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Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math.Daniel Tammet (2012) New York, NY Little, Brown and Company. 288 pp.

Cicchetti, Domenic Vincent PhD

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: May 2016 - Volume 204 - Issue 5 - p 407
doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000527
Book Reviews

Child Study Center and Departments of Biometry and Psychiatry Yale University School of Medicine New Haven, CT

In this, his third book, Daniel Tammet offers 25 essays. Each one represents a variant of poetic prose, a joyful expression of the prominent role of numbers as they have emerged throughout history. Because of the author’s unique and quite special gift of communicating the role of numbers across many areas, it seems necessary to “speak” more often in the author’s own words than might ordinarily be the case. To do otherwise would, I fear, deprive the reader of the very essence of the author’s unique style of offering new and rather provocative information. An excellent example is provided by the author’s treatise on the number pi. It is noteworthy that Tammet’s love for pi began at a very early age. To many of us, the fascination with this number—defined simply as the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter—is that it is the only number that has an endless stream of decimal places following the number 3. The resulting decimals form unique and nonrepeating patterns, so that the actual size of the number is literally infinite in length. March 14 is celebrated as pi day across the globe. Tammet was invited on that date, in 2004, to address an audience of mathematicians and other professionals in Oxford, outside London, at the University of Oxford Museum for the History of Science. Tammet broke a European record by reciting pi to an amazing 22,514 decimal places! This feat required 5 hours 9 minutes to accomplish. The author donated his lecturer’s fee to an epilepsy charity, as he reflected upon his having suffered from seizures during his early childhood. One of the most intriguing aspects of Tammet’s fascination with pi is the set of images he conjured up while delivering his pi lecture. He clearly attempted to project himself into the thought processes of the academics in the audience. This is evidenced by his noting that “…they listen attentively. The concentration in my voice seems to communicate itself to them. Faces, young and old, round and oval, all wear delicate frowns. Listening to the digits, they hear their dress sizes, their birthdays, their computer passwords. They hear excerpts—both shorter and longer—from a friend’s or parent’s or lover’s telephone number. Some lean forward in expectation. Patterns coalesce, and as quickly disperse, in their minds.” As a way of understanding the author’s thought processes further, as they are intertwined with what might be referred to as the pi phenomenon, Tammet reveals the following important clinical information: “When I achieved the European record for reciting pi in 2004, this captured the imagination of Prof Simon Baron-Cohen in Cambridge, and he finally diagnosed me with Asperger’s that year.” When questioned about whether his discovery of the diagnosis had provided “relief,” the author responded, “A huge relief, because I could stop feeling guilty. Guilty about not going to university. I didn’t have many friends, and I also blamed that on myself, for being lazy or cack-handed. But now, with the diagnosis, I knew that I had developed differently. Tammet’s fascination with numbers can almost be described as magical, if it weren’t for the mathematical science that undergirds many of the observations he makes.

Accordingly, in another chapter, the author discusses the role and importance of numbers in William Shakespeare’s writings. This occurs in a chapter entitled “Shakespeare’s Zero”: to wit: “William became one of the first generation of English schoolboys to learn about the figure zero. It is interesting to wonder about the consequences of this early encounter. How might the new and paradoxical number have driven his thoughts along particular paths?” “…Shakespeare learned to count and reckon using Recorde’s methods. He learned that ‘there are but tenne figures that are used in Arithmetik, and of those tenne, one doth signify nothing, which is like an O, and is privately called a Cypher’….” “In Shakespeare’s lessons, letters were out [such as the Roman Numerals—my insert] figures (digits) in….” “The concept must have fascinated him…,” for example, “…an empty hand… is a smaller nothing than an empty class or shop…” “the bigger an empty room, the more the things that can be contained inside:” “…the greater an absence, the greater the potential presence.” A scintillating chapter about Tammet’s relationship with his mother is entitled, simply: “A Model Mother.” He admits later in that chapter that his mother was indeed not a model for him, and some of the early childhood experiences with her support this conclusion on the matter. As one dramatic example, he relates the story of an early experience with her when he was 10 years of age. The issue was one of attempting to exchange a pair of her son’s shoes without having a receipt on her person. As the author relates, his mother was accustomed to working with male clerks when trying to exchange items in the past. On this particular occasion, the clerk in charge of making exchanges was a female. The interaction between the clerk and the mother can be put succinctly as: The clerk rejects the exchange, saying a refund is not possible. The mother responds by displaying the following somewhat histrionic behaviors: Slumping onto a chair reserved for trying on shoes, emitting a sigh, followed by an even longer sigh. The clerk threatens to call the police. His mother slumps even deeper in her seat and then crosses her legs. Finally, in sheer exasperation, the clerk pulls a small sharp knife from her pocket and makes a long gash in one of the shoes, followed with: “Do not breathe a word of this to anyone. This way we get a refund from the manufacturer for damaged goods.” For Tammet, there was quite a disparity between his real and imaginary mother. He concludes that try as he might, he could not “figure her out.” I would like to complete this review by selecting from and briefly elaborating on the chapter entitled “The Art of Math.“ Tammet sees a genuine relationship between mathematics and art, as expressed by Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form.” The author describes the mathematician in a manner that also pertains to the research biostatistician, each of whom “…takes ideas that are valid in one area and transplants them into another, hoping that they will take and not be rejected by the recipient domain.” However, lest one view statistics as a branch or subspecialty of mathematics, I would argue differently, based on 2 important scientific principles: One pertains to nosology; the other to the underlying form of critical reasoning, upon which the 2 disciplines are based. While the mathematician deals with absolute truths; being a biostatistician means never having to say you are certain. Mathematics is based on deductive reasoning, whereas biostatistics is based on inductive reasoning. Needless to say, I found Tammet’s book a sheer delight and would therefore recommend it to readers across the various fields of knowledge including the arts, the sciences, and the humanities. As we have seen, the areas covered by Tammet are by no means limited to mathematics, as the title indicates.

Domenic Vincent Cicchetti, PhD

Child Study Center and Departments

of Biometry and Psychiatry

Yale University School of Medicine

New Haven, CT

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The author declares no conflict of interest.

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