Labyrinths

Ramblings on Borges and Ramanujan

As I put the finishing touches to my plan for total world domination, I overheard a conversation at the next table, about a man who could instantly tell you the day you were born if you gave  him your date of birth.

I know someone who can do this, I told them. He doesn’t blink.  He doesn’t miss a beat.

What day was the 22nd June 1997?

Sunday.

30th August 1923?

Thursday!

6th April 1984?

Friday!!

Jesus, how does he do that?  I asked him once and he said it isn’t too hard.   It goes in 28-year cycles, he said.

No it doesn’t.  Not always.  He lied, and yet, in his own way, he didn’t.  He just told me part of the secret, because he’s that sort of person.  He thinks the rest is obvious.  He thinks you can figure out the rest of the hard bits for yourself.

One of the  the guys mentioned a similar character in short story by Borges.  Funes the Memorious could tell you the precise time of day, to the second, as he ran along the top of a wall. He could remember the shape of a splash thrown up by an oar in the moonlight.  He could recall the precise form of the grain in a marble column among thousands of others. He could remember every second of every day of his entire life, could recite any passage verbatim from any book, could complete any mathematical proof ever published, and yet didn’t understand a single word of it.  Though his memory was flawless, he had no reasoning skill at all.  Though he knew everything, he was, in reality, completely stupid.

Someone else mentioned the futility of the Cartographers’ Guild who decided that the only way to draw a proper map of the Empire was to make it full size, so that it covered the entire land.  The following generations weren’t so impressed and let the map fall to the mercy of wind and sand.  As Borges put it, In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.

It reminded me of Srinivasa Ramanujan, who had no such limitations, but still somehow had a sort of Borgesian quality to him.  A mathematical prodigy so prolific that his conjectures, theorems, lemmas and corollaries are still being tested today  and still providing the basis for a never-ending stream of PhDs, Ramanujan was a modest and spiritual man.  He thought of nothing but his research, and had such an intuitive grasp of his subject that he didn’t bother with the normal courtesies of deductive progression, but instead would leap five or ten logical steps in one go, assuming that the bits in between were obvious to any fool.

The humble clerk, who went on to become the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society, who failed his degree because he ignored all subjects except mathematics, and who believed that his gift was due to his family’s goddess, Namagiri, practically reinvented modern mathematics on his own, and yet seemed to be without ego or pretensions.

My favourite Ramanujan story  is the one about the taxi number.  The English weather and diet didn’t agree with him, though later it transpired that he was suffering from a parasitic infection caught in India.  When his friend and mentor, Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy, called to see him as he lay close to death in his lodgings, he happened to mention that the taxi registration was a singularly uninteresting number.

Ramanujan perked up. What was it?

1729.

Oh no no no no no, Ramanujan sat up in bed.  That is a most interesting number.  It is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways!

And then he fell back on his bed, exhausted. No wonder Hardy later said that his greatest discovery in mathematics was Ramanujan.

In the Circular Ruins, Borges described a man who imagined a character so real it became human yet felt no pain as it walked through flames.   When it came to his own time to pass through the flames, he felt no pain, and realised with terror and relief that he too had been imagined.

I think Ramanujan would have been the very man to unlock the secrets of Borges’s Library of Babel, which contained every possible book, and the secrets of existence, but which had no index and therefore could not be searched.  A modest master of intricate infinite replication, especially one with a household goddess and endless patience, couldn’t fail to find that vital key.

Borges would probably have approved.

4 thoughts on “Labyrinths

  1. Lord Bock the born ruler of the Universe! All hail .The lower orders shall submit to thy rule without question. Your knowledge is unparalleled.

  2. Ramanujan’s imagination was fired by a book in his schooldays which I also struggled to study in my college days 70 years later – S.L. Loney’s “Trigonometry”. The first proposition in the book is a proof of why the ratio of circumference of a circle to its diameter is constant. Once one’s imagination is fired, walking through fire (figuratively speaking) or remembering every second of one’s life (except for what went on in-between) or inventing recursive series must be child’s play. I suspect Namagiri was only a pretext to stop people from asking probing questions about his creativity and modest origins.

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