Daniel Tammet: Mathematical Genius Visualizes Numbers, Solves Problems in Blink of an Eye

"As a child, I wanted very much to be like everyone else, to be normal. Today, it's different. I live in a beautiful country, I have a relationship, I have a career. I travel and I do many, many things and I think my mind and the abilities that come with that way of imagining the world has enriched my life enormously."

Excerpts from 'Embracing the Wide Sky'

The following is a selection of excerpts from Daniel Tammet's second book, "Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind."

On Memory

Imagine entering a room around which a dozen everyday objects are scattered. After a few minutes you step outside while someone else enters and removes one of the items. When you return a short while later you will likely be able to tell immediately which of the objects has been taken. As though endowed with some superhuman power, you will do this by seeing what is not there. Such is the magic of memory.

When I recited the mathematical constant Pi (3.141…) from memory to 22,514 decimal places in March 2004, it seemed like magic to many people. In fact the achievement (a European record) was the result of weeks of disciplined study that was aided by the unusual way in which my mind perceives numbers, as complex, multi-dimensional, coloured and textured shapes. Using these shapes I was able to visualise and remember the digits of Pi in my mind's eye as a rolling numerical panorama, the beauty of which both fascinated and enchanted me.

One of my fondest memories from the Pi event in Oxford four years ago is the profound sense of joy I felt at that visual experience of the numbers' beauty. The public recitation of number after number after number developed into a kind of meditation for me, as I grew more and more wrapped up in their flow. Although the digits of Pi are, mathematically speaking, strictly random my internal representation of them was anything but – filled with rhythmic strokes and structures of light, colour and personality. From this random assembly of digits I was able to compose something like a visual song that meandered through every contour of my mind, through which I was able to hear the music of the numbers.

On Language

A particular bugbear for many language learners (especially those whose native language is English) is the use of grammatical gender (the assignment of gender to all nouns) in many languages. Most European languages have two or three genders (such as the German 'der' for masculine nouns, 'die' for feminine nouns and 'das' for neuter nouns), though that number pales in comparison to the aboriginal Yanyuwa language, which has no fewer than 16 genders based on the various functions of objects used in their society ! What makes learning a noun's gender so tricky for learners is its seeming arbitrariness; for example, in French the word for 'moon' (la lune) is feminine but in German it is masculine (der Mond). Mark Twain, the American humorist, marvelled at the gendered nature of German nouns in his book, 'A Tramp Aboard': "In German a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has…(A) tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female...tomcats included."

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