Thursday, February 17, 2005

article shuffle

"Now, pass the jam while I listen to Sergeant Pepper and a Gregorian chant."

Hey, I read an article about maths this morning. Better, I even understood it. John Allen Paulos's lovely 'last word' in the Life supplement of the Guardian today was a peculiar, concise pleasure for someone who doesn't think about science or maths very often.

Ok. At all. But Paulos is sneaky, and he pulls me in by starting off talking about the iPod shuffle and its method of re-arranging components in unforeseen sequences, creating new associations and juxtapositions, and endorses the 'random' element as something we should explore more of in life, even if that just means taking different routes on the way to the train station each morning. Of course, about half way through the article gets a bit more taxing, but I liked the following:

"Imagine a blob of white dough moistened, moulded and compressed into a cube. Suppose that through the middle of this cube runs a thin layer of red jam. Now stretch and squeeze this sandwich to twice its length, then fold it smoothly back upon itself to re form the cube. The jam layer is now shaped like a horseshoe.

Repeat this stretching, squeezing and folding a lot of times and you'll notice that the layer of jam (I'm idealising here) is soon spread throughout the dough in a most convoluted pattern. Points in the jam that were close are now distant; other points that were distant are now close. The same is true for points in the dough. Smale used this "horseshoe" procedure to clarify the advent of unpredictable chaos in so-called dynamical systems, of which human beings are examples.

The punch line, of course, is that the activities listed above - listening to shuffled favourites, rifling through photo albums, randomly surfing the net - are all efficient means for doing to our minds what the stretching, squeezing, and folding does to cubical jam sandwiches. The stretching and squeezing correspond to our envisioning of the disparate events, different songs or people, and unusual situations, and the folding corresponds to what we do if we try to make sense of these weird juxtapositions. If there's a formula for serendipity, this is probably it."

So I feel better for getting to grips with that. Something tells me there's a lot left to learn. Like what prime numbers are, for example. I mean, I've had it explained to me, so I should know. But.... Hmm.

I can tell you, mind, that 31, 19, 79 and 1979 are all prime numbers, but I only know that because I read, thanks to the eagle eyes of graybo and Vic, the best newspaper article I've read so far this year.

"When I multiply numbers together", says Daniel Tammet, "I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think."

"Daniel Tammet is talking. As he talks, he studies my shirt and counts the stitches. Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now he is 26, and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He also happens to be autistic, which is why he can't drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. He lives with extraordinary ability and disability."

He is an autistic savant, one of an estimated 10% of the autistic population (and about 1% of the non-autistic population) who has an amazing capacity for mental ability. Yep, you know - Rain Man. But he's unique in that he is able to describe his thought processes to an extraordinary level, and this ability is as wondrous as his savant condition in the first place. Well, almost.

"Tammet is creating his own language, strongly influenced by the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe. (He already speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto.) The vocabulary of his language - "Mänti", meaning a type of tree - reflects the relationships between different things. The word "ema", for instance, translates as "mother", and "ela" is what a mother creates: "life". "Päike" is "sun", and "päive" is what the sun creates: "day". Tammet hopes to launch Mänti in academic circles later this year, his own personal exploration of the power of words and their inter-relationship."

The article is fascinating and touching, not least in its description of Neil, the love of Daniel's life, which turns the article, in some wonderful juxtapositional twist, into a fascinating and unexpected take on the Guardian's 'Why we love each other' column. When they first met (after they had first met online, I mean), Daniel says.

"Because I can't drive, Neil offered to pick me up at my parents' house, and drive me back to his house in Kent. He was silent all the way back. I thought, 'Oh dear, this isn't going well'. Just before we got to his house, he stopped the car. He reached over and pulled out a bouquet of flowers. I only found out later that he was quiet because he likes to concentrate when he's driving."


Anonymous said...

Taken ages just to post a comment, can't even remember why I was here!

jonathan said...

sometimes it does seem to take ages, yes. I think this pop-up box approach slows it down more than usual actually. Perhaps I should disable it.

Anonymous said...

language he is "creating" is pure estonian...

Anonymous said...

1) "Ema" is estonian noun for a "mother"
2) "Ela" is estonian verb for "be alive!"
3)"Päike" is estonian noun for a "sun"

A word "Päev" means "day" in english, and a word "Mändi" marks a type of tree (Actually this tree is "Mänd", but if You would like to ask "What tree did you saw", you would ask: "Millist Mändi sa nägid originaalitseja".

So this Damien is not very original....

Anonymous said...

Oh, you stupid Anonymous.
Can't you see it also includes Finnish? And who said it's very original?