Godfrey Harold Hardy (7 February 1877 – 1 December 1947) was a mathematician who contributed to number theory and mathematical analysis. He was also instrumental in bringing attention to the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920), an Indian mathematician who compiled nearly 3,900 results in mathematical identities and equations, many original and others new derivations of previously known results. Their collaboration and friendship was recently the subject of a film: “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (Warner Bros., IFC Films, 2015).
While Hardy had rejected his parents’ religion while an undergrad at Cambridge, he was recorded as having found some common ground with Ramanujan’s pantheistic beliefs:
“In 1914 Ramanujan arrived in England. So far as Hardy could detect (though in this respect I should not trust his insight far) Ramanujan, despite the difficulties of breaking the caste proscriptions, did not believe much in theological doctrine, except for a vague pantheistic benevolence, any more than Hardy did himself.
Later in life, he would also admit some of the strengths of the Christian religion.
“That lunch time, he had no leisure for eating: he was writing postcards (postcards and telegrams were his favourite means of communication) to each of his clerical friends. But in his war against God and God’s surrogates, victory was not all on one side. On a quiet and lovely May evening at Fenner’s, round about the same period, the chimes of six o’clock fell across the ground. ‘It’s rather unfortunate,’ said Hardy simply, ‘that some of the happiest hours of my life should have been spent within sound of a Roman Catholic church’.”
Some philosophical and theological reflections from his 1922 address to the British Association:
“A chair may be a collection of whirling atoms, or an idea in the mind of God. It is not my business to suggest that one account of it is obviously more plausible than the other. Whatever the merits of either of them may be, neither draws its inspiration from the suggestions of common-sense. Neither the philosophers, nor the physicists themselves, have ever put forward any very convincing account of what physical reality is, or of how the physicist passes, from the confused mass of fact or sensation with which he starts, to the construction of the objects which he classifies as real. We cannot be said, therefore, to know what the subject-matter of physics is; but this need not prevent us from understanding the task which a physicist is trying to perform. That, clearly, is to correlate the incoherent body of facts confronting him with some definite and orderly scheme of abstract relations, the kind of scheme, in short, which he can only borrow from mathematics.
“The function of a mathematician, then, is simply to observe the facts about his own hard and intricate system of reality, that astonishingly beautiful complex of logical relations which forms the subject-matter of his science, as if he were an explorer looking at a distant range of mountains, and to record the results of his observations in a series of maps, each of which is a branch of pure mathematics. Many of these maps have been completed, while in others, and these, naturally, the most interesting, there are vast uncharted regions. Some, it seems, have some relevance to the structure of the physical world, while others have no such tangible application. Among them there is perhaps none quite so fascinating, with quite the same astonishing contrasts of sharp outline and mysterious shade, as that which constitutes the theory of numbers.
“The positive integers do not lie, like the logical foundations of mathematics, in the hardly visible distance, nor in the uncomfortably tangled foreground, like the immediate data of the physical world, but at a decent middle distance, where the outlines are clear and yet some element of mystery remains. There is no one so blind that he does not see them, and no one so sharp-sighted that his vision does not fail; they stand there a continual and inevitable challenge to the curiosity of every healthy mind. I have merely directed your attention for a moment to a few of the less immediately conspicuous features of the landscape, in the hope that I might sharpen your curiosity a little, and that some of you perhaps might feel tempted to walk a little nearer and take a rather closer view.”
—Hardy, Godfrey Harold. A Mathematician’s Apology. (Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 35, 21.
—Hardy, Godfrey H. “The Theory of Numbers.” Nature 2759.110(1922): 381-385.
Image from the film: The Man Who Knew Infinity (Warner Bros., IFC Films, 2015).