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.
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.
His new memoir, My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count, draws connections between Ramanujan’s life and Ono’s own circuitous path to mathematical and emotional fulfillment.
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.
Quanta Magazine spoke with Ono about finding his way as a mathematician and a mentor, and about Ramanujan’s inspiring brand of creativity.
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.