...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

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"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Numbers, Mnemonism, Savantism, Oh My


Well, this is a bit disconcerting….

NPR recently ran an interview with author/autistic savant Daniel Tammet:

http://www.npr.org/2013/08/11/206660281/the-beauty-and-calm-of-thinking-in-numbers

I've enjoyed all three of Tammet's books. My favorite was his second one, "Embracing The Wide Sky," while the current one, "Thinking In Numbers," is a bit less consistent (from essay to essay), though still pleasant... couple of reviews here:

http://tinyurl.com/8llkr35
http://tinyurl.com/myz48jw

When I first became aware of Tammet, years ago, he struck me as a bit peculiar, especially his ability to introspectively and articulately describe his own mental processes (unusual for savants); he had an almost 'Uri Geller' style about himself, but, as he was studied by psychological experts in the field, I fully bought into his storyline. He has traveled widely and appeared extensively on television promoting his books, and there are plenty of examples of Tammet on YouTube as well:

 http://tinyurl.com/lx9oby6
(and even more of course on Google about him: http://tinyurl.com/mteo7sc )

...I've never read Joshua Foer's bestselling "Moonwalking With Einstein," but have always seen excellent reviews of it. So I was surprised to read in the comments to the above NPR piece that apparently in that volume Foer expressed doubt about Tammet's genuineness, believing he may just be a highly skilled mnemonist (memory expert) who passes himself off as a synaesthete and savant (turns out Tammet's real name is Daniel Corney though he had it legally changed over a decade ago, and Foer marshals evidence that Tammet isn't always candid about how he succeeds at what he does).

It's hard to know where the truth lies (especially since 'savantism' itself can be a bit hard to define), but the more I surfed around the Web the more suspicious Daniel's talents (or his personal portrayal of them) seemed. Even though many find Foer's skepticism unconvincing and continue to defend Tammet, others, with knowledge of memory training, do not. One of the most lengthy discussions comes at this forum site:

http://mnemotechnics.org/forums/daniel-tammet-840.html

The above has 6 pages (or 163 responses) of comments to sift through about Daniel Tammet (I haven't read them all myself, but they're not very encouraging for the authenticity of the standard Tammet-savant view). It's enough to make one a tad more leery of those neuroscience "experts" who study and report on savants (a bit reminiscent of scientists who studied and were taken in by Uri Geller decades ago) -- is the reality ever as incredible as portrayed by all the hype?

Still, savantism, including extraordinary mathematical abilities, remains a fascinating subject area, but perhaps one where a focus on Daniel Tammet is not entirely appropriate (of course the tricks of mnemonists are an interesting topic in their own right, just a different topic). Perhaps tellingly, Tammet himself, has long voiced a belief that his talents are not so rare or extraordinary, but rather are a function common to human brains, just not readily accessible to most people... that would indeed make sense if Foer's contention of extensive mnemonist training was the underlying mechanism.

Anyway, sorry if this is all old news for some of you, and you were already aware of the so-called "debunking" of Tammet; it was news to me that, given my occasional interest in savantism, seemed important to share, especially since Tammet is currently getting attention here in the States where his "Thinking In Numbers" volume was only recently widely distributed (it was available through the UK a year ago). I still enjoy the volume... but with at least a bit more of a grain of salt. And I should add, Tammet remains an interesting fellow, whether it be as a true savant, OR as someone who has successfully pulled-the-wool over the eyes of trained specialists (getting a lot of free travel and attention in the process)!


...As long as I'm mentioning books, this might be a good time to point out that Edward Frenkel's "Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality" is due for release in about a month, and I suspect it may possess some of the same deep, haunting joy of math that Tammet expresses, but coming from a true mathematician. From the Amazon description:
"In Love and Math, renowned mathematician Edward Frenkel reveals a side of math we’ve never seen, suffused with all the beauty and elegance of a work of art. In this heartfelt and passionate book, Frenkel shows that mathematics, far from occupying a specialist niche, goes to the heart of all matter, uniting us across cultures, time, and space."
Some more about Frenkel here:

http://math.berkeley.edu/~frenkel/Frenkel-Love-for-Math.pdf



1 comment:

  1. Did you know about my book about Daniel Tammet/Corney? https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/288635
    It's cheap. You might enjoy it.

    ReplyDelete