world had occasion to witness it; in you.

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The Battle Of Even And Odd

A curious soul interested in the history of the tussle between Even and Odd would have to begin with Oddam and Eve…When the Creator, in a momentary lapse of reason, decided to give the Milky Way some unwanted company, He created humans. Two of them, to set things in motion.

Even had scored its first mighty strike…

The garden of Even probably made Adam and Eve optimistic about the just-born world, to realise they were two-in-arms in the vast expanse of stillness. A solitary organism might have ended humanity through self-destruction, even before chaos had weaved its magic. A marvellous possibility, which, ironically, never saw the light of the day.

The Creator, it turned out, was sympathetic to Even on the subject of Anatomy. He designed Man’s anatomy to be a house of Even, endowing him with two of most things. But great care was taken to ensure that inlets, outlets and reproductive attachments in the anatomy, were given to the house of Odd. Yet, admirers of Odd were few.

Somewhere along the way, inquisitive jocks decided to impart sophistication to the study of periodicity. They named the experiment, Time. By carefully following the motions of heavenly bodies, noting the repetition of mundanities and by running a battery of wondrously incomprehensible experiments in counting and accounting, they eventually succeeded in conquering Time.

60 ticks made 1 minute. 60 minutes turned into an hour. 24 hours turned into a day.

Someone decided to house time in watches for Man to glance at occasionally, through the course of the day. These novelties were initially seen in Circular shapes. A compartment resembling a Zero, housing time, for eternity.

Watches soon evolved, with other shapes jostling for man’s attention. Squares, Rectangles, Parallelograms, Hexagons, Octagons and other members of the Even-Sided Geometric Shapes club, all competed with the Circle for Man’s rare attentions. The Triangle and the Pentagon had to be content with guest appearances, quietly making way for the more powerful Even-Sideds who hogged the limelight.

It seemed Nature danced to the tune of Even.

Mathematics tried to bat for the lot of the Odd. This endeavour though, turned out to be only partly successful. When numbers came into existence, those that could be divided evenly, with odd exceptions, were named Composites (so an 8 which could be ripped into 2 x 4, 4 x 2, 8 x 1, 1 x 8 was stamped a Composite). Those fortunates, which withstood the scissors of division-by-the-evens were grandly named Primes. 1, one of the most useful numbers to Man, felt pride at owning the title of being neither a Prime nor a Composite.

Unfortunately, Primes were clunky, unwieldy characters, feared by most people, who had great trouble handling them in daily mental mathematics. The fastest way to successfully end a game of mental warfare was to pose a multiplication of the Primes, ironically involving Even digits (‘37 x 53, you!”).

The world of Multiplication further tilted the scales in favour of Even. Kids found that only when Odd was crossed with Odd, was the result Odd. Attempts at crossing an Even with an Odd, or an Even with an Even, ended in a victory for Even.

Mathematically assaulted kids found merriment in a game of picking the Odd one out. Oddly, Even as Odd was regularly singled out, few admired the ostracised gentleman.

Elsewhere in the field of astronomy, the solar system played host to 9 planets, till recently. One fine day, a bunch of astronomers decided that Pluto was unfit for Planet Society, unceremoniously ejecting it from the League. The poor chap can yet be seen rolling around the sun forlornly as an outsider, both intergalactically and socially, leaving the planet family happily inhabited with Even members.

Away from the world of science, Man found succour in the pleasantly cheerless world of social networking. Even was discovered lurking here, too, in the form of the Character Limit.

Odd was seen as a mark of the weird, a symbol of incongruity, irregularity, non-conformity; while Even was a paragon of symmetry and general goodness. In the epic battle of Even and Odd, Even emerged inoddinately successful.

There were a few who found the unspoken fascination with everything Even, a little Odd to digest.

They were picked off in the game of Odd one out.

The Wisdom of Borrowed Wisdom

A pie chart depicting Original Ideas and a multitude of its variants (a.k.a: copycats, plagiarism, borrowed wisdom) would predominantly show one colour, with a tiny slice marked ‘Originals’.

