'The Indian Clerk' Who Changed Mathematics In his new historical novel, David Leavitt re-creates the life and times of Srinvasa Ramanujan, a math genius who was recruited to Cambridge University during World War I. Ramanujan died young, but had a lasting impact on his field and his colleagues.
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'The Indian Clerk' Who Changed Mathematics

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'The Indian Clerk' Who Changed Mathematics

'The Indian Clerk' Who Changed Mathematics

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

G.H. Hardy and Srinvasa Ramanujan were from opposite halves of what was then the known universe. Hardy was one of the best-known mathematicians of his time - part of that Cambridge University group of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein that were at the center of math and science.

Ramanujan was a clerk in the port's trust office of Madras, India - unknown in the academic work, a clerk who'd flunk out of college. Hardy didn't exactly discover Ramanujan was a genius. The clerk himself had written him a letter, announcing that he had solved one of the most vexing mathematical problems of all time.

But it was Hardy who took his letter to heart and helped persuade him to come to Cambridge just before the First World War where Hardy and his colleagues could tap his dazzling mind. But at what cost to Ramanujan? All of these are the subjects of David Leavitt's new novel, "The Indian Clerk." He joins us from Gainesville, Florida.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID LEAVITT (Author, "The Indian Clerk"): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Mr. Leavitt, when you write a book in which so much of the emotional center of the book winds up being with mathematics, is it almost like writing in a second parallel language?

Mr. LEAVITT: One of the things that fascinates me about mathematicians is that they spend a good portion of their lives in a world that is absolutely inaccessible to the rest of us - and a world that is note-worthy for the complete absence of the human or the physical. And I thought a lot about what it must take to make that transition every day, particularly during a period of war. I would suspect that mathematics could become a zone of comfort, a place that you would go in order to retreat.

SIMON: And yet large sections of this book have to be turned over to what Hardy or Ramanujan scrawl on the blackboard.

Mr. LEAVITT: Yeah. And that was an interesting challenge - to dramatize those moments. One of the scenes in the novel that I'm happiest with is a scene in which Ramanujan is cooking rasam, which is an Indian lentil soap. And he spills some of the lentils and he starts counting them and dividing them up into categories. And it's the moment in the novel when he has the first glimmer of the partitions theory, which is one of the theories that's going to make him very, very famous. And that was a kind of interesting opportunity to show how the two worlds could fuse.

SIMON: I wonder how much of a background in mathematics you have.

Mr. LEAVITT: My background in mathematics is minimal. I took calculus in high school and that's about it. I am a complete autodidact. And I would liken my understanding of mathematics to my understanding of music, which is to say that I can appreciate it, I can listen to a piano sonata and appreciate it but if you put me in front of a piano, I couldn't even play "Chopsticks."

Along the same lines, I've reached the point now where I feel like I can understand or grasp the basics of higher mathematics but I couldn't ever possibly do it.

SIMON: I've been telling everyone that some of my favorite sections of the novel have to do with the way in which you described that group of dumbs that were there at Cambridge, especially, one gets the impression that they were all longing to sleep with each other while Bertrand Russell was sleeping with all of their wives.

Mr. LEAVITT: That is absolutely the case. The Apostles, which was this famous Cambridge secret society, was a fascinating group - particularly at that period when you considered that the membership included E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Wittgenstein, Russell, Leonard Woolf. It was a really extraordinary group of people.

They were mostly busy with what I would simply describe as homosexual flirtation that would sometimes actually lead to affairs. But in the meantime, Bertrand Russell was a tremendous womanizer.

SIMON: Yes. Well, could I get you to read your description of Russell. I believe he's just finished polishing off a turbo lunch.

Mr. LEAVITT: Right.

(Reading) Russell seems to have no problem with the turbo. Although they are good friends, they don't much like each other - a condition of friendship Hardy finds to be much more usual than is usually supposed. For the first few years that he knew him, Russell wore a bushy moustache that - as Littlewood would note it - lent to his face a deceptively dim and mild expression.

SIMON: Littlewood, we should explain, is Hardy's associate.

Mr. LEAVITT: You're right. Exactly.

SIMON: Okay.

Mr. LEAVITT: (Reading) Then he shaved it off and his face as it were caught up with his personality. Now, thick brows darker than the hair in his head, shade eyes that are once intensely focused and remote. The mouth is sharp and slightly dangerous-looking, as if it might bite. Women adore him. In addition to a wife, he has a clutch of mistresses, which surprises Hardy as another of Russell's distinctive features, his acute halitosis. The breath of his intellect and its vigor, his determination - not merely to be the greatest logician of his time but to diagnose human nature, to write philosophy, to enter into politics - impresses and also irritates Hardy. For the voraciousness of such a mind can sometimes look like capriciousness.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. I've read a fair amount about Lord Russell. I guess I'd never encountered his halitosis before now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Is this artistic license on your part or…

Mr. LEAVITT: No, it's actually true. The two places that I found referenced to it were in Miranda Seymour's biography of Lady Ottoline Morrell, who is his mistress, who apparently - at one point - found it very, very difficult to kiss him. And also, believe it or not, in Russell's autobiography, where he talks about the problem and then explains that he had oral surgery in order to correct the condition that had led to the halitosis. So he was actually quite upfront about it.

SIMON: Help us understand the ways in which these two men, Hardy and Ramanujan, were so different from other sides of the world. And yet also the ways in which they were able to find, certainly, the one surpassing area of common interest and even a few more.

Mr. LEAVITT: Well, I would say the principal difference had to do with religion. Hardy was the Christopher Hitchens of his age. He was what I would call - if it's not too much of an oxymoron - a devout atheism. Ramanujan, on the other hand, was a devout Brahman Hindu who claimed that most of his mathematical discoveries came to him through the agency of a goddess named Namagiri who provided him with visions while he slept and, as he put it, wrote them on his tongue.

So this was a major source of conflict. Hardy, who was an enemy of religion, had a very hard time accepting the fact that Ramanujan perceived religion as playing a very major role in his mathematical discoveries.

SIMON: For the first time in Ramanujan's life, he received recognition for his extraordinary gift on the biggest worldwide stage; it was possible for mathematicians at that point. And yet at the same time, life was difficult for him in Cambridge.

Mr. LEAVITT: Yes, life was extremely difficult for him. The weather was a huge problem for him. He had grown up in Madras and was used to an extremely hot, sultry climate. And the Cambridge winters were a terrible shock to him. Eating was a problem. He was a very strict vegetarian. He subscribed to very particular dietary rules. Finding the food that he could eat in Cambridge was close to impossible, especially during the war. And then as his years there continued - because, obviously, he couldn't go home during the war - he started to become mysteriously ill.

SIMON: And without flipping forward too much, it's safe to say that he paid a price for the time he spent at Cambridge.

Mr. LEAVITT: Absolutely. And I think Hardy, for the rest of his life, was haunted by the question of whether or not he had done the right thing in bringing Ramanujan to Cambridge.

The question is whether or not it was worth the personal cost to him, which is to say, in a sense, what mattered more - the terrible cost to him in terms of his life or the benefit to human knowledge that his presence at Cambridge led to? I mean, even now, people continue to study his notebooks. His theories have had major repercussions in the world of mathematics. But the personal cost to him was very, very high.

SIMON: Novelist David Leavitt. His new book is "The Indian Clerk."

Mr. Leavitt, it's been very good talking to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. LEAVITT: Oh, thank you so much for having me on the program.

SIMON: And you could read an excerpt about the lasting legacy of Ramanujan on our Web site, npr.org. Or you can also subscribe to our podcast - at your leisure - just head to npr.org/podcasts.

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