Monday, August 3, 2015
By Carol Clark
Call it a math bromance. Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy’s collaboration with the obscure, self-taught Indian Srinivasa Ramanujan – during the height of British colonialism – changed math and science forever. The story is finally going mainstream through a major motion picture, “The Man Who Knew Infinity," starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.
“It’s the story of a man who overcame incredible obstacles to become one of the most important mathematicians of his day,” says Emory mathematician Ken Ono, who served as a consultant for the film. “It’s a great human story. It’s true. And I’m glad that the world is finally going to get to enjoy it.”
The Mathematical Association of America (MAA) will feature a sneak peak of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” on August 6, as part of its centennial celebration, MathFest 2015, in Washington D.C. Ono, a leading expert on Ramanujan’s theories, will lead a panel discussion at the screening event, which begins at 5 pm at the Marriott Wardman Park. Panelists will include Princeton mathematician Manjul Bhargava; Robert Kanigel, who wrote the 1991 book that the movie is based on; and Matt Brown, the screenwriter and director of the movie.
The movie’s world premier is set for September at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In 1913, Ramanujan wrote a letter to Hardy, including creative formulas that clearly showed his brilliance. Hardy invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to study and collaborate, a daring move during a time of deep prejudice.
“Together, they produced phenomenal results,” Ono says. “They changed mathematics and they changed the course of science.”
Ken Ono on the set with Jeremy Irons, who plays Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy. (Photo by Sam Pressman.)
A relatively unknown director, Matt Brown spent eight years trying to get the movie project off the ground. He eventually found backing from the producer Ed Pressman of Pressman Films.
“This is not your typical Hollywood film,” Brown says of the final product. “A lot of movies that deal with scientific subjects just mention the science and go straight to the human story. We wanted to honor the math in this film, so that mathematicians could appreciate it as well as other audience members. One way we tried to do that was to show the passion the characters have for the subject.”
When Brown called Ono out of the blue last August and asked him to help with the math on the film, Ono did not hesitate. He was soon on a plane from Atlanta to London to begin putting in 16-hour days on the set at Pinewood Studios with the cast and crew.
“I’ve never met anybody with more energy and enthusiasm for his work than Ken,” Brown says. “It was invaluable to me as a director to have him go over the script and make sure that the math was accurate. He was incredibly kind and patient. It gave me confidence.”
Ono also worked closely with the art department, to get details of the math visuals right, and coached the stars, Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons. “Ken helped the actors understand philosophically what was behind the mathematics,” Brown says. “He gave them a little window into it. That’s important because when an actor grasps the meaning of the lines, he can add nuance and subtext to a performance.”
Ultimately, the film is about the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan, Brown says. “Hardy fought really hard to get Ramanujan honored and bring him into the elite of Trinity College at Cambridge. Hardy basically staked his career on him.”
It was especially risky since Ramanujan did not work like a traditional academic. He did not see the need of providing proofs for his fantastic formulas, and believed that they came to him as visions from a goddess.
“Ramanujan saw the world, and math, in a spiritual way,” Brown says. “It’s incredible that he wound up at Cambridge with Hardy, an atheist, as his mentor.”
Unfortunately, while Hardy proved a great academic mentor for Ramanujan, it took longer for their friendship to evolve. “This movie tells a story about the cost that comes when people wait out of fear to connect more deeply in their relationships,” Brown says.
Doing math with movie stars