Book review: My Search for Ramanujan

This autobiographical book by mathematician Ken Ono is less a memoir than an examination of what matters and what doesn’t


S. Ramanujan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
S. Ramanujan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Last December, under the umbrella of an effort to transform education called Gyanome (www.gyanome.org ), Ken Ono and I did a Google Hangout, talking about Srinivasa Ramanujan and more. I enjoyed the session and I think he did too. When it went up on YouTube (www.tinyurl.com/OnoRamanujan ), I thought it would get 50, perhaps 100, hits. After all, how many people would watch a half-hour discussion on mathematics?

To my astonishment, the count shot quickly past 100 and kept climbing. In just days, it neared 2,000. I’ve wondered why this happened, and I think it’s because there’s something profoundly moving in how Ono talks about what Ramanujan meant to him. “The idea of Ramanujan,” he said, for example, “resonates with all teachers in the world everywhere. It’s the idea that greatness and talent is often found in the most unforgiving of circumstances, and teachers have the moral responsibility to try to recognize that.”

It was a privilege to sit with Ono for that discussion; it has been as much a privilege to read his book, which explores that spirit in much greater detail. “I hear Ramanujan speaking to me when I read his papers,” Ono writes towards the end, and by then you know just how true that is. As he explains, his life and work—even his very dreams—have been shaped by the enigmatic genius from Kumbakonam. If Ramanujan hadn’t emerged out of the mathematical desert that was early 20th century Tamil Nadu to flower in England, Ono might have remained a bright but purposeless kid, forever unable to satisfy his parents’ expectations.

Which is really where this story begins. Ono’s parents are children of war-ravaged Japan. In the 1950s, a famous mathematician, André Weil, sees potential in Ono’s father, already a mathematician, and a few other young Japanese colleagues. He arranges to bring them to American universities. Ken is the youngest of three sons born to the Onos, and grows up in a suburb of Baltimore. The Onos are exemplars of the phrase Amy Chua made famous: “tiger parents”. Nothing Ken does is ever good enough for them.

When he scores in the 98th percentile in a third-grade test—a fantastic achievement, you would think—his mathematician father quickly calculates that 50,000 children scored more. Where then is the hope of getting into Harvard, they ask (and this in the third grade). Does Ken really want to settle for the University of Maryland—or, God forbid, Towson State University?

Yes, never good enough, young Ken Ono. But entirely by chance, there’s a brush with Ramanujan one day—I’ll leave you to savour the charm of that encounter—and thus begins Ono’s lifelong tango with the great Indian. He has been blessed with some remarkable mentors who recognized his worth, understood his dreams and pushed him to realize his ambitions—Paul Sally at the University of Chicago and his PhD adviser Basil Gordon at the University of California, Los Angeles, are two examples. But Ono also knows well how much he owes to Ramanujan. His brilliance, his determination, his grit and his mathematics are all like runway lights to Ono, pulling him forward and showing him the way. Over and over through his life—starting with his teenaged rebellion against his parents’ continuously impossible expectations, and particularly at desperately low points—Ramanujan manages to step in and show Ono a path up and out.

And Ono’s deeply personal journey in this book touched unexpected chords. “It was as though I was seeking mediocrity,” he writes. “I didn’t want to compete and be recognized as someone exceptional.” Elsewhere, there’s this heartbreaking admission: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, says Shakespeare, but some, like me, are born to fail and achieve failure.”

Reading those words, I was startled at how much of my own life unfolded before me. Yet from the depths of easy mediocrity and the spectre of failure, Ono found his calling, his own excellence. Ramanujan helped, and not just by being a mathematician. To Ono, he actually “became a mystical figure whose life seemed to contradict every stereotype I had of mathematicians”: sounds like a good frame of mind in which to pursue a career in mathematics.

So in its frankness and courage, this book is less a mathematician’s memoir than a thought-provoking examination of what matters and what doesn’t. This is not to suggest that it is one of those insufferable self-help books. Oh no it isn’t. But while the mathematics is fascinating and Ramanujan comes alive in Ono’s thoughts and work, it’s the lessons that resonated most of all for me.

“To leave the safe familiarity of the shore and sail off into unknown territory, that is what it is like to do mathematics,” says Ono.

That is what it is like to live a life, if you ask me.

Dilip D’ Souza writes the column A Matter Of Numbers for Mint. He tweets at @DeathEndsFun

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