Archive for April, 2016

Was Ramanujan Autistic?

April 24, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read the book, The man who knew infinity . It was a real good book. Ramanujan was born in Erode (BTW, that name is the shortened form of eera odu, which means wet skull. It comes from a legend that Shiva tore off one of Vishnu’s heads), but spent a lot of time in Chennai (my home town) and so it had even more significance for me. It also, naturally, talked about his relationship with G H Hardy. So I highly recommend the book.

But what I want to highlight here is that the possibility that Ramanujan was Autistic. Given below is a page from the book.

A page from Ramanujan describing his childhood. There are some indications that he was probably autistic

A page from Ramanujan describing his childhood. There are some indications that he was probably autistic

The lining up of vessels is a tell-tale sign. If you see the wikipedia page for Autism, you will see that there are two pictures of kids lining up things. Moreover the talk about his tantrums, being self-directed, eating only at a temple (Autistic people are known to stick to a routine), being non-verbal till 3 years old etc suggest strongly that Ramanujan was Autistic.

All this should not be surprising since Autism has been with us for as long as we know. We have just started diagnosing it better. But, once I noticed this passage, I looked it up on the internet and soon found that many people have proposed the possibility that Ramanujan was Autistic. The author of this book though, was probably not aware of Autism (to be fair to him, the book was written 25 years ago, in 1991). There is no mention of it in the book. While the books takes lots of pain to try to understand Ramanujan’s genius and his awkward social capabilities, I wonder how different our understanding of Ramanujan would be, had historians acknowledge the possibility of his being Autistic. More importantly, makes us wonder, how much of his genius was because of his being Autistic. It is, in a sense, a futile exercise, since Autism is not something separate from the person. That is why, autistic self-advocates prefer the word “Autistic person”, rather than “a person with Autism”.

But read the book. It is fascinating. Let me end it on one of the results that Ramanujan discovered which was that the sum of the infinite series 1+2+3+4… is -1/12. You can see the proof in this youtube video.


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