Superstar Mathematician Ken Ono and “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

By Shelby Herbert

To many, the idea that the highly-structured and empirical world of pure mathematics could hold space for sensitive, amorphous concepts like spirituality is completely alien. Srinivasa Ramanujan, a world-renowned 19th century number theorist and his contemporary acolyte, Dr. Ken Ono, effectively bridge this deep aperture between math and the humanities.

In this episode of the Discover Science Podcast, an offshoot of the public lecture series of the same name, two UNR students speak with Dr. Ken Ono — an expert on the life and work of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a covert genius who shook the world of mathematics with his discoveries in the 19th century.

Ramanujan: A Self-Taught Mathematical Genius

Born in 1887, Srinivasa Ramanujan was a two-time college dropout working as a clerk in Madras under the British Raj. He was also an autodidact and a clandestine mathematical prodigy. Seeking out scholars who could better understand his work, Ramanujan eventually made contact with English mathematician G. H. Hardy and joined him at the University of Cambridge. When he died at only 32 years old, Ramanujan left behind three notebooks filled with mathematical equations he described as “divinely inspired,” accrediting his mathematical acumen to his family goddess.

Mathematicians have been trying to parse out these equations ever since. The pursuit has led to solutions of ancient mathematical mysteries, breakthroughs in modern physics, and ideas that help power the internet. Ramanujan’s story has been the source of inspiration for countless mathematicians and scientists, including world-renowned number theorist Dr. Ken Ono.

“Ramanujan mattered to me first when I was in high school, when I learned that he was a two-time college dropout,” says Ono. “As a high school student, I was told by my parents that it was all about the pursuit of high test scores and straight As. Let’s make no mistake — good grades and good test scores are important. But as a high school kid, I really needed to understand that in the long run, the quality of your achievements and the quality of your character matter more. Of course, in terms of his mathematics, I’ve been studying his mathematics my entire life. He left behind three notebooks that I am one of dozens of mathematicians around the world, trying to make sense of, even a hundred years after his death.”

Ono is an expert on the life and work of Srinivasa Ramanujan and currently serves as the chair of the Mathematics Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is the Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics and is the department chair at the University of Virginia.

But Ono’s passion for number theory transcends the hallowed halls of ivy — he was the mathematical consultant on the film, “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” which brings Ramanujan’s work to life on the big screen. He even made an appearance in a 2022 Super Bowl commercial.

Dr. Ken Ono: Mathematician-Turned-Hollywood Producer

Ono considers his participation in the film to be “one of the most amazing things that ever happened to me in my entire life.” He was initially brought onto the project to be a consultant for the art department: “[to demonstrate] which formulas should be put on the blackboards, and so on and so forth.” Instead, they invited him out to Pinewood Studios in London to take part in the project.

“It was actually really fascinating,” says Ono. “Remember, I’m a math professor. I honestly don’t know how any of that happened. But after about a week working on set … I got to know a lot of the people who were part of the film, and I think they found me interesting. They discovered that I knew a whole lot more about the story than maybe anybody else. Within a week, I was sitting in with the director and the actors, just the five of us, going over scenes. That’s when I was elevated to the level of a producer. And so many things [about that] were challenging.”

“One thing I’ll never forget it was [when] I was working with Liz Colbert, our artist. Her job was to master Ramanujan’s handwriting. And she made Ramanujan’s notebooks — [entire] copies of them — by hand. If you’ve seen the film — that notebook — she made the whole thing, and not just the pages that were open [in the shots we used.] It was crazy what they do in Hollywood. But in the middle of one of our meetings, the director says, ‘We need to start rehearsals. Can you come in and help us?’

“So, I walked into a room, and there’s Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel. We started reading the script, huddled around the table. And I gotta tell you, for the first thirty minutes, I sat ten feet behind the table thinking I have no business here. I have no business here. And after that half-hour, Jeremy Irons looks at me, ‘You’re the mathematician, right? You are the most important person here today, because you have to teach us to know how to pretend to be mathematicians. Without you, we can’t do this right.'”

Hosting this episode are UNR students Michael Blane, a Ph.D. student in pure mathematics with a concentration in analysis and number theory, and Shelby Herbert, a graduate student of journalism. Herbert co-hosted and produced this episode of the Discover Science Podcast in partnership with the Hitchcock Project for Visualizing Science and the UNR College of Science.

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