Touring the Country of Math

  “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

                                                                                     ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

We all think differently. My grandmother would say, “It takes all kinds to make a world.” She was right. We need doctors and teachers in this world, but we also need people willing to pick up garbage cans and walk dogs and we need people who do math. In other words, we need people who think differently than we do if everything is going to be taken care of and this planet is going to continue to spin as it always has. If everyone thought like me, only possessed gifts like mine, there would be a lot of schools and books but no submarines or rocket ships. Sub builders and rocket ship makers have gifts I don’t have. It’s not always easy to understand people who are different from us. This is where conflicts arise.

I know a boy who thinks very differently from me. Not just because he’s a child and I’m not, but because he’s a math whiz, and I most certainly am not. Math was never my forte. I still have to write everything out, even the simplest arithmetic problems. When I was home schooling my son in fourth grade, we once did math for four hours. He wanted to keep going, but I didn’t have the patience. I used the excuse that it was time for me to make dinner. He kept working. As a college freshman, he can still sit with a problem for what I consider a very long time.

Numbers inhabit a foreign country to me. I think more along the lines of words and sentence diagrams. Realizing my young friend and I were having trouble understanding each others’ viewpoint, I decided instead of jumping in and trying to figure out a way to teach him to conform to my ideas and ideals, I needed to understand how he was looking at the world. I decided I would attempt to get to know him better by reading a book by someone who thought more like him. It was a wise choice.

I read Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet. Tammet is a math savant like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and Laurence Kim Peek (the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt in Rainman). The quote on the cover of the book is by Oliver Sacks, MD:  “Thinking in Numbers enlarges one’s wonder at Tammet’s mind and his all-embracing vision of the world as grounded in numbers.” How true. As I read his essays on, among other things, big numbers, fractions, and probability, I could almost feel new synapses firing in my brain, enlarging it to include a glimpse of Tammet’s vision and perhaps that of other math-minded individuals like my young friend.

As a child, Tammet would read fairy tales which led him to ponder mathematical ideas like big numbers. When I read this, it was foreign to me because upon reading the same fairy tales, my mind would go off in a different direction. I would think magic and mystery and romance but certainly not math. When he read “The Magic Porridge Pot” by the Brothers Grimm, for example, it spurred this:

“What if, I wondered, a magical pot distributed these tiny flakes of porridge and drops of  milk and grains of sugar in its own special way? In such a way that each flake and each drop and each grain had its own position in the pot, released from the necessity of touching. I imagined five, then, fifty, one hundred, one thousand flakes and drops and grains, each indifferent to the next, suspended here and there throughout the curved space like stars. More porridge flakes, more drops of milk, more grains of sugar are added one after another to this evolving constellation, forming microscopic Big Dippers and minuscule Great Bears. Say we reach the ten thousand four hundred and seventy-third flake of porridge. Where do we include it?”

Whew! I would read the same story and think how wonderful! That one pot fed the whole village and in the end, a lesson was learned, and they all lived happily ever after. The End. Close book. Who knew there were other ways of reading that story than the way I was reading it?

When he read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, Tammet’s mind spun off in an exploration of time, seconds, then fractions of seconds and fractions of those fractions as he counted the seconds it took him to walk from one lamp post (similar to the one in Narnia) to the next on his street and divided that time and distance into shorter intervals. It never occurred to me to wonder about such wonderful things. Why not? I guess I just accepted the fantastical story of Lucy and her siblings as proof that magic can be found in even the most mundane places and then my imagination went off with them on their adventures without pausing to think of the mathematical implications that were apparently woven throughout the story.

In another essay, Tammet talks about the possibility, the mathematical probability, of life on other planets–another topic I don’t spend much time on. But the further I got into the book, the more out- of-the-box my own thinking became. I realized just how limited and prejudiced and entrenched each one of us is in our one way of thinking. Remember the old movies about “little green men” from other planets?  My question now is why are we looking for beings like us? Or like us only with green skin and one eye instead of two? Who’s to say life on other planets has to look, sound, and smell like “life as we know it?” Hmm? And why are we looking for water on other planets? Because we as human beings of the planet earth require water for survival. Who’s to say that life on another planet–whatever that life may look like–requires water? Maybe their “water” is actually something very different.

Maybe it’s best not to let our imaginations spiral out of control. Perhaps limits are a necessary evil since our world operates, and, it can be argued, thrives on, systems. In order for things to “go,” things–and people–must conform to the parameters of those systems. But how often do we stretch those systems, alter them to accommodate new ideas?

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” ~Nelson Mandela

Reading Thinking in Numbers was a mind-expanding experience for me. I agree with Oliver Sacks’ quote; Tammet’s book did enlarge my wonder at Tammet’s mind. How wonderful, too, that a man that is so math-minded would be able to express himself and his explorations of numbers so eloquently in words. Not surprisingly, some of the things he discussed were still beyond my scope of understanding. I am certain I would not be able to reciprocate and explain my ponderings about the world in numbers. And to me, that’s really what it’s like–we almost speak two different languages because we understand the world in very different ways.

This book has helped me better understand my young friend’s mind. He understands time. He thinks in terms of years, decades, knows when important events occurred on the world’s timeline. I’ve taken many more history classes than he, but I still have no memory for dates. He worries he’s wasting time doing things he doesn’t deem important, feels his teacher spends too much time explaining things he already understands. Like fractions. Like Daniel Tammet.

Unlike me, this child grasps the concept of infinity. He constantly draws pictures of multitudes of people, draws a map of the United States from memory. His mind generates ideas mine has barely glimpsed. That’s why it’s good for me to read books by, and about, people very different from me. This experience reminded me of a man I recently saw on the internet who admitted he was prejudiced but didn’t want to be and started a dialogue with people very different from himself in an effort to gain understanding, insight, and, hopefully, eventually, acceptance.

Not only do people on this planet inhabit different longitudes, latitudes, and cultures. We also come from different schools of thought, different proclivities. There are math people and science people, book people and sports people. There are pilots and accountants, soldiers and princes. How often our misunderstandings arise out of our own misconceptions. Do we really want to know our neighbors or do we just want to complain about how different they are? That they are not like us? All the while boasting about our tolerance of others.

How liberating to stretch one’s mind! What better time than now to make an attempt to better know our neighbors. Those that may not think as we do. May we all be willing to be stretched horizontally, vertically, diagonally, outside the proverbial box to more fully comprehend the breadth and width and depth of a world–and a world of people–burgeoning with wonders infinite.


About Amy Nicholson

A busy wife and mother pausing to ponder the beauty and complexity of life and share it with words.
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1 Response to Touring the Country of Math

  1. Dick says:

    Nice article. Exactly why I want the LWG writers to stretch. And John Nash and the Rainman are excellent examples.


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