The Man Who Knew Infinity

Last night I went to see a showing at the Tribeca Film Festival of the new movie about Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity. It was extremely good, infinitely better than the most recent high profile film about a mathematician, the one about Turing (see here).

The story of Ramanujan is one of the great romantic stories of mathematics, with a large part played in it by the Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy. The filmmaker was inspired by Robert Kanigel’s excellent 1991 biography of the same name (he says his mother gave it to him to read, she had it through her book club). The book is an excellent source for the story of Ramanujan’s life, and Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology is something everyone should read (for one thing, it’s short). For some more about the film from an expert on Ramanujan’s work, the AMS Notices have this from George Andrews.

Some dramatic license was taken, for instance in having Jeremy Irons play Hardy as a much older man than he actually was when he met Ramanujan. After the film there was a panel discussion, with filmmaker and screenwriter Matt Brown explaining that it took 10 years to get the film made, largely because of the difficulty of financing it. He claimed that he could have gotten the financing much earlier if he had been willing to go along with certain plot changes the financiers wanted: in particular they wanted the story to revolve around a love affair of Ramanujan with a (white) nurse, to be played by a high-profile starlet.

Also at the panel discussion were two mathematicians: Princeton’s Manjul Bhargava and my Columbia colleague Ina Petkova. One reason the film is so true to the real story of the mathematics and mathematicians involved in it is the involvement of Ken Ono and Bhargava. Ono was heavily involved in the filming (and he has a memoir from Springer, My Search for Ramanujan, about to appear). Bhargava was involved in the editing, in particular in helping choose among the many takes of the actors acting out a mathematical discussion those which seemed true to life.

The film is supposed to be released here in the US on April 29, I can’t recommend it enough.

Update: Scott Aaronson has a far better review of the film than mine here.

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29 Responses to The Man Who Knew Infinity

  1. Hugh Osborn says:

    The film skates over that Ramanujan married his wife when she was 10 (arranged by
    his mother) and left here in India when she was 15, very different from the impression
    in the film.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Hugh Osborn,
    Thanks. Unlike the mathematics, the part of the movie about his wife didn’t ring true, but I had forgotten about the real story there (read the biography over 20 years ago). I guess what went into the movie was a half-way compromise between the true story and the steamy romance with the British nurse.

  3. Fernando says:

    The other concession to cinematic tastes is that the actor playing Ramanujan is quite thin. As the photos show, Ramanujan was a little chubby until he got sick.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Fernando,
    Yes, and the film starts out with a shirtless hot-bodied Ramanujan. Not clear if mathematicians should strenuously object to this kind of taking of cinematic liberties.

  5. Dav says:

    If I had the time & means, I’d love to one day make a movie about the mathematician Évariste Galois.

  6. Tim May says:

    I finally caught the Turing movie. About like the Hawking movie. A lot of mawkishness, not much of the science. (I thought about 2 minutes of “A Beautiful Mind’ captures some of the mathematics of Nash..the rest was garbage.)

    I hold out little hope for films about major mathematicians or physicists.

    It wasn’t very different 50 years ago–I was there– and we survived it.

  7. Daniel says:

    I wonder why no one has ever made a serious biopic of Einstein.

  8. Visitor says:

    My guess is that Einstein because lived a fairly public life it would therefore be rather more difficult to present the tissue of lies, falsehoods, misrepresentations, and distortions necessary to make the kind of “dramatic” and “absorbing” movie that has any hope of being financed.

    (And there might be the secondary problem of Einstein’s appearance being too familiar to people: any actor portraying Einstein would look unlike him, and suspension of belief become rather difficult: the movie’s psychological mechanisms wouldn’t work. As an extreme example of a different sort, portraying Hitler seems an almost hopeless task; the only good movie portrayal is by Ganz, and even then it seems to take viewers quite a while to accept him. Chaplin’s portrayal is also good but required a fundamentally different sort of movie in which to work.)

  9. Robert Matthews says:

    Must admit I was somewhat put off going to see The Man Who Knew…by the trailer, which shows Ramanujan bearing the brunt of racism. As far as I can tell, my battered copy of Kanigel’s bio contains no evidence, so have put the film in the “Reality Just Isn’t Interesting Enough” category (along with the recent Turing and Hawking bios).

    Maybe I should reconsider ?

  10. Parth says:

    Thanks for this positive review. I’m wary of such films, but having Bhargava and Ono on board brings optimism. Now I’m looking forward to the screening here in Sydney Australia (proper release date here is 5th May but going for advanced screening).

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Robert Matthews,

    It’s likely the film overplays the extent of overt racism encountered by Ramanujan. It’s not a documentary, takes lots of liberties with the true story. But what I think is admirable is that it does a good job of getting the core of the story right, the mathematics and the relationship of Hardy and Ramanujan.

  12. Jim says:

    The worst cultural assault that poor Ramanujan suffered was the horrible food he was forced to consume in Britain, which most likely led to his early demise. World War I war-time Britain wasn’t so accommodating to vegans.

