Srinivasa Ramanujan: The power of mentorship

“1729 is such a dull number” says Godfrey Hardy while sitting in a taxi whose car plate number was 1729. 

“On the contrary, it is the smallest number expressible as a sum of two cubes in two different ways. That is, 1729 = 1^3 + 12^3 = 9^3 + 10^3.”

Srinivasa Ramanujan is known as the greatest mathematician the world has ever seen. He could visualize maths in his mind and come to conclusions in a way that most people can’t even calculate with supercomputers.

And even though Hardy’s maths acumen was no match for Ramanujan’s weird and brilliant mind, there would be no Ramanujan without Godfrey Hardy.

Ramanujan’s genesis

Ramanujan was the wrong person born in the wrong place. Born in a poor Madras family in India, he got no formal training in maths. When he came across George Carr’s book of thousands of theorems, he just soaked it in. He was 16 years old.

On his own, without good teachers, he went on to rediscover many maths theorems. He figured out efficient ways of calculating pi. He saw patterns amongst un-connected numbers and came up with undiscovered epiphanies. 

There was a problem however. Maths requires proof. Ramanujan’s brain worked in an intuitive way. He came to conclusions without the necessary intermediate steps. He could offer no proof.

No proof no belief

As a result, a lot of other mathematicians in India thought he was a charlatan. When you don’t understand something, you discount it.

Ramanujan didn’t focus on anything besides maths as well. As a result, he failed school. Which gave people more reasons to think he was a fraud. The few who thought his maths was innovative and new, doubted that it was his own work.

Yet Ramanujan persevered. Because he knew nothing except maths. He somehow got a job at the Madras Port to earn a living. And kept on mathing in his spare time.

He found new ways of adding infinite series numbers. He explored properties of numbers no one else had previously given thought to. He found new formulas that allowed him to predict how many ways you could partition and stack a number in – for example the number 1729.

He advanced elliptical integrals and hypergeometric series. Some of his early work was helpful in solving calculations for black holes – a century after he passed away.

The drive to grow

Ramanujan was hungry to learn new maths and extend it. And so, even though other mathematicians around him didn’t understand his work, he seeked them out.

He started writing letters and asking others to introduce him to other mathematicians. Because of his letters to Professor Saldhana in Bombay, he got some backing. Professor Saldhana confessed that while Ramanujan’s work was difficult to comprehend, it was not fraud.

When it became difficult to find peers in India who could understand his work, Ramanujan started writing letters to mathematicians in England – specifically to mathematicians at Cambridge University.

The great partnership

His first few letters faced the same fate. People didn’t take his work seriously. Thought he was a fraud. But his letter to Godfrey Hardy connected. 

Hardy understood some of the theorems in the 9 page letter but others completely went over his head. But unlike others, Hardy thought: “this must be true, because if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”

Hardy made arrangements for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. The first thing he did was make Ramanujan study. Ramanujan had to do lower level maths. So that he could fill in the middle part, and work on giving proof to his intuitive solutions.

And while Hardy and Ramanujan worked on only 7 papers together, without Hardy, we wouldn’t have Ramanujan. Ramanujan had to find the shoulders of someone great to stand up on, or else he would have gone unseen and unnoticed.

Books have been written and movies have been made on Ramanujan’s brilliance. And it was all possible because he found a mentor.

Why would anyone mentor you?

When most people go out to seek a mentor, they go about it the wrong way. They ask for help without offering anything in return. 

Ramanujan did the opposite. He shared his work. He shared 120 theorems he had worked on in his first 2 letters to Hardy. 

Only in the last line of his first letter do we see an ask: “Being inexperienced I would very highly value any advice you give me.”

Successful people are busy. What do they need to see before they mentor you?

They would mentor you only if they think that you would succeed. That you have the spark of greatness within.

So before asking a potential mentor to help, you’ve got to share your work. Prove to them that you have the smarts and will put in the effort. Will do whatever it takes.

And only after demoing your work, should you make the ask.

Ramanujan unfortunately passed away at the very young age of 32. But his 3 notebooks choke full of theorems are giving us mathematical breakthroughs even today. Someone finds a small note in the margins and we end up with a novel solution for one more maths problem.

Action Summary:

  • Create your body of work. Show the world that you have the capacity for greatness. Don’t ask for help and guidance without showing what you can offer.
  • Ask. Ask for help. Ask for mentorship. Asking may get you a few rejections, but not asking will not move you forward at all.