“An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses a thought of God.”
Theoretical mathematics may not seem a fertile ground for a movie, yet there have been some very popular and acclaimed films grounded in that discipline (A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game come to mind). It may seem even less likely to use that field to speak of the nature of faith. The Man Who Knew Infinity is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
This is the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematician without formal education who is “discovered” by G. H. Hardy, a Cambridge professor. Ramanujan goes to England at the start for World War I, leaving his wife and mother in India. There he strives to have his work published, but Hardy demands that he provide proofs for his very complex (and exciting to mathematicians) equations. Ramanujan must put up with the racist and classist prejudices of the others at the university (which includes dietary issues) and with Hardy’s personal coldness. Can this brilliant mind (called miraculous by one professor) find its way to not only great discoveries, but the recognition of his genius?
In the film math serves as the medium that allows the characters to talk about not just numbers, but about existential meaning. For Ramanujan, mathematics is an aesthetic. He explains it to his wife as a painting with colors you cannot see. Mathematics is not about the practical, but about beauty. He is obsessed at finding and sharing the wonders that he finds in the numbers he works with. But Hardy is not willing to accept the beauty without understanding how it is found. His demand of proofs, a key part of any mathematic work, is really a reflection of his own view of reality. Hardy is an atheist because he refuses to accept what cannot be proved. They come from two different world views, yet in the language and processes of mathematics they can come to understand one another.
Hardy’s atheism is not incidental to the story. It becomes the way the film is able to talk about ultimate ideas. What is impossible for Hardy to believe is essential to Ramanujan. In one sense this may reflect the way many people expect that science and religion are by their natures incompatible. But the film moves beyond that to try to show that they blend together in seeing the world through clearer eyes than either can see alone. At one point Ramanujan even claims that the source of his insights is his god. The discussions about faith and doubt don’t strive to convert, but serve to help the two men to understand each other. Hardy is not moved to leave his atheism, but he does get insight into what it means to believe something or someone. Ramanujan finds meaning in his proofs that provide even more beauty to his painting of invisible colors. There are indeed many ways to see the beauty of the world around us. Atheist, Hindus, Christians and others all appreciate that beauty however we may describe or ascribe it.
Photos courtesy of IFC Films