In an unlikely alliance, UC Berkeley’s mathematics department joined with the Aurora Theater Company last week for a discussion at the Bechtel Engineering Center entitled “Hardy and Ramanujan in Berkeley.”
Since both revered mathematicians are long dead, the title refers to Aurora’s current production: the world premiere of the play “Partition,” based on the true story of the relationship between the two geniuses.
In the early 20th century, Hardy was a renowned mathematician at Cambridge. Out of the blue he received a remarkable letter from Ramanujan, a mostly self-taught young man living in India. Hardy brought Ramanujan to Cambridge where the two worked together. Ultimately, the close bond between the two men was broken by the weight of their cultural and personality differences.
The UC forum last Friday was planned as a discussion of the scientific and cultural background of Ira Hauptman’s play. Panelists included Aurora artistic director Barbara Oliver and two distinguished mathematicians: Jeremy Gray, chair in the history of mathematics at the Open University in England, and David Hoffman, associate director for external collaboration at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) at Berkeley.
(MSRI was the direct organizer of the event. Ramanujan’s significance to mathematicians is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that MSRI’s money-raising arm, the Archimedes Society, has one level of contribution designated a “Ramanujan Donor.”)
The panel’s contributions were interwoven with pertinent scenes from the play, acted by Rahul Gupta, who embodies the intuitive, emotional Ramanujan, and David Arrow, who plays the uptight Britisher G.H. Hardy. The actors, relying on their own research of their characters, also took part in the discussion.
Hoffman said that Cambridge, at the time, was the “only university for mathematics in England” and Hardy wanted to bring “pure mathematics” there. Hardy prided himself on the idea that nothing he ever did “was of any use.” To his dismay, Hardy felt he had not been that successful with the university.
The firm distinction between pure and applied mathematics is one that still exists, according to Hoffman, although the demands of historical events led to some breakdown of the categories, for example, during World War II, when some pure mathematicians found themselves working for fairly practical purposes.
Hoffman clarified one point from which the play departs from historical truth: it introduces a famous mathematical mystery known as “Fermat’s last theorem” as a significant part of the plot. The longtime mystery exists, but had nothing to do with Ramanujan’s death, as in the play.
“Partition” appears to be grounded in historical accuracy, though decorated with some identifiable fantasy elements, the panelists said. It uses the participants’ real names and many accurate biographical details. If the play becomes widely known, it may be the way that its historical figures are remembered.
It is understandable that Hardy’s various eccentricities would be significant to the play: They were dramatic. He, for example, would never look in a mirror, and shrank from letting anyone touch him. He even refused to shake hands.
Constance Reid, the biographer of a number of 20th-century mathematicians, is not a mathematician herself. However, she is unusually knowledgeable about them. Reid said she enjoyed the play but objects to the portrayal of Hardy.
“I have known a number of mathematicians who loved and admired Hardy,” she said. “This was not their Hardy.
“Hardy was a wonderful writer,” she added.
“In fact, the playwright apparently felt compelled to use everything Hardy ever said that was quotable. I personally enjoyed hearing them all again. I hope that everyone who saw the play will be inspired to read Hardy’s little book, ‘A Mathematician’s Apology,’ which he wrote seven years before his death.”