  13. Pingback: The Man Who Knew Infinity — Not Even Wrong – Postgrado Física-Matemática. DCyT

  14. Edward Friedman says:

    Actually, there are several dramatizations of Einstein. Check on YouTube

  15. Avattoir says:

    Prof Woit, at first I misread your second comment in this thread as, effectively, ‘this kind take on mathematicians’.

    Hardy’s notorious fondness for cricket, including in setting matches into which he led teams of mathematicians against teams of other schools, and most especially the photo of him leading a team of English mathematicians “against [mathematicians from the rest of] the world”, was dadsplained by my late father – who was in the business (of maths & physics, tho also an amateur thespian, cricketer, footballer and knew several of these characters, served to inspire this bit of comedic art.

  16. Tim May says:

    About Ramanujan dying from having only British food to eat, I am skeptical.

    I think I read this about 50 years ago, probably in Bell’s “Men of Mathematics.”

    Having eaten some British food, having lived on a variety of various fast foods, having cooked as a bachelor, I think R. must have had some other issues, or some disease, etc.

    I think the meme that R. died from eating British food is just too facile, too much part of some popular meme. I haven’t seen the new film, but I hope it doesn’t perpetuate this meme (unless it justifies it).

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Tim May,
    “The Brits killed Ramanujan with their food” is a suspiciously provocatively entertaining meme. I think though the film portrayal of this is quite plausible: he is shown trying to eat in the college, being unable to get vegetarian food not cooked in lard. He’s also shown having a lot of trouble trying to do his own cooking in his room. It’s all too plausible that he had grown up without learning to cook, and that this together with difficulty in getting foods that fit his dietary restrictions led to health problems. His death is often attributed to tuberculosis, but whatever it was, it wasn’t just malnourishment, because his health deteriorated and he died after returning to India, where presumably he was getting an appropriate diet.

  18. Avattoir says:

    Tim May, this seems to capture the consensus from the mid-1990s:

    “hepatic amoebiasis … that can result in dysentery [if] not treated properly”, supported generally by a lot of evidence of Ramanujan suffering from chronic poor health since childhood, and most particularly by “two bouts of dysentery before he left for England”, resulting in vulnerability to “lifestyle changes” capable of aggravating the living amoebae to the point capable of killing the host.

    FWIW my two English grandparents lived to 85 and 101 respectively, and the only one of their children who remained in England lived to 87 – a decade beyond any who moved elsewhere, including here.

  19. dom says:

    Jim
    As a native of these islands, I can confirm that vegetables do indeed grow in the ground and fruit trees work too. Additionally in wartime a much greater effort was made in growing these. They may have been different fruits and vegetables to southern India I grant you.

  20. srp says:

    This legend is as good as the one about Descartes being killed by having to get up early in cold weather because of the whims of Danish royalty.

  21. Stephane says:

    Linked to this film, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvHrn-41XMU

    “Where does mathematical genius originate and what does it tell us about the human mind? Join us for “The Infinite Mind: Exploring Mathematical Genius,” as we explore these and related themes with mathematicians Manjul Bhargava and Steven Strogatz, together with Matt Brown, director of The Man Who Knew Infinity, a new film about Ramanujan to be released in April, starring Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel.”

  22. Neeti Sinha says:

    Appreciate the inside information, have been waiting for it.. and look forward to seeing it. Although from the trailer, I did think too that the racism part was overdone, as that tends to happen in such historical takes, and might not be the truest picture.

  23. J. Pooh says:

    Recommended: ‘N is a Number’, a biopic film about Paul Erdös.

    Nearly impossible to buy (unavailable new?, used DVD overpriced), but easy to find online. YouTube downloader app is useful for keeping a copy.

  24. Peter Lund says:

    Re. Descartes: Swedish royalty. The reigning Queen, actually. (Who was incidentally officially called “King” in Swedish because she actually ruled.)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christina,_Queen_of_Sweden#Visit_from_scholars.2C_musicians_and_Descartes

  25. Pingback: Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » “Largely just men doing sums”: My review of the excellent Ramanujan film

  26. srp says:

    Saw “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” Enjoyed by both my spouse and I.

    Jeremy Irons’s Hardy, whether accurate or not, seems like a real person you could meet on the street–excellent performance. They really overdid the ethnic prejudice angle, I think, and they skated over the fact that Ramanujan had actually published a couple of things in Indian journals before sending his letter to Hardy. But by traditional Hollywood biopic standards (e.g. black-and-white studio classics like the Paul Ehrlich and Marie Curie films) this movie was true to the main lines of its subject’s life and caught the spirit of mathematical discovery pretty well, as far as I can tell from reading some history of the field.

  27. Pingback: The Man Who Knew Infinity | Not Even Wrong | Dr...

  28. Pingback: Dev Patel e Jeremy Irons in L'uomo che vide l'infinito, trailer italiano - ScreenWEEK.it Blog

  29. Pingback: Ramanujan film, the man who knew infinity | Turing Machine

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