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My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count

Ken Ono and Amir D. Aczel
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
, on

This is an intellectual autobiography and confession of the American number theorist Ken Ono (1976– ), now Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics at Emory University. Ono’s hero is the Indian number theorist and analyst Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920), and Ono considers their careers intertwined even though they did not overlap in time. About a quarter of the book is a condensed biography of Ramanujan. The book is co-written with the math popularizer Amir D. Aczel (1950–2015) but is written in the first person, from Ono’s point of view. There’s a moderate amount of mathematics included (the harder stuff is in an appendix), but the book is accessible to any interested reader, mathematician or not.

Ono’s parents are Japanese immigrants who moved to the US after World War II. Ono was born in the US, the youngest of three sons. His father is the noted mathematician Takashi Ono. Ken’s parents were “tiger parents” in the terminology popularized by Amy Chua’s book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The parents had the careers of each son mapped out from childhood, and insisted on perfection in all their studies. Ken was a good student but never perfect, and his parents’ criticism wore him down and destroyed his self-confidence. It’s painful to read how low his self-esteem was. He developed a number of stratagems to get out from under his parents’ thumbs, and had a very checkered and zig-zag academic career until about age 25. He had a series of caring teachers and colleagues who built up his confidence again, along with some less-helpful ones who discouraged him anew. Most of the book is about this portion of his career, and not very much about his later successes.

Ono first heard the story of Ramanujan from his father when he was 16, and he ran into Ramanujan again on and off through his career, being inspired by the story each time. He eventually decided to work in one of Ramanujan’s specialties, modular functions, and has been mining Ramanujan’s notebooks for ideas for his mathematical research. He got to be such an expert on Ramanujan that he was hired as a consultant for the 2015 Ramanujan biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity (based on Robert Kanigel’s excellent book), and eventually rose to the position of Associate Producer.

Very Good Feature: the numerous photographs appear both in a center color plate section and in black and white where they belong in the text. The best of both worlds!

Very Bad Feature: no index.

Bottom line: Very well written and a good study of how one mathematician’s career developed.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist and retired software developer. He is an editor of the Missouri Journal of Mathematical Sciences. He attended Emory University as an undergraduate.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.