I grew up in Ranchi, a small town located in the Chota Nagpur Plateau in eastern India. Ranchi had a very pleasant climate throughout the year. When I walk down memory lane, I see the town surrounded by lush green forests, hills, and many stunningly beautiful waterfalls.
Besides the delightful visits to Hundru falls, Hirni falls and the nearby Rajarappa temple, the one thing I very fondly recall is going to the yearly book fairs in Ranchi. For me, the main attraction of the book fair was an eclectic collection of cheap and affordable Russian books translated into Hindi or English. Often the protagonists in these books were naïve idealists or young revolutionaries who wanted to create an equitable and just society. These books introduced me to the fascinating literary works of Chekhov, Gorky, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.
One of the stories of Chekhov – “The Bet” – had a very profound impact on me. I quote one passage – “And I despise your books, despise all worldly blessings and wisdom. Everything is void, frail, visionary, and delusive as a mirage. Though you be proud and wise and beautiful, yet will death wipe you from the face of the earth like the mice underground; …”
This passage made me deeply contemplate the meaning and purpose of life. I suspected that life does not have any inherent meaning. I wondered what’s the point of life, of the pursuit of wealth or that of knowledge and wisdom, if death would eventually wipe all of us out of the face of the earth. Aren’t we just an insignificant blip in the history of our cosmos? These thoughts were humbling and also liberating. Liberating because I realized that in the face of death I have nothing to lose, I have nothing to fear.
I also wondered who created our Universe. If there was a creator God, who created God? After quickly walking through the alleys of religion and philosophy for finding answers to my questions, finally, I reached the door of Physics. However, I lacked the necessary key, i.e., the mathematical background and maturity needed to understand physics. Therefore, I began learning mathematics. The more mathematics I learned, the more I got fascinated with this beautiful subject. I found joy in the world of numbers and encountered many unexpected connections.
Famous physicist Wigner tells the story of a statistician and his friend in his article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”:
“…The reprint started, as usual, with the Gaussian distribution and the statistician explained to his former classmate the meaning of the symbols for the actual population, for the average population, and so on. His classmate was a bit incredulous and was not quite sure whether the statistician was pulling his leg. "How can you know that?" was his query. "And what is this symbol here?" "Oh," said the statistician, "this is pi." "What is that?" "The ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter." "Well, now you are pushing your joke too far," said the classmate, "surely the population has nothing to do with the circumference of the circle.”
The following result connects pi with an infinite series containing the reciprocal of odd numbers
and it was proved in the 14th century by Madhava.
Another intriguing result involving pi is the following
which was proved by Ramanujan. Interestingly, many of the pure number-theoretic results of Ramanujan have connections with Physics – with String Theory and in explaining the behaviour of the black holes. Ramanujan once said that "An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God."
We do not yet know if Physics will ever be successful in answering all the deep questions about life and the universe. In the meantime, you can ask Google – “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything“. If you have not tried it before, please do it now, you will be surprised by the answer.