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Readings, films portray math genius

The intellectual life of the self-educated Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and his tumultuous relationship with University of Cambridge Professor G.H. Hardy have inspired stage and screen writers with ties to MIT.

Ramanujan (1887-1920), who pioneered theories that startled leading mathematicians of his time, was discovered and brought to England by Hardy, who recognized his brilliance and supported his work. Despite some remarkable mathematical achievements, their relationship was torn by cultural differences and opposing ideas about intuition and logic.

On May 15 and 16, Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, a joint project of the Institute and Underground Railway Theater (URT), will present a free staged reading of "Partition," a fantasy by Ira Hauptman about the two mathematicians.

Boston actor, playwright and director Jon Lipsky will direct the Catalyst readings, which will be held May 15 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 10-250 and May 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre, 820 Massachusetts Ave. For more information, call x3-2341.

Ramanujan was also the subject of a 1991 biography, "The Man Who Knew Infinity," written by Robert Kanigel, director of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing.

Kanigel's book is the focus of two films currently in the works. Hollywood screenwriter/director Matthew Brown and producer Edward R. Pressman ("Thank You for Smoking" and "Reversal of Fortune") have acquired the film rights to Kanigel's book, with production beginning in the fall, and British actor and writer Stephen Fry will co-direct a second film on it with Indian filmmaker Dev Benegal.

Ramanujan and Hardy had an "unlikely relationship," Kanigel said. "Yet they were brought so close together by a shared love for a discipline, mathematics. There is something beautiful just in the thought of differences of culture, religion, age, education and upbringing eradicated -- mostly, anyway -- by a higher intellectual kinship. It makes for a rich and layered story."

Kanigel will lead open discussions following the "Partition" readings. Assistant Professor Kiran S. Kedlaya, of MIT's math department, will join Kanigel for both discussions, and Hauptman will participate on May 15.

Citing the film, "A Beautiful Mind," and the television show, "Numb3rs," Kedlaya described the renewed interest in Ramanujan as "part of a larger cultural trend in which mathematics, which has long been deprecated as a lifeless intellectual exercise, is being rediscovered as the intensely human endeavor that it actually is."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 3, 2006 (download PDF).

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