The Word

Books | Color by numbers

Books | Color by numbers

Posting in Technology

A review of Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math, by Daniel Tammet.

My introduction to author Daniel Tammet occurred eight years ago, when I watched David Letterman interview him on The Late Show.

Tammet is a "prodigious savant," a title bestowed on an estimated two to four dozen people in the world. Math and language are the areas where he exhibits his most astonishing abilities.

"What can you do that everybody else can't?" Letterman asked Tammet during his interview.

Answer: Tons. Born in London, the now-34-year-old Parisian holds the European record for reciting Pi (22,514 decimal places). He speaks at least 10 languages, and claims to need just a week to master another. In a televised meeting with the late Kim Peek -- perhaps the best-known savant, the basis for Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-winning character in Rain Man -- Peek told Tammet, "One day you will be as great as I am."

Tammet's first book, Born on a Blue Day, was a New York Times bestseller. His third autobiography, Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math (Little, Brown and Company, $26), dwells on his uncanny method of perceiving numbers and patterns, and applying these abstractions to daily life.

In preparation for this review, I watched the TV documentary Brain Man (shown here in its entirety; originally called The Boy with the Incredible Brain in the United Kingdom), which Tammet stopped by The Late Show all those years ago to promote. Earlier this year, I wrote about "Miracle Man" Jeff Matovic, the first person to undergo deep brain stimulation to control his severe Tourette's Syndrome. Both Brain Man and Thinking in Numbers prove that Tammet is a miracle man as well.

At age four, Tammet experienced a life-threatening epileptic seizure, the first of several. Somehow, he outgrew epilepsy, only to reach adulthood and hear another serious diagnosis: Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism usually paired with profound social handicaps. Scientists believe that the combination of seizures and Asperger's spurred Tammet's savantism.

"The line between profound talent and profound disability seems like a surprisingly thin line," Tammet says in Brain Man.

Soft-spoken and smug-free, he is an eloquent writer and speaker (view his 2011 TED Talk). Since he can communicate so well, Tammet is an invaluable asset to the scientific community -- he can explain exactly how his brain interprets staggering mathematic calculations.

"When you look at the number 43," Tammet told Letterman, "you just see the numbers 4 and 3. Most people do. But what I'm seeing is colors and textures and shapes with synesthesia, because my brain is working in such a way that I'm looking and experiencing color, which is two senses combined."

Instead of digits, Tammet sees ripples, bubbles, clouds, flashes.

"Daniel's brain seems to be doing something almost magical -- it appears to be doing math without him actually having to think," one scientist says in the documentary.

Thinking in Numbers is an elegant book of 25 short chapters that maintains a feeling of intimacy. A sampling of Tammet's topics includes ancient philosophy, Shakespeare, wealth distribution, and the universe.

I couldn't believe that I chose to read a book about math, and I soon forgot that was the primary topic. Tammet, as I came to know him, is a savant like we are green-eyed or fair-skinned -- a factual description of ourselves that barely crosses our minds.

What most resonates is that Tammet is a keen, sensitive writer who can beautifully braid words: "Not long ago, my mother's age reached double mine. Two lives when compared with my young man's span -- half of her that I cannot see."

Certain chapters are fine and informative and a little stuffy, yet I was intrigued by Tammet's recollections of his school-age self, and how he can convey his palpable family affection through the lens of numbers.

Tammet, the eldest of nine children, compares he and his siblings to widely recognized nonets (Supreme Court justices, positions on a baseball diamond, tic-tac-toe squares). To demonstrate how rare and satisfying it is to have all his brothers and sisters in the same room, Tammet shows that they can venture out in 512 possible groupings.

I recommend Thinking in Numbers, and I've reserved library copies of Tammet's other two books.

Share this

Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure