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You are not alone

R. Sundaram
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Srinivasa Ramanujan …A beautiful mind
Srinivasa Ramanujan …A beautiful mind

If you cannot discuss mathematics, you are not alone. Even during the 125th anniversary late last year of the mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan we could not talk mathematics, we could only expatiate on mathematicians.

If you have not recognised any prodigy in political science or sociology, even then you are not alone. We seem to find them only in fieldssuch as physics and mathematics.

Even as we exulted in the glory of Ramanujan, we devoured every tiny titbit about his personal life as we would about Sachin Tendulkar. We learnt all about his Town High School and Government College, Kumbakonam, his life as a clerk in Port Trust and his habit of using his precious notebooks as a pillow, and so on. Speaking for myself, my happiness knew no bounds when a good friend, Lakshminarayanan, revealed that he is the grandson of K. Sarangapani Iyengar, a classmate of Ramanujan, and that his grandpa scored more marks than Ramanujan in a mathematics test.

It seems in college, Ramanujan attempted only one question out of many in a test but solved the problem in several different ways and the examiner was not only overcome with joy but was frank enough to admit that he did not know half the methods.

cambridge wranglers

In this celebratory mood reserved for mathematicians, recently The Hindu Daily Miscellany column had all the news about ‘Wranglers’ who, in the last century, were acknowledged as the stars in mathematics by Cambridge University where Ramanujan was invited to work with G.H. Hardy. The examination, which was notoriously difficult, became the preoccupation of every student of mathematics who studied there from the late nineteenth century to the early part of the twentieth.

The title of ‘Senior Wrangler’ was first awarded in 1842 to the topper among those getting First Class Honours in undergraduate mathematics at Cambridge. The title was announced in public until 1909; thereafter, no identities were officially revealed. But the examiner would, while reading out the First Class Honours list at the convocation, tip his headgear when announcing the topper’s name. The Senior Wrangler was celebrated, as Robert Kanigel humorously observed, much as people did the winner of the Kentucky Derby without knowing the first thing about horse flesh !

a booby prize

Apart from arranging all First Classes as Wranglers, those passing in Second Class were called Senior Optimes, and those graduating in Third Class were Junior Optimes. To contrast with the glamour of the Senior Wrangler, the lowest scoring individual in the Junior Optimes was ceremonially given a big wooden spoon.

It is interesting to observe that Bertrand Russell was only Seventh Wrangler, Maxwell was Second Wrangler, while Hardy the mathematician was Fourth Wrangler. Hardy, a severe critic of the Mathematics Tripos (MT) system, observes about his fourth position: “Though the race was ridiculous I ought to have won it.”

One humorous anecdote about J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron, is that since he was sure about topping the MT exam, he sent his valet to the Senate House where the results were to be declared to find out the name of the Second Wrangler. The valet returned and told Thomson: “You Sir!” The Senior Wrangler, whose name is now forgotten, was able to master the MT examination and beat Thomson!

thanks to carr

During this period, one George Carr compiled a synopsis of formulae – some 5,000 of them covering various branches of mathematics in two volumes which became a ‘must read’ for attacking the MT exam, like our guides in coaching classes. It is ironic that Carr himself graduated only among Senior Optimes, and that too not in the top ranks!

It was Carr’s compilation which stimulated the mathematical prodigy when he was just fifteen.

(The author is a retired civil servant.)

(This article was published on February 20, 2013)
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