One hundred years ago on Decem ber 22, a most extraordinary mathematician was born in the town of Erode, 160 miles from Madras in Southern India. Srinivasa Ramanujan Aiyangar was the son of a petty accountant and a bailiff’s daughter. He grew up in Kumbakonam, where his father worked. At the age of 15 he borrowed a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure Mathematics by G.S. Carr, which lists some 6,000 theorems but gives no proofs. Captivated, Ramanujan set about finding the proofs for himself, and progressed to independent research. Too poor to afford paper, he did his calculations on a slate and jotted down the results in a series of notebooks.

In 1913 Godfrey H. Hardy, an outstanding mathematician at Cambridge University, England, received a letter. “Dear Sir, I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust...

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