Srinivasa Ramanujan was a mathematician of unusual talent. Born in 1887 and raised in the modest town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, Ramanujan was largely self-taught. Working alone, the Indian mathematician arrived at nearly 3,900 results, and in the process rederived a century’s worth of Western mathematics.
It was not until 1912, when Ramanujan sent his theorems to academics at the University of Cambridge, that the Western world gained knowledge of his genius. G.H. Hardy took particular interest in Ramanujan’s work, immediately recognizing his brilliance. In 1914, the atheist and academically rigorous Hardy arranged for the shy, religious, and highly intuitive Ramanujan to travel to England. There, Ramanujan spent the remainder of his career developing his ideas with his English colleagues before falling ill and returning to India five years later.
Tragically, Ramanujan died at the early age of 32, having spent a majority of his life rediscovering established proofs and formulae. Though a small fraction of his results also turned out to be wrong, a considerable amount of Ramanujan’s work proved to be new. Today, his ideas (which are some of the most strange and obscure in all of mathematics) continue to inspire mathematical discoveries as well as find real-world applications.
While Ramanujan’s birthday is an official holiday in his home state of Tamil Nadu, there is a little-known museum in Chennai that celebrates his life year-round. Often overlooked by adults and tourists, the one-room museum is visited primarily by schoolchildren.
The collection is the result of decades of effort by math educator P.K. Srinivasan. Noting children’s disdain for the subject, Srinivasan hoped to establish a Ramanujan Memorial Foundation that would house a planetarium, library, auditorium, and exhibitions meant to excite visitors about mathematics. However, it took years of hard work asking relatives, associates, and institutions that had contact with Ramanujan to acquire the pictures, letters, and other documents necessary for a museum.
In 1993, after digging through unopened chests in Ramanujan’s old attic, Srinivasan finally had the means and space to open up a small museum in Chennai. Today, visitors to the exhibit can view a myriad of Ramanujan memorabilia, including photographs of the mathematician’s home and family, his correspondence with friends, relatives, and colleagues, as well as his original passport.
Know Before You Go
This tiny museum adjacent to a small community library can be difficult to find, as all the buildings have both old and new numbers. The museum is at New No. 15, not Old No. 15. Persistent visitors who have patience in the confusing streets will be warmly welcomed by the librarians.