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The Goddess’s Apprentice:

Ramanujan, Analytic Theory,

the 24 Power, and Multidimensional Reality

Jennifer Nielsen
Math 464WI
More than a century ago, under the rolling hills of Namakkal, there lived a
husband and his wife who so dearly wanted a child, but after many years
they were still childless. The wife, knowing it was not her lot in life to be
barren, went to the base of the mountain to the temple of lionhearted
Narasimha, who roared down pillars to prove the immananence of God to
nonbelievers. Something lead her to skip Narasimha’s statuary den, and
pause, gazing up, at the shrine of his consort, Namagiri, the goddess.
Dropping her garland of flowers and falling to her feet, she prayed, on her
beads, to this fierce mother divine, for a son, making her womb itself an
Later this year she found herself pregnant.
She and her husband celebrated.
They did not know that the child forming in the woman’s womb was no
ordinary child, but a godchild, on loan as it were, of a goddess.


“I have to form myself, as I have never really formed before, and try to help you to
form, some of the reasoned estimate of the most romantic figure in the recent
history of mathematics, a man whose career seems full of paradoxes and
contradictions, who defies all cannons by which we are accustomed to judge one
another and about whom all of us will probably agree in one judgement only, that
he was in some sense a very great mathematician.” – G.H. Hardy (9, p. 1)

Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in the hills of Namakkal in 1887. His

life and talents are the stuff of which legends are made. In India, he is
held in the esteem Americans hold Einstein, and calling someone a
Ramanujan is equivalent with rating them the highest caliber of genius.
He made extensive contributions to analytical theory of numbers,
working with continued fractions, elliptical functions, modular
functions, and infinite series. One of the greatest mysteries of his life is
that he had next to no formal training.
Like Einstein, he worked as a clerk and explored his passions
unconventionally, outside of academics, until his urge to verify himself
overwhelmed him and he wrote to several English mathematicians. He
introduced himself in a strangely cocky humility:
I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at
mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular
course which is followed in a university course, but I am striking out
new path for myself (9, p. xxiii) .
He followed this introduction with a sea of formulae he passed off
as original—most of which were not (he didn’t know that). Most
mathematicians gifted with these “crank letters” threw them away, as
did Cambridge professor and number theorist Godfrey Hardy (5, p.
175). But Hardy uncrinkled the note and re-examined it. After the few
pages of commonly known theorems, new, mysterious theorems were
cropping up amongst the scrawl. This was not a crank. This was an
isolated mathematician—a sort of mathematical feral child. And yet,
somehow, without access to those of his own kind, he had learned to
speak. And in the process he had rediscovered some hundred years of
mathematics and added to that something else. In 1914, he was
invited in to Cambridge University by the English mathematician G. H.
Hardy who recognized his unconventional genius. He worked there for
five years, completing his lifetime work of over 3,000 startling

Illustration 1. Srinivasa Ramanujan

From Hardy’s Ramanujan: 12 Lectures, 1940

That Taxi Cab Problem

When Ramanujan was dying at 33 of a wasting illness thought to be
tuberculosis, his by then longtime mentor and friend G. H. Hardy would
frequently visit him in the hospital. Hardy relayed that, even near death,

honor of this anecdote, Taxicab(k, j, n) is the smallest number which can be
expressed as the sum of j kth powers in n different ways. So, Taxicab(3, 2, 2)
There are a number of taxicabs found over the years:

Taxicab(1) = 2
= 13 + 13 (trivial).

Taxicab(2) = 1729
= 13 + 123
= 93 + 103

published by Bernard Frénicle de Bessy in 1657.

