Monday, April 4, 2016

Celebrating math, miracles and a movie

The Carter Center hosted an advance screening of "The Man Who Knew Infinity." The gala celebrated the efforts of (from left): Samuel Pressman, of Pressman Films, the film's producer; Emory mathematician Ken Ono, an associate producer and math consultant for the film; Matthew Brown, the writer and director; and Devika Bhise, who portrays the mathematician Ramanujan’s wife, Janaki. (All photos by Becky Stein.)

By Carol Clark

“This is truly a joyful evening for me,” said Robin Forman, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, at a special advance screening for Emory alumni of the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”

“First of all, I’m a mathematician,” Forman said, “and like every other mathematician, I’ve been waiting for this film to come out ever since I heard about it.”

The movie appeals, however, to a much broader audience. Hundreds of Emory alumni turned out for the private screening, held recently at the Carter Center. The evening was a chance to celebrate Emory’s connection to the film – Ken Ono, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Math, served as an associate producer and the math consultant. The evening also celebrated how “miracles” of endurance, chance and unexpected human connections can overcome great odds to transform the world.

“The Man Who Knew Infinity,” to be released nationwide April 29, tells the true story of how a largely self-educated Indian named Srinivasa Ramanujan wrote to Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy in 1913, sparking an unlikely collaboration. The film stars Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons as Ramanujan and Hardy, whose “math bromance” spanned cultures and hierarchies to change math and science forever.

“What if Ramanujan had not reached out to Hardy?” Ono said in remarks before the screening. “The story of Ramanujan matters because science matters and imagination matters.”

He announced plans for a global contest called “The Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Search.” In partnership with the film’s producers – IFC Films and Pressman films – the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and Carnegie Mellon mathematician Po-Shen Loh, Ono will seek hidden math talent and match it to opportunities for advancement.

“Ramanujan represents untapped potential that we must believe in,” Ono said. “In that spirit, our goal is to scour the villages, towns and cities of the world in search of undiscovered talent.”

Just before World War I, Hardy invited Ramanujan to leave rural India and come to Cambridge University in England. Hardy helped guide the unfathomable genius of Ramanujan – who said his fantastic math formulas came to him as visions from a Hindu goddess. Hardy ensured that Ramanujan’s discoveries had lasting impact, and he lobbied to have him elected as a fellow at Trinity College, where Isaac Newton studied.

After watching the story unfold on the screen, audience members asked questions and provided feedback to a panel that flew in for the event, including Matthew Brown, the writer and director; Devika Bhise, who portrays Ramanujan’s wife, Janaki; and Samuel Pressman, a creative consultant for Pressman Films.

“To be here tonight with you all at the Carter Center is a miracle,” Brown said. “This project has been 10 years in the making. It was a true independent film, made on a really tight budget.”

Matthew Brown and Devika Bhise took questions from the audience following the screening. "This movie is very important to me," said Bhise, who portrayed Ramanujan's wife.

The film takes its name and inspiration from a 1992 biography of Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel. Brown said he first picked up the book while visiting an aunt, who happened to be reading it for her book club, and he became captivated by the story. Hardy was an atheist and life-long bachelor with few close relationships. Ramanujan, on the other hand, was married, devoted to his family and extremely religious. He wrote that an equation had no meaning to him unless it was the thought of god.

“It was a miracle that Ramanujan came to Cambridge, and that Hardy took a chance on him,” Brown said. “I found the human aspect to be unbelievable, never mind the genius aspect. It was quite a story to jump into as a filmmaker.”

Brown was given Ono’s name as a Ramanujan expert who might be able to help keep the details right during filming. Ono is a number theorist who has solved many of the mysteries left behind by Ramanujan, revealing how his work relates to concepts that were largely unknown during his day, such as string theory and black holes.

“I emailed Ken,” Brown recalled, “and he was on an airplane within two days to be on set. Ken was our main man. He set all the math straight.” Brown said that his passion for filmmaking was more than matched by Ono’s passion for math.

“Congratulations on an exceedingly beautiful film,” one audience member told the panel. He added that he found Bhise’s portrayal of Janaki particularly moving.

Carnegie Mellon mathematician Po-Shen Loh joined the panel on stage to discuss plans for a global contest called “The Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Search.”

Ramanujan had to leave his young wife behind in India to go to England and collaborate with Hardy. The harsh English climate combined with war-time rationing and Ramanujan’s strict vegetarian diet took their toll. He contracted tuberculosis while at Cambridge and died at age 32, a year after returning to India. In keeping with tradition, Janaki never remarried. She endured familial abandonment and poverty but strived to keep the legacy of her husband’s work alive.

“Obviously, this movie is very important to me,” Bhise said. “When you play a real human being, you have to do her life justice. Even though she didn’t understand the math produced by her husband, she understood the artistry, the passion and the genius underlying it.”

Sam Pressman said he gained a similar insight working on the film. “I never realized the beauty of math, and that the ideas of math are like art,” he said. “Our education system chooses to focus on the building blocks of mathematics. But there’s another way to think of math and we want to invite the world to appreciate it.”

Mathematician Po-Shen Loh and Mike Breen, from the AMS, joined the panel to discuss the plans for The Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Search. The contest will connect with youth through, a new smart phone friendly learning platform that delivers math quizzes and instruction. Loh developed the software as part of his role as coach for the 2015 USA International Math Olympiad team – the first U.S. team to take gold in 21 years.

“Everyone with a smart phone can benefit from this interactive teaching system,” Loh said. “Our purpose is to reach out across the world and try to find the next Ramanujan.”

The movie and the talent search are a chance to “think about math in a fun way,” Breen said. “Perhaps the best way to generate interest and amazing performances in math might be to fuse math and entertainment.”

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