Yes, Adams (and Eves, equally, of course) have evolved from make-shift undergarment adornments to sophisticated forms of camouflaging reproductive essentials. Yes, Einstein broke new ground – and many hearts, particularly, the long-dead Newton’s – with his Relativity Theory. Yes, the Wright brothers gave bored humans an interesting pastime of craning their disobedient necks up to the skies. Yes, my hat doffs itself to the fellow(s) who invented wheels. And the lamp. And the telephone. And corruption. And…

The writer in me often experiences epiphanies and the associated bursts of delusional happiness triggered by the serendipitous discovery of an ‘original’ thought. It is an exhilarating feeling…that lasts till realization dawns that the original thought is a concoction-of-a-choice-mix-of-interesting ideas, which, in turn, are concoctions-of-a-choice-mix-of-interesting ideas; originally developed by lethargic human beings experimenting with novel ways of befriending weekends. The illuminating discovery of one’s ignorance is a profoundly humbling experience for the discoverer.

The paucity of original ideas is the norm rather than the exception. A patient search through history almost always culminates in a heart-breaking discovery. That most seemingly ‘original’ things had already been discovered by a forgotten someone in some forgotten century. Particularly in the BC era, one may learn that the original discoverers lacked the means to tap the ever-ready-to-please-and-be-pleased media (which were sadly non-existent), or, were generally inept at advertising/propaganda, or, were busy procreating in an effort to save humanity from the devil of extinction, or, plainly, couldn’t care less.

Newton and Leibniz were locked in a long war over ownership of Calculus. Before reluctantly foraying into the World of Dangerous Symbols, I preferred focusing on the battle between the heavyweight math jocks. Apart from taking apple hits to his intelligent head, Newton was a top salesman, a master at the art of propaganda and Machiavellian politics. (But he still lost money speculating in the Tulip mania, giving birth to the adage: You did a Newton. But, I digress).

Centuries have passed since the invention of Calculus. And the majority of successive generations of students have, at various points and with varying intensity, detested Newton for his ‘original’ idea. Of what use is an original idea when it only manages to leave mentally damaging effects on a large section of humanity? (Yes, there are calculus lovers. But they inhabit the tiny slice of a pie depicting lovers and non-lovers). It is safe to posit that the sum of benefits derived by humanity from original ideas have not justified the labours of the inventor(s). At best, the return has been negligible, with benefits accruing to a small set of humanity; and at worst, it has been collectively deflating.

Can you imagine a scenario where a group is forced to discuss truly original ideas every single time they meet? Borrowed wisdom serves multiple purposes. Apart from freeing up vital brain-time to indulge in idle endeavours, it confers on the ‘discoverer’, an appearance of rare intellectual endowments. Plagiarism/borrowed wisdom greatly aids social interaction by enabling adherents to tout their intellectual wares in a refined manner. This is particularly pleasing to a large section of humanity that delights in assuming credit for ideas painstakingly discovered after a few quick Google Searches, auto-corrected for typos. Of course, they accept praises with equanimity and an admirable sense of monkish detachment.

Borrowed wisdom often sets off a self-perpetuating cycle that ends with the Original Plagiariser. The idea, subjected to several creative iterations, arrives at the Original Plagiariser in an unrecognisable form. This serves to elevate the stature of the Penultimate Messenger in the eyes of the Original Plagiariser. The process continues till a critical mass is reached when the group grows bored at the collective level of originality.

Well, the innovative plagiarists are quick to remind me that the very act of re-bottling old wine is itself an ‘original’. Philosophical, indeed. Admittedly, many in the plagiarists’ camp are truly ignorant folk without an inkling of the existence of vast amounts of findings in the past. And ignorant folk cannot be accused of plagiarism on moral grounds. Ignorance and its sibling – delusion – provide some unforgettable moments of amusement.

The pursuit of a path-breaking idea, with its massive investments of time, mind and papers of value; for an uncertain return and a likely position in the annals of the Hated and Ignored, just does not seem appealing to me. Borrowed wisdom, on the other hand, is a very lucrative proposition, flush with monetary and non-monetary payoffs. So whenever I feel the urge to dream up something original, a quick rehash of the past and (dubious) mental accounting of the costs and benefits, lead me to seek refuge in the large slice of the Originals and Non-originals Pie.

PS: I honestly disclose that I have no idea if the theme behind the above is an original or a case of repackaged wisdom. I’d be delighted if it’s the former. And in case it’s the latter, I hope the post succeeds in conveying an appearance of originality.