A box of manuscripts and three notebooks. That's all that's left of the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician who lived his remarkable but short life around the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, that small stash of mathematical legacy still yields surprises. Two mathematicians of Emory University, Ken Ono and Sarah Trebat-Leder, have recently a made a fascinating discovery within its yellowed pages. It shows that Ramanujan was further ahead of his time than anyone had expected, and provides a beautiful link between several milestones in the history of mathematics. And it all goes back to the innocuous-looking number 1729.
Ramanujan's story is as inspiring as it is tragic. Born in 1887 in a small village around 400 km from Madras (now Chennai), Ramanujan developed a passion for mathematics at a young age, but had to pursue it mostly alone and in poverty. Until, in 1913, he decided to write a letter to the famous Cambridge number theorist G.H. Hardy. Accustomed to this early form of spam, Hardy might have been forgiven for dispatching the highly unorthodox letter straight to the bin. But he didn't. Recognising the author's genius, Hardy invited Ramanujan to Cambridge, where he arrived in 1914. Over the following years, Ramanujan more than repaid Hardy's faith in his talent, but suffered ill health due, in part, to the grizzly English climate and food. Ramanujan returned to India in 1919, still feeble, and died the following year, aged only 32. Hardy later described his collaboration with Ramanujan as "the one romantic incident in my life".
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