A Life Inspired by an Unexpected Genius

The mathematician Ken Ono believes that the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan — mathematical savant and two-time college dropout — holds valuable lessons for how we find and reward hidden genius.

For the first 27 years of his life, the mathematician Ken Ono was a screw-up, a disappointment and a failure. At least, that’s how he saw himself. The youngest son of first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States, Ono grew up under relentless pressure to achieve academically. His parents set an unusually high bar. Ono’s father, an eminent mathematician who accepted an invitation from J. Robert Oppenheimer to join the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Ono’s mother, meanwhile, was a quintessential “tiger parent,” discouraging any interests unrelated to the steady accumulation of scholarly credentials.

This intellectual crucible produced the desired results — Ono studied mathematics and launched a promising academic career — but at great emotional cost. As a teenager, Ono became so desperate to escape his parents’ expectations that he dropped out of high school. He later earned admission to the University of Chicago but had an apathetic attitude toward his studies, preferring to party with his fraternity brothers. He eventually discovered a genuine enthusiasm for mathematics, became a professor, and started a family, but fear of failure still weighed so heavily on Ono that he attempted suicide while attending an academic conference. Only after he joined the Institute for Advanced Study himself did Ono begin to make peace with his upbringing.

Through it all, Ono found inspiration in the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematical prodigy born into poverty in late-19th-century colonial India. Ramanujan received very little formal schooling, yet he still produced thousands of independent mathematical results, some of which — like the Ramanujan theta function, which has found applications in string theory — are still intensely studied. But despite his genius, Ramanujan’s achievements didn’t come easily. He struggled to gain acceptance from Western mathematicians and dropped out of university twice before dying of illness at the age of 32.

While Ono, now 48, doesn’t compare himself to Ramanujan in terms of ability, he has built his career in part from Ramanujan’s insights. In 2014, Ono and his collaborators Michael Griffin and Ole Warnaar published a breakthrough result in algebraic number theory that generalized one of Ramanujan’s own results. Ono’s work, which is based on a pair of equations called the Rogers-Ramanujan identities, can be used to easily produce algebraic numbers (such as phi, better known as the “golden ratio”).

More recently, Ono served as an associate producer and mathematical consultant for The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recently released feature film about Ramanujan’s life. And his new memoir, My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count (co-authored with Amir D. Aczel), draws connections between Ramanujan’s life and Ono’s own circuitous path to mathematical and emotional fulfillment. “I wrote this book to show off my weaknesses, to show off my struggles,” Ono said. “People who are successful in their careers were not always successful from day one.”

Like Ramanujan, who benefited from years of mentorship by the British mathematician G.H. Hardy, Ono credits his own success to serendipitous encounters with teachers who helped his talents flourish. He now spends a great deal of time mentoring his own students at Emory University. Ono has also helped launch the Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Initiative, a venture that “strives to find undiscovered mathematicians around the world and match them with advancement opportunities in the field.”

Quanta Magazine spoke with Ono about finding his way as a mathematician and a mentor, and about Ramanujan’s inspiring brand of creativity. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.

QUANTA MAGAZINE: What was so special about Ramanujan’s approach to doing mathematics?

KEN ONO: First, he was really a poet, not a problem solver. Most professional mathematicians, whether they’re in academia or industry, have problems that they’re aiming to solve. Somebody wants to prove the Riemann hypothesis, and sets out to do it. That’s how we think science should proceed, and in fact almost every scientist should work that way, because in reality science develops through the work of thousands of individuals slowly adding to a body of knowledge. But what you find in Ramanujan’s original notebooks is just formula after formula, and it’s not apparent where he’s going with his ideas. He was someone who could set down the paths of beginnings of important theories without knowing for sure why we would care about them as mathematicians of the future.

He’s credited with compiling thousands of identities — that is, equations that are true regardless of what values the variables take. Why is that important?

It is true that the vast majority of the contents of his notebooks are what you would call identities. Identities that relate continued fractions to other functions, expressions for integrals, expressions for hypergeometric functions, and expressions for objects that we call q-series.

But that would be a literal interpretation of his notebooks. In my opinion, that would be like taking a cookbook by Julia Child, reading the recipes and saying that it’s about assembling chemical compounds into something more complicated. Strictly speaking that would be true, but you would be missing out on what makes delicious recipes so important to us.

Ramanujan’s work came through flights of fancy. If he had been asked to explain why he did his work, he would probably say that he recorded formulas that he found beautiful, and they were beautiful because they revealed some unexpected phenomenon. And they’re important to us today because these special phenomena that Ramanujan identified, over and over again, have ended up becoming prototypes for big mathematical theories in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Here’s an example. In one of his published manuscripts, Ramanujan recorded a lot of elementary-looking results called congruences. In the 1960s, Jean-Pierre Serre, himself a Fields medalist, revisited some of these results, and in them he found glimpses of a theory that he named the theory of Galois representations. This theory of Galois representations is the language that Andrew Wiles used in the 1990s to prove Fermat’s last theorem.

There’s no “theory of Ramanujan,” but he anticipated mathematical structures that would be important to all of these other more contemporary works. He lived 80 years before his time.

How do you approach your own mathematical work — more as an artist, like Ramanujan, or with the aim of solving specific problems, like a scientist?

