Opinion 152: The Combinatorics Giant, Major Percy Alexander MacMahon, also deserves to be the Main Character in a major movie

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: July 28, 2016

In the otherwise wonderful recent film, The man who knew infinity, where the main character is the great Ramanujan, the just-as-great combinatorics pioneer, Major Percy A. MacMahon, plays a minor supporting role, and for dramatic effect, probably because of his military background, is portrayed, at least at the beginning, as a bully and a show-off. This is yet another instance of the unfair treatment that this great mathematician, and most probably, great person, suffered from the historical narrative.

While I don't begrudge Ramanujan, also one of my great heroes, his well-deserved fame, a lot of it is for the wrong reasons. In the inimitable words of Gian-Carlo Rota, in the Introduction to the Collected Works of MacMahon (perfectly edited by George Andrews, who did so much to commemorate both Ramanujan and MacMahon), published in 1978 (MIT Press):

"With his mustache, his "British Empah" demeanor, and worst of all, his military background, MacMahon was hardly the type to be chosen by Central Casting for the role of the Great Mathematician. Ramanujan, with his Eastern aura, his frail physique, and his swarthy good looks, qualified all the way''.

If you want to learn more about MacMahon, I recommend that you read Paul Garcia's thorough and very well-written Ph.D thesis about MacMahon. This is for your non-fiction-reading pleasure. But for your fiction-reading pleasure, I strongly recommend Paul Garcia's gripping novel A Good Soldier Spoiled. [posted in my website by kind permission of the author]

I enjoyed it immensely, and if any film producer is reading this, I urge you to turn it into a major motion picture that would nicely complement the movie about Ramanujan, and be at least as enjoyable and moving.

Opinions of Doron Zeilberger