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Daniel Tammet opens his book:
I was born on January 31, 1979 — a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualize most of the numbers as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach. That’s because they are prime numbers: 31, 19, 197, 79 and 1979 are all divisible only by themselves and 1. I can recognize every prime up to 9,973 by their “pebble-like” quality. It’s just the way my brain works.
Daniel Tammet has a rare condition known as savant syndrome, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. He also experiences “synesthesia”, whereby numbers, letters and words appear to him to be colored, each with distinctive shapes. He has emotional responses to these shapes and colors: happy, bright, dark, angular, pleasant or unpleasant.
This aesthetic dimension is unusual in a savant; perhaps occuring in only 1 of 10,000 people, says Dr Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of Mindblindness. In Daniel’s case “his synesthesia gives him a richly textured, multisensory form of memory, and his autism gives him the narrow focus on number and syntactic patterns.”
In his late twenties now, and living a fruitful, independent life with a partner in his native Kent, in England, Daniel feels he has a mission in life: to serve as an inspiration for other persons by demonstrating that conditions such as autism or epilepsy — from which he has also suffered — don’t need to interfere with overall development.
His additional gift for languages has provided him with a livelihood: he runs a successful computer-based language tutorial company called Optimnem. (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. There’s a reason: the Greek goddess Mnemosyne.) He has taught himself ten languages, including Romanian, Finnish, Icelandic and Welsh. He is currently participating in a research project learning sign language, to find out how his particular brain will negotiate that acquisition.
This gentle, modest book is written with openness and candor. It is filled with stories about the bravery of his parents, his childhood epileptic seizures, his experiences growing up, his obsessive need for order and routine. He makes us understand the comfort he finds in mathematics, when the world overwhelms him. “Numbers are my friends,” he says.
He shares his hard-won insights into his own mental processes. We go with him on far-flung journeys. as he participates in research projects, documentary production, lectures and demonstrations around the world. He relates his meeting with Kim Peek, the extraordinary man who was the inspiration for the Rain Man story, and his guest appearance on the David Letterman show.
On one occasion, he determined to help raise funds for epilepsy research by promising to recite 22,514 digits of pi, the mathematical number that extends into infinity. He did, in five hours and nine minutes, and set the new British and European record.
One of the most common questions I was asked … was: Why learn a number like pi to so many decimal places? The answer I gave then as I do now is that pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing. Like The Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.
“Born on a Blue Day” is published by the Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. ISBN – 13: 978-1-4165-3507-2. ($24)
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