While on his death bed, the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan cryptically wrote down functions he said came to him in dreams, with a hunch about how they behaved. Now 100 years later, researchers say they’ve proved he was right.
“We’ve solved the problems from his last mysterious letters. For people who work in this area of math, the problem has been open for 90 years,” Emory University mathematician Ken Ono said.
Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematician born in a rural village in South India, spent so much time thinking about math that he flunked out of college in India twice, Ono said.
But he sent mathematicians letters describing his work, and one of the most preeminent ones, English mathematician G. H. Hardy, recognized the Indian boy’s genius and invited him to Cambridge University in England to study. While there, Ramanujan published more than 30 papers and was inducted into the Royal Society.
“For a brief window of time, five years, he lit the world of math on fire,” Ono told LiveScience.
But the cold weather eventually weakened Ramanujan’s health, and when he was dying, he went home to India.
It was on his deathbed in 1920 that he described mysterious functions that mimicked theta functions, or modular forms, in a letter to Hardy. Like trigonometric functions such as sine and cosine, theta functions have a repeating pattern, but the pattern is much more complex and subtle than a simple sine curve. Theta functions are also “super-symmetric,” meaning that if a specific type of mathematical function called a Moebius transformation is applied to the functions, they turn into themselves. Because they are so symmetric these theta functions are useful in many types of mathematics and physics, including string theory.
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