Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math

  • Daniel Tammet
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 272 pp.

With his capacious heart and intellect, the author presents an assortment of thought-provoking essays for those oblivious to the numbers everywhere around us.

I can understand if Daniel Tammet grows weary of astonishment from his audience. His life story is probably not so incredible as some might insist on believing. And it would be a mistake for readers to be constantly reminding themselves, “This young man has a disability.” Because that would deny the strong energy and engagement one feels throughout this collection of 50 short essays (some 2,000 words each) having to do with Tammet’s mind, titled Thinking in Numbers.

As did R. Buckminster Fuller, whose eyes were poor and required correction from an early age, Tammet came to his idiosyncratic perspective naturally. This from the Preface, “According to the scientists, I had high-functioning autistic savant syndrome: the connections in my brain, since birth, had formed unusual circuits.” In his synesthetic (a word usually connected to hallucinations) mind, the “unusual circuits” produced three-dimensional form and understanding, and a fascination with numbers that has led to this book.

Tammet first came to the attention of the public on March 14, 2004, Pi Day, in Oxford England, when he recited, from memory, the first 22,514 numbers of the endlessly irrational number Pi. For Tammet, Pi is an object, a symphony, an epic poem, a thing of wit, as well as an approximation of perfection. He writes, in his recounting (pun intended) of that day “The Admirable Number Pi,” “For five hours and nine minutes, eternity visited a museum in Oxford.” This collection of essays is his third publication since that recitation.

Tammet’s first two books were unabashedly autobiographical, so with this book the author has been freed, to some extent, from the restriction of having to explain his so-called disability. Also from the Preface, “There are some autobiographical elements but the emphasis throughout is outward-looking.” He wants to address his awareness that “the play between numerical concepts saturates the way we experience the world.”

His writing is relaxed and playful, simple and direct. He highlights the wonders of 9 in the first essay, “Family Values.” Tammet is the eldest of nine siblings, which accorded him a kind of fame in his north London neighborhood — and a practical application for his interest in numbers. He discusses sets, odd and even, and prime numbers. “Numerical patterns … were the matter of the world … we nine children embodied the decimal system of numbers, zero (whenever we were all absent from a place) through to nine.” Tammet refers to Jorge Luis Borges and Georg Cantor to explicate such paradoxes as an infinite set, and a subset with more infinity than the initial infinite set. The ideas come strongly at the beginning and if you enjoy the metaphysical and philosophical explorations of Jim Holt’s existential detective story Why Does the World Exist?, you will be drawn in, as I was.

In “Eternity in an Hour” we go from Hans Christian Andersen to Tammet’s Bookworms Club and to Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox, the one where if you go halfway, and then halfway again, you’ll never get to where you are going. “Numbers within numbers, and so tiny! I was amazed. These fractions of fractions of fractions of fractions of fractions went on forever.” But he is also sensitive to the tension between a husband and wife at the dinner table: “I thought of the infinitely many points that can divide the space between two human hearts.” This attention to sentiment is something I admire.

In “Counting to Four in Icelandic,” Tammet shares the different ways that numbers are abstracted and applied in reality. His differentiation between the English and Icelandic ways of considering numbers is illuminating: “In English, I would suggest, numbers are considered more or less ethereal — as categories, not qualities. Not so the smallest numbers in Icelandic.” Then he shows us the Chinese way, and then the Munduruku way, which has no numbers higher than five, and finally an isolated group of Amazonians, “It seems the Piraha make no distinction between a man and a group of men, between a bird and a flock of birds … Everything is either small (hoi) or big (ogii).”

It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that these are essays like Montaigne’s, little meditations, bouncing ideas around and marveling at the connections and variety and sublimity of numbers. One lovely piece highlights the introduction of the idea of nullity into English, called “Shakespeare’s Zero.” Another, called “Shapes of Speech,” demonstrates the unity of mathematics and rhetoric. It starts with Pythagoras and also touches on Aristotle, Euclid, and Abraham Lincoln. It ends, “Friendship is equality.” Clearly, and to his credit, Tammet has a heart as capacious as his intellect.

There are “Big Numbers,” “The Calendar of Omar Khayyam,” and “Einstein’s Equations.” In “Talking Chess,” he says, “These players do not so much think about chess, as think in chess, just as we think in language.” And in “Selves and Statistics,” he decries the tendency to believe that an “average person” exists. Tammet is casting a wide net, so while there is great breadth and facility, there is not great depth in any one essay. This book is really not for those who enjoyed considering Jim Holt’s deeper examinations of the structures and boundaries of the universe. It’s more introductory, meant to cajole those who are oblivious to numbers around them to wake up and see and think differently.

With such a positive outlook and such range and facility, there is no need to be astonished about Tammet’s biography. He is a well-integrated person, a unique, sincere teacher who has found his voice. One could do worse than harken to his ideas.

Y.S. Fing teaches composition at a DC-area university. He writes regularly for “Agonica Magazine,” on baseball, atheistic spirituality, and secular morality, in a column called Roaming the Outfield. The Fing motto is Irony with Love.

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