Mathematics in a Vacuum

Srinivasa RamanujanOn this day in 1915, actor Barbara Billingsley was born. She only died a couple of years ago at the age of 94. Best remembered as the mother on Leave It to Beaver, she is the ultimate symbol of 1950s domesticity. Never exactly a hottie (she only started acting at the age of 30), she exuded what we all wanted mothers to be. And I don’t mean that in an entirely neutral way. She was meant to be sexy. She was 42 when she started the series. The original MILF.

The British broadcaster James Burke is 77 today. He is best known for his BBC science series Connections and then the later (and better) The Day the Universe Changed. They were basically science history. I think he was pretty loose with his causality. But it was always fun. The following video is from the very end of the latter series. At the time, I didn’t really believe this specific bit. He makes the case for religious belief—at least non-dogmatic religious belief. This goes entirely against what he’d been saying throughout the rest of the series. But I’ve come to be far more agnostic on that topic. But there’s no way I’m giving up indoor plumbing and center heating. And neither is Burke! “If the universe is what you say it is, then say!” (BTW: that was in 1985—two years before I got on the internet.)

Other birthdays: composer Carl Friedrich Abel (1723); mathematician Pierre Ossian Bonnet (1819); baseball manager Connie Mack (1862); mathematician Dmitri Egorov (1869); American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869); tragic (I really don’t think he was a Nazi) composer Franz Schmidt (1874); actor Hector Elizondo (77); American traitor Paul Wolfowitz (70); mediocre journalist Diane Sawyer (68); and actor Ralph Fiennes (51).

The day, however, belongs to… Wait. In India, it is National Mathematics Day. This is in recognition of today’s birthday winner, Srinivasa Ramanujan who was born on this day in 1887. He was born into the Indian middle class—basically a caste of teachers. And so he was educated, but poor. He showed amazing mathematical ability at a very young age. And he mostly taught himself. But because he was isolated from Europe, he worked independently. He rediscovered many theorems and developed entirely new areas of mathematical research. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 32, at least partially as a result of malnutrition. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest mathematical minds ever, on the order of Gauss. But it just shows what nonsense are ideas of “equality of opportunity.” Ramanujan is not a household name because he was born in the wrong place. Still, his influence is felt to this day and will continue as long as humans continue the study of mathematics.

Happy birthday Srinivasa Ramanujan!

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