By NEAL KARLINSKY and MEREDITH FROST
Working behind the counter at a futon store in Tacoma, Wash., is not the place you would expect to find a man some call a mathematical genius of unprecedented proportions.
Jason Padgett, 41, sees complex mathematical formulas everywhere he looks and turns them into stunning, intricate diagrams he can draw by hand. He’s the only person in the world known to have this incredible skill, which he obtained by sheer accident just a decade ago.
“I’m obsessed with numbers, geometry specifically,” Padgett said. “I literally dream about it. There’s not a moment that I can’t see it, and it just doesn’t turn off.”
Padgett doesn’t have a PhD, a college degree or even a background in math. His talent was born out of a true medical mystery that scientists around the world are still trying to unravel.
Ten years ago, Padgett was only interested in two things: working out and partying. One night he was walking out of a karaoke club in Tacoma when he was brutally attacked by muggers who beat and kicked him in the head repeatedly. Padgett said they were after his $99 leather jacket.
“All I saw was a bright flash of light and the next thing I knew I was on my knees on the ground and I thought, ‘I’m gonna get killed,’” he said.
At the time, doctors said he had a concussion, but within a day or two, Padgett began to notice something remarkable. This college dropout who couldn’t draw became obsessed with drawing intricate diagrams, but didn’t know what they were.
“I see bits and pieces of the Pythagorean theorem everywhere,” he said. “Every single little curve, every single spiral, every tree is part of that equation.”
The diagrams he draws are called fractals and Padgett can draw a visual representation of the formula Pi, that infinite number that begins with 3.14.
“A fractal is a shape that when you take the shape a part into pieces, the pieces are the same or similar to the whole. So say I had 1,000 pictures of you, that were little and I put all those little pictures of you in the right spot to make the exact same picture of you, but bigger,” he explained.
Much like the mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe in the 2001 film, “A Beautiful Mind,” researchers believe Padgett has a remarkable gift. To better understand how his brain works, Berit Brogaard, a neuroscientist and philosophy professor at the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and her team flew Padgett to Finland to run a series of tests.
A scan of Padgett’s brain showed damage that was forcing his brain to overcompensate in certain areas that most people don’t have access to, Brogaard explained. The result was Padgett was now an acquired savant, meaning brilliant in a specific area.
“Savant syndrome is the development of a particular skill, that can be mathematical, spatial, or autistic, that develop to an extreme degree that sort of makes a person super human,” Brogaard said.
Padgett said his goal now is to get out of the furniture store and into the classroom to hopefully teach others that math is as beautiful and natural as the world around us. When asked if he thought his talent was a burden or a gift, Padgett said it was a mixture of both.
“Sometimes I would really like to turn it off, and it won’t,” he said. “But the good far outweigh the bad. I would not give it up for anything.”