Taxicab(3) = 87539319
= 1673 + 4363
= 2283 + 4233
= 2553 + 4143

found by Leech in 1957. (3)

Like tongue-wagging Einstein with his pipe and shock of white
hair, Ramanujan eclipses his own theorems with his shocking glare
and offbeat personal mystery. Thanks to popularizers of math such
as Michio Kaku, the story (particularly the taxi cab anecdote) is
known well enough in the United States, but Ramanujan’s
mathematics is usually not tackled by undergraduates. Not all of
what he has done has been proven, even today—to the average
undergraduate this sounds like bait for insanity! But, in the set of
books, Ramanujan’s Notebooks by Ramanujan scholar Bruce
Berndt, a good number of his works are proven, if not by
Ramanujan then by Berndt and his colleagues. Quite a bit of his
earliest work, while not his most original, is accessible to
undergraduates and conveys some of the excitement of the early
development of an ingenious mathematician.

Boredom at School and Magic Squares

It is perhaps comforting to note that Ramanujan at least started out
playing with mathematics more or less like average interested math
students—just a bit more obsessively, to the point he famously
neglected his other classes. Early on, he was quite taken with magic
squares. He wrote a number of rules on how to write them (12, p. :
He went on to list certain postulates about them, and draw a model
for a 3X3 square:

Figure 1. Ramanujan’s Model for a 3X3 Magic Square.

As if instructing future students, he listed an example problem and

provided a solution:
Figure 1. A page on magic squares from Ramanujan’s Original
Notebook. (Note that use of English is and has been common in
India since colonial times.)

He began working with series early on. In the early days he was
more likely to explain how he got a result, probably as a tool for future
reference. His first entry on the topic runs as follows:

Entry 1. For each positive integer n,


We will follow with Ramanujan’s proof (1, , beginning with the identity


Let x = 2k and sum on k, The right side of (1) is found to be equal to:




A Complex Map To Reality

Ramanujan’s mature mathematical mind honed in on complex

analysis and, specifically, modular functions, and it was here that he

completed some of his highest achievements, including the invention

of the complex mapping equation known as the “Ramanujan function.”

Figure. The complex plane represented orthoganol to the plane of reals.

Remember that complex numbers are numbers which can be written in the form

a + bi, where i = −1 . Complex numbers are often used in higher level physics,

where the plane of complex numbers is depicted orthoganol to the plane of real

numbers (see the figure), and multiplication by imaginary numbers can be used to

represent a rotation of a physical object out of the board. For example, a

multiplication by i is used to depict a counterclockwise rotation of 90 degrees.)

In complex analysis, modular functions are certain kinds of mathematical

functions which are used to map complex numbers to complex numbers. These

mapping functions must fulfill three properties (Apostol, 34).

1. A modular function f is “meromorphic” in

the open upper half-plane H (ie, the set of

complex numbers with a positive imaginary


To be “meromorphic” means a function behaves

as a complex-differentiable analytic function with the
exception of behavior at certain points known as
poles where the function approaches infinity. (See
the figure for an example of what this looks like.)
Modular functions are meromorphic in the set of complex numbers where b is

2. For every matrix M in the modular group Γ, f(Mz) = f(z).

Note that the modular group is the group of fractional linear transformations in
the upper half of the complex plane. Multiplying a complex number z by a matrix M
in the modular group and then inputting Mz into our function yields the same result
as plugging z itself into the function.

3. The Fourier series of f has the form


*The transforms in the modular group has the form

where a, b, c, and d are integers, and ad − bc = 1. (Note that this is a subgroup of the commonly
studied mobius group, which satisfies ad − bc ≠ 0.)
Now we have a working definition of a modular function.

Ramanujan was particularly fond of these kinds of functions, and worked with

them thoughout his career, most intensively towards the end of his life. A particular

modular function which he worked with shortly before his death has become known

as the Ramanujan function. The Ramanujan tau function, mentioned in several

unpublished Ramanujan papers and discussed in length by Hardy, is given by the

generating function,

x = e 2iπz
, where .

