...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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks... Story-teller


My inclination, upon hearing of Oliver Sacks' death, was to note it, but not attempt any further tribute, since so many will be penning better pieces than I can (plus, he doesn't fit that easily into a mathematics blog). But on reflection, as a small memorial, I've decided to re-run here at MathTango, the below entry that was originally posted at Math-Frolic over two years ago [...I've also now added G. Johnson's 2nd followup post-link to it].
[a couple of addendum links now added at bottom, as well]

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(from February, 2013):

If you are an Oliver Sacks fan you may well be familiar with the story of twin male autistic savants from his best-selling "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" volume. Anyone captivated by prime numbers and savantism can't help but love the account, and George Johnson explores it in this blog post for Discover Magazine:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/fire-in-the-mind/?p=105#.USyQXhlHk1g

[...and then a week later Johnson did a follow-up post on the same subject:
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/fire-in-the-mind/2013/03/04/idiot-savants-and-prime-numbers/#.VeNnys4sdo4 ]

Fascinating reads. There are further excerpts from the Sacks' chapter here:

http://empslocal.ex.ac.uk/people/staff/mrwatkin/isoc/twins.htm

The story tells of twin males who demonstrate great pleasure and joy in recognizing prime numbers… LARGE prime numbers, of the sort that normally only a computer might verify as prime in a short order of time, but that the twins appeared able to discern upon brief reflection. It is as if they had personal access to the so-called "Platonic" realm of numbers… the same might be said for other savant-like math knowledge or computational skills that are well-documented, but this is an even rarer facility.

There are dissenters who question Sacks' credibility or interpretation of this particular story which he only related about 20 years after its actual occurrence:

http://www.pepijnvanerp.nl/articles/oliver-sackss-twins-and-prime-numbers/

The above rebuttal also includes a YouTube video of the actual twins demonstrating their calendar-calculation skills (not their prime number skills).

Sacks' account is anecdotal and so the skepticism is understandable (by the time Sacks drew attention to the twins they had been separated and lost their special numerical skills)… but still... I admit… I want to believe it true ;-)

Here's a further followup to Sacks' story by another researcher:

http://goertzel.org/dynapsyc/yamaguchi.htm

And this research abstract indicates that the prime number recognition skill has indeed been reported for other savants:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8040161

Mind-blowing stuff!
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....It was a little over a year ago that Robin Williams tragically took his own life... perhaps this is not a bad time to remember both he and Dr. Sacks (who were friends) with this revised trailer to the movie "Awakenings":



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...and more:

ADDENDUM
:  A reader sends me this interesting link from just a few days ago, coincidentally covering the same Sacks/savant story:
http://www.exploratorium.edu/blogs/tangents/prime-obsession
...and also this older blog post I didn't recall:
http://blog.computationalcomplexity.org/2009/09/possibly-recruits-for-polymath-primes.html


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