I’m definitely much more of a scientist. Science proceeds at a much faster rate than when I started in my career in the early 1990s, and I have to stop often to recognize the beauty in it and try not to be so caught up in the more professionalized side of how one does science. The grant getting, the publications, and all of that — I have to admit, I don’t like it.

What compelled you to juxtapose your own story with his?

Well, I almost didn’t write it. There are a lot of very personal things that I’ve never told anyone before. It wasn’t until I started writing this book that I was mature enough as a parent myself to try to understand the circumstances that led my parents to raise us the way they did. And as a professor at Emory, I see all these kids under tremendous pressure — rarely pressure that they understand the origin of. So many of these super-talented kids are just going through the motions, and aren’t passionate about their studies at all, and that’s terrible. I was like that too. I’d given up on ever trying to live up to my parents’ expectations, but somehow because I’ve had Ramanujan as a guardian angel, things have worked out well for me. It makes you a better teacher when you just tell people how hard it was for you.

Raymond McCrea Jones for Quanta Magazine

Video: Ono explains how Ramanujan has served as his “guardian angel” throughout his life and career.

This book and your story don’t fit the typical “great man of science” narrative.

I think you’ll find that’s much more common than people are willing to admit. I didn’t discover my passion for mathematics until my early 20s — that’s when [my doctoral adviser Basil] Gordon turned me on to mathematics at a time when I didn’t think anything was beautiful. I thought it was all about test scores, grades and trying to do as well as possible without putting in effort. Colleges are full of kids who think that way. How do you beat the system, right? I wasn’t beating the system. The system was beating me, and Gordon turned me around. When I’ve told people the story I’ve discovered that I’m really not alone.

That’s what I see in Ramanujan. He was a two-time college dropout whom my father looked up to as a hero — which made no sense to me when I was 16, because I was told I had to be a child prodigy. I was supposed to do my geometry problems during the summer sitting next to my dad while he did his research. I wasn’t even really allowed to go out and play, and then to just have my father tell me about Ramanujan out of the blue — it was beyond earth-shattering.

If you’d been interested in something conventionally “artistic,” like music, this kind of painful journey toward success would not seem so surprising. Why does it surprise us to hear about a mathematician having the same struggles?

For whatever reason, we live in a culture where we think that the abilities of our best scientists and our best mathematicians are somehow just God-given. That either you have this gift or you don’t, and it’s not related to help, to hard work, to luck. I think that’s part of the reason why, when we try to talk about mathematics to the public, so many people just immediately respond by saying, “Well, I was never very good at math. So I’m not really supposed to understand it or identify with it.” I might have had some mathematical talent passed through my father genetically, but that was by no means enough. You have to be passionate about a subject.

At the same time, I want it to be known that it’s totally OK to fail. In fact, you learn from your mistakes. We learn early on if that you want to be good at playing the violin, you’ve got to practice. If you want to be good at sports, you practice. But for some crazy reason, our culture assumes that if you’re good at math, you were just born with it, and that’s it. But you can be so good at math in so many different ways. I failed my [graduate-school] algebra qualifications! That doesn’t mean I can’t end up being a successful mathematician. But when I tell people I failed at this, nobody believes me.

But Ramanujan seems to be just that: a unique genius who appeared out of nowhere. What does that have to do with a regular person’s life?

You think no one can be like Ramanujan? Well, I disagree. I think we can search the world looking for a mathematical talent, just not by the usual metrics. I want teachers and parents to recognize that when you do see unusual talent, instead of demanding that these people have certain test scores, let’s find a way to help nurture them. Because I think humanity needs it. I think these are the lessons we learn from Ramanujan.

You’re leading the Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Initiative. What is this spirit? How do we recognize it?

First of all, it’s the idea that talent is often found in the most unforgiving and unpromising of circumstances. It’s the responsibility of mentors, teachers and parents first to recognize that talent, which is not always easy to do, and then to offer opportunities that nurture that talent.

There are no age limits, and I don’t want this to be a competition where you’re recognized for high test scores. I have no trouble finding people who can get an 800 on the math SAT. That’s easy. Those people don’t need to be identified. They’ve already self-identified. I’m searching for creativity.

That said, the spirit of Ramanujan does not require finding the next Ramanujan. We would be super lucky to do that, but if we make opportunities for 30 talented people around the world who are presently working in an intellectual desert, or are subjected to inelastic educational systems where they’re not allowed to flourish — or if we can provide an opportunity for someone to work with a scientist who could be their G.H. Hardy — then this initiative will be successful.

Do you wish you had been nurtured differently? Do you resent your parents?

I love my parents. We discussed the draft of the book for months last summer. They were very upset with me at first, because it was difficult for them to get past the first 30 pages, but now they embrace it. One reviewer actually saw the book as a love letter to my parents and to my mentors, because they taught me skills I needed.

If you had never joined the Institute for Advanced Study, would you still be struggling to reconcile your own path with your parents’ expectations?

I think I would still be searching for that recognition today if I hadn’t gotten there.

Both my parents will tell you that you only get to live once, so you might as well be the very, very best that you can be at whatever you choose. Which I don’t necessarily agree with, because if everyone lived that way, there would be nothing but a whole bunch of unhappy people in the world. But that’s how they brought us up. They taught me to be competitive. They taught me not to falsely believe I had done well when I hadn’t. They taught me standards, and those are important. But it’s true that if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work at the Institute, I’m not sure I would have been able to write this book. I might still be struggling with these things.

This article was reprinted on ScientificAmerican.com.

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