Note that the symbol ∏ indicates a series of multiplications instead of the additions

indicated by Σ.) The generating function is stated to be equivalent to the series

x (1 −3 x + 5 x 3 − 7 x 6 +...) 8 . (Hardy, 161). While Ramanujan’s work behind the math is,

as usual, sketchy, Hardy proved this using the Jacobi identity

(8, p. 54). We shall work through an intuitive version of this

Starting from our definition, we begin multiplying our terms to obtain an

expansion of the series. (1)

= (2)

= x[(1 − x ) 3 (1 − x 2 ) 3 (1 − x 3 ) 3 ...] 8 (3) [Simplifying]

= x{[( 1 − x) (1 − x 2 ) (1 − x 3 ) ...] 3}8 (4) [Simplifying further]

And expanding, we obtain:

= x{(1 − x − x 2 + x 5 + x 7 − x12 ...] 3}8 (5)

= x(1 −3 x + 5 x 3 − 7 x 6 +...) 8 (6) [by Jacobi’s identity.]

Now the key is to obtain to the final statement as proved by Hardy with Jacobi’s

An intuitive method towards the last step as stated, without exposure to

Jacobi’s formal proof, is to chop off all terms beyond some point in the
expanded series, and then cube the resulting polynomial expression. From
that answer, we then chop off all terms that would have been destroyed by

the removal of terms from the original power series 1 − x − x + x + x − x ...

2 5 7 12

So, if we start with the polynomial (1-x), we would obtain a cube of 1-3x +
3x2 – x3 and then delete all terms with degree greater than 1, leaving
ourselves with the expression 1-3x. Starting with 1 – x – x2, having chopped
off terms of degree five and higher, we obtain a cube of 1 – 3x + 5x3 - ….
after chopping off all terms in the cube with degree greater than five. (This
method is described in Mathematical Marvels by S.
Shirali.) After repeating this several times, a pattern
ultimately emerges. The “triangular” numbers form the
exponents, and odd numbers of alternating sign form
the coefficients. In a fairly intuitive manner, we
ultimately arrive at the identity:

The Ramanujan function has a number of fascinating properties, and

applications in physics, a few of which will be returned to in our conclusion.

“…I want to know his thoughts. The rest are details.”

- Albert Einstein, speaking of the “Old Engineer”
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how Ramanujan operated. He
sometimes scarcely seemed to “operate” at all, but merely produce:
He would stay up all night, jotting on a blackboard, not taking time to
replace his rag eraser and instead blotting out the chalk with his elbow
until his calluses turned black. When he liked something he’d done,
he’d copy it down on paper. If he ran out of paper, he’d write in red
over the top of the first level of black. (6, p 93).
His only known exposure to upper level mathematics consisted in
the reading of five books:

(2, p. 596).
Almost no observation was made of how Ramanujan thought up his
more complex, proofless formulas. According to his English mentor,
Godfrey Hardy, “It seemed ridiculous to worry him about how he had
found this or that known theorem, when he was showing me half a
dozon new ones almost every day.” (9, p. 12.)
Perhaps even more frustratingly, Ramanujan made little effort to

explain himself. Miriads of the some thousand theorems in his 400

pages worth of notebooks contain no proofs. When he lectured or

explained a problem to a classmate, he often made what appeared to

others as multiple mathematical steps in one giant leap without


There are, however, a few clues to his eccentricities of thought,

collected from chance remarks from colleagues and observations in

modern medicine. It’s possible that Ramanujan’s mind was wired a

little bit differently than ours.

For the first three years of his life, Ramanujan scarcely spoke (7, p.

207 ; 6 , p. 13). In the scholarly work Autism and Creativity, Dr.

Michael Fitzgerald, a cognitive development expert, speculates that

Ramanujan may have been affected by a condition on the autism

spectrum. In Ramanujan’s biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity, early

lack of speech is merely summed up as evidence of “willfulness” (6, p.

13). But it remains that when Ramanujan did learn language it was in a

very unusual way, reminscent of modern preschool therapy for children

with autism and aspergers: “…his hand, held and guided by his

grandfather, was made to trace out Tamil characters in a thick bed of

rice spread across the floor, as each character was spoken aloud.”

Perhaps the sensory stimulation of the rice was enough to reach a

mind enthralled not with language but with the bare mechanics of
reality. “Soon fears of Ramanujan’s dumbness were dispelled…” but

his mind continued to operate at its own unique pace (6, p. 13).

