The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)


The title is intriguing. The story is immensely promising–the miraculous appearance early in the twentieth century of the isolated, self-taught, remarkably original, and sadly short-lived Indian pure mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and his discovery by, and work at Cambridge with, the famed British mathematician, G.H. Hardy, notably Ramanujan’s theorems on continued fractions and, more generally, infinite series, with perhaps the most dramatic outcome of his discoveries being the frequent creation of a stunning power to enable speedy solutions to long-standing intractable or “slow” problems. On the stage of this drama, the voracious Indian appears as highly intuitive; Hardy enters the scene determined to make Ramanujan’s indispensable accomplishments have more immediate impact in the mathematical community by influencing him to establish substantial proofs for his often jarringly “strange” work. The backdrop to the story is a rich period in the history of mathematics, a time when people worried intensely about a Philosophy of Mathematics, perhaps best summarized in an argument about exactly how mathematics can be said to exist: Essentially, is mathematics Platonic? Are discoveries of mathematics such as Cantor’s transfinite numbers–thrilling bridges from the finite to the infinite–indeed, to kinds of infinity, a huge and historic promise of liberation–ever in existence–“out there”–simply waiting to be found? Or are the discoveries existentially new? Today’s pure  mathematicians tend to focus less on such matters and more on the cognitive mathematical process itself, but such fundamental questions probably will not be discarded (nor, perhaps, resolved!). They are a dramatic part of mathematics.

Sadly, I must recommend that you not devote any of your time to the awful movie version of the above. The Man Who Knew Infinity reaches a notable low in movie “biopics.”  It is a weak and sentimental wallowing around in a storyline straight out of Dr. Phil and Oprah. Everything but mathematics is featured. You won’t be surprised to sense that this atrocity was most probably “greenlighted” owing to the weepy scriptural possibilities derivable from the genuinely tragic life of the great Indian mathematician: he and his wife grew estranged following Ramanujan’s pilgrimage from India to Cambridge, a loss caused by despicable treachery by the Indian’s mother in not forwarding any of his pining wife’s many letters to her husband at Cambridge as she awaited word from him about joining him in England. And of course, the sickly nature of Ramanujan–his tuberculosis and other maladies–is stressed according to the current scriptural gospel of victimology: it’s not that such realities are unimportant; it’s that they are presented stage center. Accordingly,  the superb Jeremy Irons as G. H. Hardy has little room to flourish; Dev Patel as Ramanujan is drab. The funniest thing in the movie is Jeremy Northam’s portrayal of Bertrand Russell: it’s astonishing how subdued his performance remains from beginning to end: Bertrand, they hardly knew ye. The second funniest thing about this stinker is that two mathematicians were hired as script consultants; one, Manjul Bhargava, is a recipient of the Field Prize. Do they watch soap operas? Finally, the screenplay is by one Matthew Brown. We know that making pure mathematics accessible to a general audience is difficult. I can report that Brown has successfully avoided all such difficulty. He comes through perfectly in writing a sob story in which you really don’t need to know who the mathematicians were, what they did, and whether it mattered. I’ve a feeling he’ll find steady employment.

The title of this movie + the movie itself = a con job.