I’ve been reading a book of Japanese Death Poems lent to me by my son. I was quite ignorant of the Japanese tradition of writing a poem at the point of death: it seems very strange to us that someone can not only know when they are about to die but stop to write a poem before they go; but I found these poems to be a great source of peace: all of us in the West need to learn to confront our own mortality instead of running away from it and trying to prolong our lives as much as possible.
I’ve also been watching a film about the Tamil mathematician Ramanujan. Played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan is an untutored genius with a brilliant intuitive mind who regards mathematics as a sort of worship and does his calculations in the sand of the temple floor. He has a mind as beautiful as Nash’s but without any opportunity to share his insights; however a friend takes his papers to show the local British bigwig and he gets an opportunity to go to Cambridge and study under Hardy:
Jeremy Irons (how I love that man) is perfect as the atheist Hardy, a man fighting on more fronts than the War which forms the backdrop to this narrative. Prejudice is ingrained and Trinity College refuses to acknowledge that ‘an Indian’ could be brainier than they are. But Hardy is also fighting Ramanujan himself, who cannot understand his insistence on ‘proving’ the arguments which he intuitively ‘sees’. Intuition, in the West, is not enough: there must be proof, especially if Ramanujan is to be elected as a Fellow. An opportunity to explore these cultural differences is missed; in fact missed opportunities are a feature of this film. Stephen Fry has a cameo as British bigwig Sir Francis Spring who abruptly changes his mind about supporting Ramanujan (another opportunity for drama missed) and other supporting roles are underexploited, such as Toby Jones as Hardy’s friend and co-conspirator and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell; a man sympathetic to racial equality but realistic about Ramanujan’s chances of Fellow-ship.
A sad sub-plot involves Ramanujan’s young wife, separated from him by his relocation to England. Their separation is cruelly compounded by his jealous mother who hides their letters, so that each thinks the other has forgotten them. But once again the opportunity for drama is missed; the wife finds the letters and we fast-forward to a reconciliation, though sadly they have only two more years together before he dies of TB.
I’m very interested in the subject of multicultural maths. Arabic cultures were fluent in maths and much of their art is based on patterns of numbers: I wonder if we are still as arrogant today as those Trinity scholars who thought the way of the West was the only way?
The film’s on Netflix now if you want to watch it:
And I have a sneaking suspicion that in Zen mathematics 1+1=1…