14 August 2012

Many gifted writers have attempted to translate mathematical thinking into terms ungifted readers can understand. Daniel Tammet’s unassuming new volume of essays, reminiscences and stories reveals the enormity of their failure. Thinking in Numbers is unprecedented: a pitch-perfect duet between mathematics and literature. More than that: it is a hybrid. Something new.

Thinking in Numbers reflects Tammet’s career-long refusal to accept that mathematical imaginings are somehow special, abstruse, removed from human reality. A synaesthete, a polyglot and a memory man – he once recited pi to 22,514 decimal places, setting a European record – Tammet insists his highly functioning autistic mind is normal. The differences, such as they are, between his thoughts and most other people’s are to do with the kind of attention he brings to the world. Numbers have texture, colour and character. Whether we pay attention to these qualities, explore them and enjoy them, is a little bit to do with our genetic inheritance, much more to do with our schooling, and ultimately down to personal choice. All of us think mathematically all the time. To be “afraid of numbers” is a pose, a position, an aesthetic choice, as surely as not “getting” jazz, or condemning this or that kind of art as “rubbish”.

For a book that shines a bitterly bright light on our cultural philistinism, there is a surprising lack of didacticism here, and not a squeak of bad temper. These essays are by turns playful and confessional (as when Tammet, the man with the supposedly supercharged brain, singularly fails to predict the simplest actions of his own mother). There are several virtuosic performances. (Noticing that Shakespeare would have been one of the first English schoolchildren to learn about zero, Tammet reinterprets and elucidates some of the poet-playwright’s most powerful and moving verse.) But Tammet, though he appreciates the stage magician’s art, is not a natural showman. He prefers persuasion, conversation and the recording of subtleties.

The mathematics in his stories is often very simple indeed, as when he observes, with intense attention and compassion, how a friend struggles with and finally solves a trivia puzzle. One senses Tammet’s loneliness at these moments: he inhabits a world of great variety and beauty, but gets pitifully few visitors. We do not approach novels, or even poetry, as timorously as we approach mathematics, though Tammet convincingly demonstrates that the three forms are very closely related, with bonds far stronger and more demonstrable than those that supposedly bind maths to music.

Elsewhere Tammet inclines towards slightly melancholy subjects: the ephemerality of snowflakes; the vain idealism that fuels the creation of unbuildable cities; the self-deceptions sewn through Frank Drake’s scientific-looking formula, asserting the chances of there being other intelligent life in the universe.

Thinking in Numbers is not about mathematics per se. It is about the mathematical component of lived experience. It is about the curious sensual ways we measure the world (for example, the preponderance of G-words “to describe things which are ‘great’, or ‘grand’, ‘gross’ or ‘gargantuan'”); the littleness of the individual in the face of pi; the rhetorical satisfactions of a well-turned theorem; the primes that power certain kinds of poetry.

Mathematics, Tammet says, is illimitable. It is a language through which the human imagination expresses itself. Presumably this means mathematics has, or deserves, a literature. In Tammet, it already has a laureate.

New Scientist