Life Inspired – *Mathematical genius Ken Ono believes that the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan — a mathematical genius and twice-college dropout is a valuable lesson about how to discover and celebrate the hidden genius.*

For the initial 27-years of his existence Mathematical genius Ken Ono was a flimsy mess was a disappointment, a failure. In fact, that’s what he perceived himself.

As the youngest of first-generation Japanese migrants into The United States, Ono grew in a world of constant pressure to be academically successful. His parents set a remarkably high standard.

Ono’s father, a renowned mathematics professor who was invited by J. Robert Oppenheimer to be a part of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was expecting his son to follow his example. Ono’s mom, in turn, was the perfect “tiger parent,”” dissuading any interest that was not related to the continuous growth of academic qualifications.

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This intellectual crucible brought about the desired results Ono took up mathematics and began an impressive academic careerbut with a huge emotional costs. As a teen, Ono became so desperate to evade the expectations of his parents that he decided to drop out of high school.

Ono later was admitted into The University of Chicago but had an attitude of naivety towards his academic studies, preferring to spend time with the fraternity brothers.

Ono eventually discovered a real passion for math, was an instructor, and began the family of his own, but the his fear of failing was so weighing on Ono that he contemplated suicide at the academic gathering. After he joined the Institute for Advanced Study himself did Ono start to come to terms with his childhood.

In all this, Ono found inspiration in the life of Srinivasa Rajanujan an exceptional mathematician who was born into poverty in the late 19th century of colonial India. Ramanujan had a very low level of formal education, yet his work produced a multitude of mathematically based results that were independent Some of them such as for instance, the Ramanujan theta formula, that has been found to have applications in the field of string theory and remain a subject of intense study.

However, despite his talent, Ramanujan’s accomplishments weren’t easy. He struggled to be accepted from Western mathematicians. He was unable to attend university two times before dying from disease at 32.

Although Ono who is now 48 isn’t comparing him to Ramanujan in terms of skill however, he’s built his professional career largely on Ramanujan’s ideas. The year 2014 was the time that Ono along with his coworkers Michael Griffin and Ole Warnaar published an important result in algebraic numbers theory that extended one of Ramanujan’s findings.

Ono’s research, founded on a pair equations known as the Rogers-Ramanujan identity is able to produce mathematical number patterns (such such as the phi number, also called”the “golden ratio”).

Recently, Ono served as an associate producer and maths advisor on *the film The Man who knew Infinity* which was a recently released feature film that focuses on Ramanujan’s story.

His new book, *My Search for Ramanujan: How I learned to count* (co-authored together with Amir D. Aczel) connects Ramanujan’s personal life and Ono’s complicated path to mathematical and emotional satisfaction. “I have written this book to expose my flaws, and to showcase my struggles,” Ono said. “People who have achieved success in their career were not necessarily successful from the start.”

As Ramanujan who also benefited from years of guidance from his mentor, the British mathematician G.H. Hardy, Ono credits his personal success to the chance encounters with teachers that helped his abilities grow. Ono now spends a large amount of time guiding his pupils in Emory University. Ono has also played a role in the creation of The Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Initiative which is a initiative which “strives to identify mathematicians who are not well-known all over the world and pair them with opportunities to advance for them in their field.”

*Quanta Magazine* spoke with Ono about his journey to becoming a mentor as a mathematician, and mentor, as well as about Ramanujan’s inspirational creative style. A condensed and edited edition of their interview is available.

##### Quanta Magazine What was special about Ramanujan’s way of math?

KEN ONO: To begin it was that he was actually poet and not a problem-solver. The majority of mathematicians who are professionals regardless of whether they’re working employed or in academia and have issues they’re seeking to solve.

Someone wants to demonstrate the Riemann hypothesis and set out to prove it. This is how scientists should conduct their research and the majority of scientists should operate this way, since the science process is the efforts of a multitude of people slowly adding to the body of knowledge.

What you’ll find in Ramanujan’s notebooks is nothing more than formula after formula and it’s unclear the direction he’s taking with his theories. He was a person who could trace the beginnings of major theories, but not know the reason we should be interested in them as mathematicians in the near future.

##### He’s credited with creating hundreds of identity equations which is to say equations that hold regardless of the value that variables have. What is the significance of this?

It’s evident that the majority of the information in his notebooks is what we would consider to be identities. Identifications that link repeated fractions with other functions as well as expressions for integrals hypergeometric expressions, or expressions for objects, which we refer to as *Q*-series.

It’s an interpretation literal the notebooks of him. To me, it is like reading an old cookbook written by Julia Child, reading the recipes and then saying it’s about assembling chemical substances into something more complex. It’s accurate, but you’d not be able to enjoy the things that make delicious food so crucial to us.

Ramanujan’s work was revealed through his the use of imagination. If he were asked to justify the reasons behind his work and what he did, he’d probably tell you that he compiled formulas he considered beautiful and attractive because they revealed a new phenomenon. These are significant to us in the present because the special phenomenon that Ramanujan observed repeatedly became models for major mathematical theories during the 20th and 21st century.

Here’s an illustration. One of the manuscripts published Ramanujan wrote down a variety of results that appeared elementary, referred to as congruences. in the 60s Jean-Pierre Serre, himself a Fields medalist, looked back at some of these findings, and found glimpses of a theory was dubbed “the theory of Galois representations. The concept that he proposed of Galois representations is also the one which Andrew Wiles used in the 1990s to prove Fermat’s most famous theorem.

The book doesn’t have a “theory of Ramanujan” but he did anticipate mathematical patterns that would be crucial to these other works that are more recent. He was born 80 years prior to his time.

