Daniel Tammet is as talented a writer as he is a mathematician.
Courtesy Daniel Tammet
Daniel Tammet's latest book, Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning and Math
from Little, Brown and Company is a jewel box of a read -- filled with wonders like Ann Boleyn's alleged sixth finger and how that would change her perception of math, to a gorgeous essay on snowflakes (branchy ones are stellar dendrites, University of Washington mathematician David Griffeath models them with a computer) and how Daniel first navigated the world as one of nine children. While math looms large in the life of the incredible autistic synesthete and savant, Daniel, you can't read his work and not realize how much math figures into your own life as well.
It's always a pleasure to check in with the thoughtful and charming London native, whose writing ability rivals his profound maths abilities. I had the opportunity to recently ask him a few questions about his latest work.
From the complexity of snowflakes to Shakespeare's math lessons to Ann Boleyn's sixth finger, your book covers so many marvels they seem to have been collected over a lifetime. I wonder how long you've been thinking about this book and the things in it and how did it coalesce?
I like your observation about collecting the book’s ideas and themes over a lifetime. Numbers have always been special to me—a private language in my childhood, and a passion to this day. Like many writers I have a notebook and many of the book’s stories began life in its pages as reflections and observations that I wanted to enlarge and share with readers. It’s a very personal book, and yet my goal was inclusively broad: to show how mathematics—like literature—can help us to think about ourselves and our world in ways that we could never without it. As with novels, math ideas take us beyond the confines of our bodies, geography, historical period, to explore ‘pure possibilities’ such as infinity or counting on eleven fingers or playing a perfect game of chess. Every chapter is about exploring one of those pure possibilities.
Since the Psychology Today blog I do is about synesthesia, can you talk a little bit more about how synesthetic shape and color contribute to your "thinking in math"?
Like Vladimir Nabokov, I experience words in colours and writing is a sensual process. Numbers also elicit different colours and textures and every number has its own shape: 3 is round, whereas 4 is pointy, for example. The commonest numbers even have their individual personalities, so 6, say, is a much sadder number than 5. When I do sums, as when I write sentences, these colours and emotions inform the process by which I achieve the end result. In ‘Thinking in Numbers’, there’s a chapter about math’s most famous number—Pi (3.141...)—which I recited from memory in 2004 to 22,514 decimal places using my synaesthetic shapes and colours. For me, Pi is a vast numerical poem and I wanted to bring the reader inside that experience of reciting this beautiful, shimmering expanse of digits—the nerves, the watching public’s reactions, the doubts and the moments of sheer joy.
How is life in the heart of Paris? May I ask what prompted your move from Avignon?
As readers of my first book, Born On A Blue Day, will know, I was born and raised in London. I emigrated to France in 2008 and moved to Paris two years ago. The city, as Hemingway famously wrote, is ‘a moveable feast’ and I’m lucky to live in the writers’ quartier with its bookshops, literary cafes and bouquinistes along the river Seine. It’s a stimulating environment in which to write, yet only a train ride away from my family back home in England.
How did your Mom react to the part about her?
The chapter about my mother is one of the most personal. It’s about how, growing up on the autistic spectrum, I struggled to understand my mum’s behaviour and tried to create a kind of predictive model based on her past words and actions. Of course, the model failed. Mums are like that— unpredictable. But more than my own relationship with my mother, the chapter is really about love and how we each try to anticipate (calculate) consciously or unconsciously the one we love. Mutual understanding is mathematical to some extent, just not in the way I naively assumed as a small kid trying to figure out my mum.
What's ahead for you, Daniel? Might we see a work of fiction soon?
I’m currently translating into French the poems of the great Australian poet Les Murray, who is also on the autistic spectrum. I’m also preparing a first novel that follows the players of a chess match for the world title. By the way, that would be another thing I’d share with Nabokov (his novel, The Defence, describes the life of a chess grandmaster)!
Thinking in Numbers should make people realize that Daniel is as much a man of letters as of numbers -- full of so many lovely insights that the math is as natural as a snowflake, and just as beautiful. It is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-In-Numbers-Life-Meaning/dp/0316187372