Prime Time

No, on this 9th day of May, I’m not talking about the popular evening hours on TV, but about my fascination with prime numbers that come around on a monthly calendar time and again, or every so often in annual projections on, say,  a spreadsheet in an accounting office, or a PowerPoint presentation at a seminar.

For those with some familiarity with mathematics, they are – insofar as single and double digits are concerned –

1 2 3 5 7 11 13 17 19
23 29 31 37 41 43 47
53 59 61 67 71 73 79
83 89 97

The one in bold marks my years on this planet today. As a quick reminder, prime numbers cannot be divided into an exact (whole) number of equal whole numbers. Therefore 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13 are examples of prime numbers, while the odd numbers 9, 15, 21 and 25 are not prime numbers. Jokingly, I’ll still be in my “prime” when I arrive at the next number, 89 (!)

ramanujanIt so happens that we went to the cinema on Mother’s Day on Sunday, May the 8th, for a very well-worth seeing film on the life of the Indian mathematical genius, Srinivasan Ramanujan, pictured alongside and played by Dev Patel, the star of the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” and Jeremy Irons as his British mentor, Professor G. H. Hardy of Trinity College, Cambridge University.


b.12/22/1887-d. 3/26/1920

You don’t have to be a math wiz to enjoy “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” It portrays the exhilaration of discovery and the pang of despair as it covers the brief and turbulent 32 years of the South Indian’s life cut short on this planet by tuberculosis – from his early struggles in Tamilnadu (Erode and Madras, now known as Chennai) to his transplant to England in the early 1900’s with seemingly little control of his destiny in the alien, rarefied world of advanced mathematics in a sometimes racist varsity arena of competing voices.

As a student in a somewhat exclusive New Delhi school from 1938 through 1947, I was familiar with the surprising achievements of Ramanujan abroad through stories, every now and then, told to us by our math teachers. I was also part of the color discrimination between the races that looked down on the so-called ‘Southies’ from the largely Dravidian states. The word for ‘black’ in Hindi or Urdu was a pejorative in the eyes and minds of the comparatively ‘fair-skinned’ Northeners. It was, therefore, a bit of a shocker to discover that someone from the deep South had not only excelled in math but had gone on to being accepted as a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in London.

How could that be? My class friends used to discuss this quite seriously among ourselves despite our young age, and it made us more aware of the isolation of some of the few classmates who were ‘not like us’. Consider that the entire caste system in India is based originally on the color of ones skin. I for one decided to mix with the few dark-skinned students and, indeed, found comfort in the fact that I was able to communicate comfortably with one or more of them whenever the opportunity arose during lunchtime in the cafeteria or on the school’s sports field playing soccer, cricket or hockey.

CVRamanThe other Southie who became a household name in India was Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who in 1930 won the Nobel Prize for Physics. He was born in Tirichiappalli (Anglicized to Trichinopoly during the Raj) in Southern India on November 7, 1888. His father was a lecturer in mathematics and physics so that right from the beginning he was immersed in an academic environment.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society early in his career (1924) and was knighted in 1929. He died on November 21, 1970.

Among eponymous math terms is the famous Ramanujan “taxicab numbers”. A common anecdote relates to the time when Hardy arrived at Ramanujan’s house in a cab numbered 1729, a number he claimed to be totally uninteresting. Ramanujan retorted immediately that, on the contrary, it was actually a very interesting class of numbers mathematically speaking as it was the smallest number representable in two different ways as a sum of two cubes. Such numbers are ever after referred to as taxicab numbers.

Mathematics for the Millions by Lancelot Hogben; Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell; Wikipedia

Copyright © 2016 Azim Lewis Mayadas

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