When Ramanujan did perchance to speak of his process, he

talked about goddesses and dreams. A friend noted how common
this dream experience was, explaining:
"Ramanujan was staying with my father in Madras. Both of
them often worked on math problems till 11:30 pm. Often
Ramanujan would get up at about 2 a.m. and write
something down. When asked about this, he explained that
he worked out math solutions in his dreams and was jotting
down the results to remember them."

In Ramanujan’s own words,

“[I observed] a red screen formed by flowing blood as it
were…Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. It got
my attention. The hand wrote a number of results in elliptic
integrals. They stuck in my mind. As soon as I woke up, I
wrote them down.”
(13, p. 207)
“It was the goddess Namagiri, he would tell his friends, to whom
he owed his mathematical gifts. Namagiri would write the equations
on his tongue.” (6, p. 36). On his tongue? Is this a literal description
of events? Perhaps it was. Ramanujan was honest, “uncouth,” abrupt.
Why would he lie? Perhaps we should take him on his word, or maybe
he was trying to describe a state of mind which could not be
expressed. From a modern perspective it sounds an awful lot like
synaesthesia – a condition in which senses become mixed and unique
perspectives on math, music, and other sensual experiences can
Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant and mathematical prodigy,
senses words and numbers “synaesthetically.”
Says Daniel: “When I look at a series of numbers, my head begins
to fill with colors, shapes and textures that knit together
spontaneously to form a visual landscape. These are always very
beautiful to me; as a child I often spent hours at a time exploring
numerical landscapes in my mind. To recall each digit, I simply
retrace the different shapes and textures in my head and read the
numbers out of them…” (15, p. 221)
Perhaps Ramanujan and Tammet are seeing into a proto-conscious
world of mental forms which only a few lucky (or unlucky) people are
able to sense, interpret and accept.

We will close with the freeing realization—or “moksha”, to use a
Hindu term—that the world Ramanujan peered into may be the very
world in which you and I inhabit.
By now, most fans of popular science will be at least superficially
familiar with the term “string theory” – a theory in which our reality
holds 10, and not 3, spacial dimensions, some of which are collapsed
to submicroscopic size, and in which particles are exchanged for
interdimensional vibrating strings (5).
We recall now the Ramanujan function consists of a modular
mapping raised to a 24th power, which reduces after several
expansions to a series raised to a power of 8. (A similar transformation
occurs when the Ramanujan function is generalized by physicists.)
When Ramanujan first scrawled his tau function on a scap piece of
paper, he may or may not have known that he was viewing something
extremely important to the way our universe is thought to operate.
According to string theorist Dr. Michio Kaku,
“In string theory, each of the 24 modes [represented in the exponent
of the]…Ramanujan function corresponds to a physical vibration of the
string. Whenever the string executes its complex motions in space-
time by splitting and recombining, a large number of highly
sophisticated mathematical identities must be satisfied.These are
precisely the mathematical identities discovered by Ramanujan.
Since physicists add two more dimensions when they count the
total number of vibrations appearing in a relativistic theory, this means
that space-time must have 24 + 2 = 26 space-time dimensions. When
the Ramanujan function is generalized, the number 24 is replaced by
the number 8. Thus the critical number for the superstring is 8 + 2, or
10. This is the origin of the tenth dimension. The string vibrates in ten
dimensions because it requires these generalized Ramanujan functions
in order to remain self-consistent.” (5, p. 173)

A lucky coincidence for string theorists that Ramanujan’s function

describes the model they were seeking? Perhaps.
Or perhaps a goddess really was speaking to Ramanujan after all.

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Springer, 1990.
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6. Kanigel, Robert. The Man Who Knew Infinity. Washington Square Press, 1992.
7. Fitzgerald, Michael. Autism and creativity. Psychology Press, 2004
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Cambridge, 1940

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Springer, 1985
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15. Tammet, Daniel. Born on a Blue Day. Simon and Schuster, 2007.