The Myth Of Ramanujan

August 31, 2023

Recently I did some reading about Ed Witten. Witten is notorious for being the very smartest person in rooms filled with very, very smart people: namely physicists and mathematicians. Despite being a quantum physicist, he also won the Fields Medal in mathematics; the only physicist to do so.. He is the progenitor of M-theory, used to unify all of the different variations of string theory. By any measure, he’s a creative intellect with the same kind of raw power as an Einstein or a Schrodinger.

What was really interesting about him to me will only be interesting to a much smaller set of people. I read his biography and said, “Wow, he’s from Baltimore.”

That’s where I’m from.

In fact, he went to the Park School which is not far from my childhood home. I had friends that went there. If you’re like almost anyone else I know you have a default thought in your head that goes something like this: “Nothing interesting ever happens where I’m from. Nobody interesting comes from where I’m from.” That’s what people from Oliver Anthony’s small town in Virginia were saying too.

A little over a hundred years ago, GH Hardy got a letter from a kid in India with complicated mathematical formulas that “seemed scarcely possible to believe.” That kid was Srinivasa Ramanujan and you should go take a look at some of his infinite series - they are TOTALLY opaque. He came to England and worked directly with Hardy, died early at just 32, and is known today as one of the most incredible pure, intuitive mathematicians the world has ever seen. The story of Good Will Hunting was partly inspired by Ramanujan’s life.

The really compelling idea of Ramanujan - and really the entire arc of Good Will Hunting too - is that there are geniuses hiding in plain sight. They are the janitors in the halls of MIT and the poor kids growing up in Tamil, India. And the implicit problem about our world is that it has too much hubris and too many barriers for these poor souls. And so we find these people and their dazzling insights only by accident, if at all.

A hundred years ago this was clearly true, and Ramanujan serves as the existence-proof. Today this idea has become the myth of the rare genius. But the problem with rare talents a hundred years ago wasn’t that they were rare, it’s that they were hard to find.

Which is why it’s so great to realize that someone like Ed Witten came from the same place I did. How the hell did he get to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton? Well, he had deep interests. He pursued them. He found and met other interesting people. He moved to the next step. He did it incrementally. The relentlessly interested will rise to the top.

Ramanujan was starved for mathematical peers. He wrote to people in England because he couldn’t find anyone he could do math with where he lived - he outstripped the local college students and their textbooks as a little kid. What Ramanujan was looking for was peers. He wanted to find people with the same capabilities and interests as him.

Perhaps the most powerful attribute of the internet is the ability to connect people with similar interests and capabilities. This single world-encompassing network has completely obviated the problem of Ramanujan. If he were born today in another poor, rural village in southern India, he’d be gobbling up Wikipedia articles and Math Olympiad problems from a cheap cell phone. The world has gotten smart enough to find the Ramanujans, the Terry Taos, the Ed Wittens, the Elon Musks.

The problem today is a bit different. Today it’s all out there, but it’s too easy to be consumed by everything else. There’s three scenarios Ramanujan in 2023 might find himself in:

  1. He’s doing all the infinite series and fraction equivalents he wants, among peers on the internet, or in person
  2. He’s actively chosen to remain unknown, whether by choice or fear, like Perelman or Kaczynski.
  3. He’ll get back to the interesting math soon, after a few more TikTok videos or rounds of Call of Duty.

We’re drowning in information and entertainment today and the primary risk isn’t missing the geniuses of today, it’s building an environment where the geniuses among us can thrive with their peers.

We’re not just talking about mathematicians and physicists either. Pick your genre and your talent. Eminem grew up in Detroit battling on the Detroit scene. The rapper Logic is from Rockville, right up the street from where I live today. The titantic east vs west vs south battles of the 90s rap scene will never be repeated today. The best rappers all know (of) each other, or will soon enough, and the best are the best because they keep rapping, keep working on their craft, keep battling other rappers. Eminem is 50 and still coming up with incredible new shit. And it’s all happening on the internet. On Youtube.

Content creation is the thing-to-do in 2023. I used to be dismissive of this idea - it’s just the new cool thing all the kids want to do. But I’ve changed my tune a bit. Content is king, not because of our consumption, rather as action that allows genius to be discoverable. Maybe all of our conspicuous digital consumption - all the likes and hearts - are just the social transaction costs of making all of the skills and talents discoverable via this weird global network called the Internet.

But I’ll tell you this, the key for building up rare talent or genius is in producing and not consuming. And being relentlessly interested.

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