##### What is the best way to take your mathematical work? Do you approach it more as an artist, as Ramanujan did or with the intention of tackling specific issues as scientists?

I’m definitely more than scientist. Science is moving at a more rapid pace than when I first started my profession in late 1990s. As such, I need be mindful to look around often to see the beauty in it, and avoid getting focused on the more formal aspect of what one can do with science. The grant-making process or the publications and everything else — I must admit that I’m not enjoying it.

##### What made you decide to contrast your own story with that of his?

Well, I almost didn’t write it. There are many personal details that I’ve never spoken to anyone about before. It wasn’t until I began writing this book that I realized I felt enough of a mature parent to comprehend the factors which led the way my parents raised us as they did.

As an Emory professor Emory I observe every single one of these students under immense pressure, but not pressure that they comprehend the root of. Many of these talented youngsters are simply performing their duties and don’t really care about their studies in any way which is a shame. I’m like that. I’d given up being able to live up to the expectations of my parents however, because Ramanujan was my protector of my soul, the things turned well for me. It helps you become more effective as a teacher when you tell your students the hardships it took for you.

##### The book and the story do not fit into the standard “great scientist” story.

You’ll see that this is more widespread than most people would like to admit. I didn’t realize my love for math until my early 20s — which was the time that my doctoral advisor Basil] Gordon turned me into mathematics in a time that I wasn’t convinced that any thing was worth a look. I was convinced that it was all about grades, test scores and trying to perform the best I could without exerting effort. Colleges are full of students who believe that is the way to go. How do you get around the system? It wasn’t like I was beat the system. I was being beaten by the system and Gordon helped me turn around. After telling people my story, I’ve learned that I’m not alone.

This is what I see in Ramanujan. He was a two-time university dropout that my father revered as a hero that was a complete mystery for me when I was sixteen, as I was taught that I needed to be an exceptional child. I was expected to solve my geometry homework in the summer while by sitting with my dad as he worked on his research. I was never allowed to leave and play, then to have my dad speak to me about Ramanujan in the middle of the night It was the realm of possibility.

##### If you’ve been looking for something that is considered to be “artistic,” like music such as music, this painful path to achieve success would not be so shocking. What is it that makes us surprised to hear of a mathematician experiencing the same difficulties?

Whatever the reason it is because our society is a society in which we believe that the talents of our top mathematicians and scientists are a gift from God. You either have this ability or do not, and it’s not a result of the assistance of others, or to perseverance, or to luck. I believe that’s a large part of the reason that when we attempt to discuss mathematics with the general public, a lot of people immediately respond to the question by saying, “Well, I was never a great mathematician. That’s why I’m not able to grasp it or be able to identify to it.” It’s possible that I acquired some mathematical skills by my father genetically however, that’s far from enough. You must be a passionate person about the topic.

However I would like it to be understood that it’s perfectly acceptable to make mistakes. In reality, you can make mistakes and learn. If you’re young and you’re looking to become skilled in playing violin you have to work hard. If you’re looking to become skilled in sports, you’ll need to practice.

However, for some reason, we believe that if you’re gifted in math, you’re born with it and that’s all it takes. You can be proficient in math in numerous ways. I failed my [graduate-school] algebra qualifications! This doesn’t mean that I won’t be a mathematician who is successful. However, when I say to that I didn’t succeed at this, no one believes me.

##### The story and this book aren’t typical “great scientist” story.

I believe it’s more prevalent than many people admit. I didn’t realize my love for math until my early 20s – that’s when my doctoral adviser Basil] Gordon turned me into math at a time that I wasn’t convinced that everything was beautiful. I was convinced that it was all about the test score, grades and attempting to perform as well as I could without exerting effort.

Colleges are filled with students who believe that is the way to go. How do you get around the system? I was not beat the system. I was being beaten by the system and Gordon helped me turn around. After telling people my tale, I’ve realized that I’m not alone.

This is what I see in Ramanujan. He was a twice-college dropout, whom my father revered as a hero this was completely unreal to me at the age of 16 because I was told that I had to be an outstanding child. I was required to work on my geometry assignments in the summer, sitting with my dad as doing his research. I was never allowed to leave and play, then to hear my dad speak to me about Ramanujan from the air and it was the realm of possibility.

##### If you’re interested in something considered “artistic,” like music and dance, this type of difficult road to success wouldn’t seem that surprising. Why is it surprising to learn that a mathematician is experiencing the same difficulties?

Whatever the reason it is because there is something about our world in which we believe that the talents of our most brilliant mathematicians and scientists are somehow God-given. It’s either you’ve got this ability or you don’t, and that it’s not a result of help or work hard, to luck. I believe that’s a large part of the reason that when we attempt to explain mathematics to the general public, a lot of people respond immediately to the question by saying, “Well, I was not particularly good at math.

Therefore, I’m not expected to grasp the concept or even identify with it.” It’s possible that I been gifted with math by my father genetically however, that’s far from enough. It is essential to be a passionate person about the subject.

However I would like to make it clear that it’s perfectly acceptable to make mistakes. In reality, you can make mistakes and learn. If you’re young and you’re looking to become proficient in performing on the violin you have to work hard. If you’re looking to become skilled in sports, you’ll need to practice.

However, for some reason, the culture of our time assumes that if you’re proficient in math, then you were born with it and that’s all there is to it. You can be adept at math in numerous ways. I failed my [graduate-school] algebra qualifications! This doesn’t mean that I won’t become an accomplished mathematician. If I tell that I didn’t succeed at this, no one believes me.

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