“My Search for Ramanujan”

Recently Ken Ono, a renowned mathematician at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, published an autobiography entitled My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count. It is co-authored with Amir Aczel, who, among other things, wrote the book Finding Zero, but sadly Aczel passed away before the book was completed.

Ken Ono was the son of Takashi Ono, a Japanese mathematician who taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Ono’s field of research has closely paralleled the writings of famed Inidian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Among other things, Ono significantly extended Ramanujan’s work on partition congruences and mock theta functions, and, with two collaborators, developed a framework for the Rogers-Ramanujan identities, solving a long-standing open problem that had its roots in the writing of Ramanujan. Ono has been honored with a number of awards, including a Presidential Early Career Award from U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000. Ono served as mathematical consultant for the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity, which was based on Kanigel’s biography of Ramanujan.

Ono’s book recounts his troubled youth, where he chafed under the stern upbringing of his Japanese “tiger parents,” who, like many other first-generation Asian-Americans, were obsessed that their children must achieve at the very top of their class. First Ono gave up his violin lessons, and then he dropped out of high school altogether. Subsequently he attended college at the University of Chicago, although, as he confesses, he was more interested in frat parties and bicycle racing than his studies. Nonetheless he did manage to get accepted to the mathematics graduate program at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying under Basil Gordon. His troubled upbringing, however, continued to haunt him, and he even attempted suicide at one point of despondency. All along, he had classic “impostor syndrome” psychological problems.

Only later, when Ono adopted Ramanujan as a role model of sorts, did he finally regain his footing, and soon established himself as a first-rate research mathematician. In the end, he reconciled with his parents, bonding with them in ways that he never could while growing up. In the process he did some very important research work, as mentioned above.

So how good is Ken Ono’s book? Let me state it very plainly: This is an outstanding book. It is lucidly and evocatively written, telling a tale that rings true to many who have trained to be professional mathematicians, but with a universality that transcends the field of mathematics. This book has few peers, either in emotional intensity or in its delightful and inspiring connection to Ramanujan. Some mathematical content is included, yet it is so disarmingly written that it can be read by persons with a broad range of backgrounds — nothing more than basic high-school mathematics is required. This book will go far to build bridges to other disciplines of science, and to the arts and humanities as well.

The pain that Ono must have experienced is vividly illustrated by a series of inset quotes representing the “voices” that Ono recalled, rooted in his stern upbringing. Example:

Ken-chan, your parents are disappointed in you. You are embarrassment. Look at that professor’s children. Unlike you, they study all of time, and they what you should be. You sloppy. You spoiled. Your mother sacrificed her life for you, so you do your part. What wrong with you? You want play all of time?

Later, when in graduate school, when he became discouraged with the classes and fierce competition of other students, similar voices echoed in his mind:

Ken-chan, of course classes hard, too hard for you. What you expect? You don’t belong here. All that time you spend on bike, these students prepare for graduate school. You not good enough to be mathematician.

In the end, Ono’s work poring over the writings of Ramanujan, and working to fill in the many gaps and unproven assertions in those papers, proved immensely fulfilling and uplifting to him — a truly spiritual experience. As he described it,

I have read most of Ramanujan’s papers multiple times. I have read virtually everything ever written about him, and I have read and reread his letters and notebooks many times. … The deeper I dig, the more in awe I am of Ramanujan. … How was it possible for an untrained youth ignorant of modern mathematics to produce those wonderful formulas? Reading Ramanujan’s writings has become a spiritual experience for me.

His experience is not unlike that of Carl Sagan, who wrote that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” and Albert Einstein, who wrote “Only one who has devoted his life to [scientific] ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength.”

I just wish other mathematicians and scientists could write about their lives and work so effectively. Maybe more of us should try!

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