Prime Obsession

World-class mathematician Ken Ono on his deep connection with Srinivasa Ramanujan, and why scientists are explorers of infinity.

Written by AMRUTA LAKHE | Published:May 8, 2016 12:00 am
Adding it up: Professor Ken Ono is one of the sharpest mathematicians  in the world, apart from being an authority on the life and work of S Ramanujan. Adding it up: Professor Ken Ono is one of the sharpest mathematicians in the world, apart from being an authority on the life and work of S Ramanujan.

Growing up, Ken Ono hated math. It didn’t help that he had an extraordinary talent for it. Brought up by strict disciplinarians and a mathematician father, Takashi Ono, he rebelled against his Japanese upbringing in America. He threatened to run away from home, fail school and never study math again. That was until his father received a letter from the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s widow, Janaki.

“The letter thanked my father for his contribution in building a statue of Ramanujan after his death,” says Ono, 48, over the phone from Atlanta. “I had never seen my father cry before. He hadn’t shed a tear when his parents had passed away. But the passing of Ramanujan had meant something to him.”

Ramanujan had dropped out of school twice and never believed in formal education, but yet, he was Takashi’s god. It gave Takashi the strength to believe in his rebel son. “Because of Ramanujan’s story, I was given the permission to go find my own.” That was Ono’s first encounter with Ramanujan, but as he would find out, it was a first of many.

Ono travelled the world, but finally came back to math. Today, an eminent mathematician, he specialises in number theory, integer fractions and modular forms, areas of Ramanujan’s study as well. In 2011, he cracked the finite formula for computing partition numbers, a 500-year-old problem. He has delivered TED talks on how to imbibe mathematics into everyday life. His book, My Search for Ramanujan: How I learnt to count, is a glimpse into the shadow that Ramanujan cast on Ono. Between mentoring young mathematicians and understanding black holes, Ono recently found time to be an associate producer and math consultant for The Man Who Knew Infinity, the movie based on Ramanujan’s life, and give math lessons to actors Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

On the set of the movie, Ono’s job was to make the film stay true to the life and time of Ramanujan, a drop-out math genius from a village in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, who braved all odds to become a Mathematics Fellow at Cambridge University in the backdrop of World War I.

From his office in Emory University, where he works as an Asa Griggs Candler professor of mathematics, Ono talks about working on a Hollywood set. “I helped with the art design to make sure that Ramanujan’s three journals looked authentic and taught Patel and Irons how to behave like mathematicians in the 1900s: how they’d walk, talk and study,” he says.

Ono worked on tweaking some key points in the script. In one scene, Ramanujan’s mentor and partner GH Hardy asks Ramanujan to return with actual proofs and not just results that the Indian mathematician was so used to handing in. Hardy is seen telling Ramanujan, “It’s not that I don’t believe you; I don’t think you understand how you got there.” “It was very important that the actors said those lines. Hardy and Ramanujan were different mathematicians. Hardy operated systematically while Ramanujan had flights of mathematical fancy. Hardy pushed Ramanujan to prove his work and that was an extremely important detail.”

Another of Ono’s responsibilities was to explain the unusual mathematician that Ramanujan was. “As seen in the movie, Ramanujan was intuitive about math. He loved formulas and equations but often couldn’t explain them. Mathematicians today try to find solutions to existing problems. He was never trying to find solutions, but often stumbled across a formula. He was more of an artist or a musician, extremely creative in his work.”

Because Ramanujan was different, he could never explain where his mathematical insights came from. He claimed that Hindu goddesses put the formulae in his mind. “Ramanujan made important mathematicians understand the presence of a larger power, whether it was God or something else. He made them understand that we are just explorers of infinity. We do not invent formulas. We just find the right words to explain them,” says Ono, who is a church-goer and a believer.

There’s an unconscious sense of resonance in the way Ono’s and Ramanujan’s lives took shape. To begin with, the World Wars played a significant role in both their lives. While Ramanujan moved to Cambridge ahead of the World War I, Ono’s family in Tokyo was a victim of World War II. “My father moved to the United States after Tokyo was bombed. But since US helped in the rehabilitation of Japan, he was offered the chance of a better life at Princeton University,” Ono says.

The memories of Pearl Harbour were fresh in their minds when the Onos arrived to make a life in a white neighborhood in America. “We grew up in an environment of racial tension. My brothers and I were brought up extremely sheltered,” he says.

Later, in his initial years as a mathematician, he met Basil Gordon and formed their-own Hardy-Ramanujan relationship. “He was the Hardy in my life. I couldn’t wait to start working on theorems but he didn’t let me anywhere near a math formula for months. We went biking, played the piano and opened our minds to classical music.” After many months, on one of their expeditions, Ono was struck by the beauty of a particular sunset and mentioned it to Gordon. “He replied that I was now ready to do math.”

The attempt at emulation becomes more apparent in Ono’s recent work. He expanded Ramanujan’s theory of partition congruences and made significant headway into Maass forms. He now uses many of Ramanujan’s theorems to understand black holes and string theory. Ono’s car also bears a license plate with the famous Hardy-Ramanujan number: 1729.

Ono may be one of the most important mathematicians of this generation. Yet, on his website, there’s not a single picture of him next to a blackboard. There’s one on a bike, another on a surfboard, because he is a professional marathon bike racer, surfer and triathlon champion. “Sports keeps me sane. It stimulates the mind endlessly. But I need to hit the road again. Promoting the film has made me gain 10 pounds,” he says.

But why did it take a Hollywood film to get Ramanujan some attention ? Ono says it is because the work of a genius takes time to recognise. “Even though Ramanujan published 37 papers, it has taken people 60-70 years to discover the implications of his work. For instance, we are now understanding that his work could be used to understand black holes. He began a path, showed us the way. We’re just discovering where it leads. He was not a scientist, he was a mathematics prophet,” he says.

Amruta Lakhe is a freelance writer in Mumbai.

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