An Irons-age drama hits the mark by Richard Jones

A look at The Man Who Knew Infinity (PG)…

infinityJEREMY Irons is in his element these days playing characters very close to his actual age of mid-sixties.

In Matthew Brown’s entertaining movie he’s crusty old mathematics professor G.H. Hardy in World War 1-era Cambridge who suddenly has an Indian number theory research student as an understudy.

Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel takes the part of Indian mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan who spends five years in Cambridge alongside Hardy and fellow academic John Littlewood (Toby Jones).

Littlewood is just about Hardy’s only ally in academia. Professor Howard (Anthony Calf, in a vastly different role to his turn as a senior policeman in the long-running TV drama New Tricks) is implacably opposed to any form of acceptance of Ramanujan. And his theories.

The casting of Patel was probably not ideal. The clenching of the jaw when his theories aren’t accepted at first blush, the frequent darting of his eyes from left to right and his dogged stance over an open fireplace while cooking his vegetarian fare tend to grate just a tad as the movie unwinds.

All that aside, it is still a fine movie. Those of us unsure about what Hardy, Littlewood and Ramanujan are talking about when they mention ‘giving meaning to negative values of the gamma function’ can just sit back and look at the interplay between the characters.

Hardy goes off on a fine summer’s day under an umbrella. Even though the sun’s out eccentric old Hardy isn’t certain how a day at the cricket during an English summer will pan out. Surely it’ll rain during the afternoon.

And there’s a bit of Hardy interplay with another Trinity College academic Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) just before Russell is sent away from Cambridge because of his uncompromising anti-war rhetoric.

Then as World War 1 starts to impact with German Zeppelins dropping bombs on Cambridge – and specifically, on the lush green surrounds of Trinity College – an extra dimension is inserted. Everyone dives for cover as the devices hurled from the Zeppelins’ baskets explode.

But these are all sub-plots around the major issue of how Ramanujan’s number theory research will unravel.

As a boy and later a teenager he’d written all his mathematics theories in notebooks.

He left a host of evaluations of sums and integrals and one is particularly noteworthy.

In 1917 Ramanujan was hospitalised in London. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis but it’s possible he may have attempted suicide.

Whatever the reason for his hospitalisation the famous anecdote referred to above emerges.

Hardy had taken a cab to visit him. Although he really cared for his protégé the Cambridge don was hopeless with small talk, so to cover this flaw he mentioned the number of his cab which had deposited him at the hospital.

“It was 1,729,” says Hardy.

Ramanujan immediately replied that far from uninteresting as his mentor had implied the cab number 1,729 could be expressed as a sum of two cubes. In two distinct ways.

It became known as the Indian mathematics genius’ taxi-cab number.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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