In A Mathematician's Apology GH Hardy said “The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.”
A mathematics professor of mine often echoed Hardy’s sentiments on returning scored examination sheets, "Your solutions must be beautiful, as should be the way you arrive at them."
Forget beautiful, my answers were barely fit for the circus freaks department. I struggled with mathematics throughout school and college, battling with imaginary numbers, arguing against the need for calculus and unable to predict when Ram and Shyam would meet should they decide to start running in opposite directions on a circular track from different points at varying speeds at the same time. No one could ever answer why they couldn’t agree upon a designated place at a predetermined time though.
So it was with some trepidation that I booked my ticket for A Disappearing Number, the latest offering from London based theatre company Complicite. Known for inventive productions with stories based on unusual subject matters Complicite’s latest offering takes as its starting point one of the most compelling collaborations of all time – that between prodigy Srinivasan Ramanujan, and the Cambridge mathematician G H Hardy who later called their involvement "the one romantic incident" of his life. Conceived and directed by the company’s Artistic Director Simon McBurney and with an original score by Nitin Sawhney the play is currently being staged at London's Barbican theatre.
Simon McBurney first came across Ramanujan’s story 11 years ago when writer Michael Ondaatje recommended Hardy’s memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology. “I read it and became very excited, because it wasn’t just about mathematics, but about the nature of the imagination,” McBurney told The Sunday Times “As I began to read more, I discovered that great mathematicians worked through an extraordinary sense of instinct and intuition and, above all, imagination – that mathematics was created, throughout history, by leaps of the imagination.”
A Disappearing Number began without preamble; there was no dimming of lights and no polite voice asking the audience to switch off cell phones. Instead a woman came breathlessly striding across the stage and began to write number series on a large blackboard. 1 4 9 16 25 … 1 2 3 5 7 11 … 1 2 4 6 8 … She proceeded to fill the board up with more numbers and formulae, some familiar from my wasted years as a student of mathematics. The squigglier the figures got the more my heart fell. Was the entire play going to be epsilons, integrals, sines and cosines? Similar thoughts were no doubt filtering through the minds of other members of the audience as nervous laughs and coughs broke out. Thankfully, our fears were unfounded.
A middle-aged mathematician desperate to make a difference sets off to Madras in search of inspiration from her hero, Ramanujan. Accidentally locked in a lecture hall for the night, a man mourns the death of his lover, left only with a series of enigmatic digits – her telephone number. It is 1913 and GH Hardy seeks to comprehend a genius whose work is influenced not by rigid logic but by intuition and spirituality. Said genius, Ramanujan feverishly pursues some of the most complex mathematical patterns of all time, whilst yearning for vendakkai stranded in the midst of a cruel English winter. “I’m not interested, really, in this story as one particular, specific touching tale,” McBurney says, “but in a rather larger metaphorical application of what it implies, of how creativity consumes you – how it’s an extraordinarily human activity, this absolute compulsion to understand, but at the same time this compulsion to understand can have tragic consequences.”
Elements of new media, classical dance, graphic art, live and recorded audio swirl about the simply designed sets. A revolving screen acts as a time machine of sorts, taking us from the present to the recent and distant past. There are moments when different stories play out together simultaneously, voices and lives overlapping. It’s an unsettling experience at first, but one soon gets used to the story’s arrhythmic rhythm.
It’s easy to see why Ramanujan’s life makes for such compelling storytelling. This is a mathematical genius who fails his exams and lost a college scholarship. Here is a man whose pursuit of numbers dictated that he embrace logic and yet chose the divine: claiming to take advice from the family deity Namagiri. It is a story of a humble Port Trust Authority clerk from Kumbakkonam who finds himself in upper crust predominantly white (and racist) Cambridge. It is about a devout Hindu Brahmin and an atheist Englishman setting aside their differences cultural and spiritual, for their common love of numbers.
Almost a century after Ramanujan set sail to England at the invitation of a fascinated GH Hardy, the story of their collaboration still enthralls. Last year, David Freeman’s off Broadway play A First Class Man received critical acclaim. The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt a fictionalized account of the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan was published this year. Two films are in development: one based on Robert Kanigel's 1991 biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity; the second an Anglo-Indian venture, to be co-directed by Dev Benegal (English, August and Split Wide Open) and former Cambridge student, actor and director Stephen Fry.
Soon after the play commenced, an actor appeared on stage to tell the audience "I am an actor playing Alex. And she is an actor playing Ruth. But the maths is real. It's terrifying, but real." McBurney has taken on a theatrical subject many would find daunting and fashioned from it a brooding meditation on love, longing and identity. If only my younger self had known that beauty in numbers does indeed exist.
(An edited version of this piece appeared here, today)