Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives

BOOK: Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives
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About the author


Daniel Tammet is the critically acclaimed author of the

worldwide bestselling memoir,
Born on a Blue Day
, and

the international bestseller
Embracing the Wide Sky

Tammet's exceptional abilities in mathematics and

linguistics are combined with a unique capacity to

communicate what it's like to be a savant. His

idiosyncratic world view gives us new perspectives on the

universal questions of what it is to be human and how we

make meaning in our lives. Tammet was born in London

in 1979, the eldest of nine children. He lives in Paris.

Thinking in Numbers



Daniel Tammet


First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Hodder & Stoughton

An Hachette UK company


Copyright © Daniel Tammet 2012


The right of Daniel Tammet to be identified as the Author of the

Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,

Designs and Patents Act 1988.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any

means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be

otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that

in which it is published and without a similar condition being

imposed on the subsequent purchaser.


A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library


ISBN 978 1 444 73742 4


Extract from
The Lottery Ticket
by Anton Chekhov; Extracts from

by Vladamir Nabokov © Vladamir Nabokov, published by Orion Books is used

by permission; Extract of interview with Vladamir Nabokov was taken from the BBC

and is used with permission; Extracts by Julio Cortazar

, © Julio Cortazar, published by Random House New York;

Quote from
The Master’s Eye
translated by Jean de la Fontaine;

Quote from
Under the Glacier
by Halldor Laxness, © Halldor Laxness,

published by Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House New York.


Every reasonable effort has been made to acknowledge the ownership of

the copyrighted material included in this book. Any errors that may have occurred

are inadvertent, and will be corrected in subsequent editions provided notification is sent

to the author and publisher.


Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

338 Euston Road

London NW1 3BH

‘To see everything, the Master’s eye is best of all,

As for me, I would add, so is the Lover’s eye.’


Caius Julius Phaedrus



‘Like all great rationalists you believed in things that were twice as incredible as theology.’


Halldór Laxness,
Under the Glacier



‘Chess is life.’


Bobby Fischer








Family Values

Eternity in an Hour

Counting to Four in Icelandic

Proverbs and Times Tables

Classroom Intuitions

Shakespeare’s Zero

Shapes of Speech

On Big Numbers


Invisible Cities

Are We Alone?

The Calendar of Omar Khayyam

Counting by Elevens

The Admirable Number Pi

Einstein’s Equations

A Novelist’s Calculus

Book of Books

Poetry of the Primes

All Things Are Created Unequal

A Model Mother

Talking Chess

Selves and Statistics

The Cataract of Time

Higher than Heaven

The Art of Maths


I could not have written this book without the love and encouragement of my family and friends.


Special thanks to my partner, Jérôme Tabet.


To my parents, Jennifer and Kevin, my brothers Lee, Steven, Paul, and my sisters, Claire, Maria, Natasha, Anna-Marie, and Shelley.


Thanks also to Sigriður Kristinsdóttir and Hallgrimur Helgi Helgason, Laufey Bjarnadóttir and Torfi Magnússon, Valgerður Benediktsdóttir and Grímur Björnsson, for teaching me how to count like a Viking.


To my most loyal British readers Ian and Ana Williams, and Olly and Ash Jeffery (plus Mason and Crystal!).


I am grateful to my literary agent Andrew Lownie; and to Rowena Webb and Helen Coyle, my editors.


Every afternoon, seven summers ago, I sat at my kitchen table in the south of England and wrote a book. Its name was
Born On A Blue Day
. The keys on my computer registered hundreds of thousands of impressions. Typing out the story of my formative years, I realised how many choices make up a single life. Every sentence or paragraph confided some decision I or someone else – a parent, teacher or friend – had taken, or not taken. Naturally I was my own first reader, and it is no exaggeration to say that in writing, then reading the book, the course of my life was inexorably changed.

The year before that summer, I had travelled to the Center for Brain Studies in California. The neurologists there probed me with a battery of tests. It took me back to early days in a London hospital when, surveying my brain for seizure activity, the doctors had fixed me up to an encephalogram machine. Attached wires had streamed down and around my little head, until it resembled something hauled up out of the deep, like angler’s swag.

In America, these scientists wore tans and white smiles. They gave me sums to solve, and long sequences of numbers to learn by heart. Newer tools measured my pulse and my breathing as I thought. I submitted to all these experiments with a burning curiosity; it felt exciting to learn the secret of my childhood.

My autobiography opens with their diagnosis. My difference finally had a name. Until then it had gone by a whole gamut of inventive aliases: painfully shy, hyper sensitive, cack-handed (in my father’s characteristically colourful words). According to the scientists, I had high-functioning autistic savant syndrome: the connections in my brain, since birth, had formed unusual circuits. Back home in England I began to write, with their encouragement, producing pages that in the end found favour with a London editor.

To this day, readers both of the first book and of my second,
Embracing the Wide Sky
, continue to send me their messages. They wonder how it must be to perceive words and numbers in different colours, shapes and textures. They try to picture solving a sum in their mind using these multi-dimensional coloured shapes. They seek the same beauty and emotion that I find in both a poem and a prime number. What can I tell them?


Close your eyes and imagine a space without limits, or the infinitesimal events that can stir up a country’s revolution. Imagine how the perfect game of chess might start and end: a win for white, or black or a draw? Imagine numbers so vast that they exceed every atom in the universe, counting with eleven or twelve fingers instead of ten, reading a single book in an infinite number of ways.

Such imagination belongs to everyone. It even possesses its own science: mathematics. Ricardo Nemirovsky and Francesca Ferrara, who specialise in the study of mathematical cognition, write that, ‘Like literary fiction, mathematical imagination entertains pure possibilities.’ This is the distillation of what I take to be interesting and important about the way in which mathematics informs our imaginative life. Often we are barely aware of it, but the play between numerical concepts saturates the way we experience the world.

This new book, a collection of twenty-five essays on the ‘maths of life’, entertains pure possibilities. According to the definition offered by Nemirovsky and Ferrara, ‘pure’ here means something immune to prior experience or expectation. The fact that we have never read an endless book, or counted to infinity (and beyond!) or made contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation (all subjects of essays in the book) should not prevent us from wondering:
what if?

Inevitably, my choice of subjects has been wholly personal and therefore eclectic. There are some autobiographical elements but the emphasis throughout is outward looking. Several of the pieces are biographical, prompted by imagining a young Shakespeare’s first arithmetic lessons in the zero – a new idea in sixteenth-century schools – or the calendar created for a Sultan by the poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam. Others take the reader around the globe and back in time, with essays inspired by the snows of Quebec, sheep counting in Iceland and the debates of ancient Greece that facilitated the development of the Western mathematical imagination.

Literature adds a further dimension to the exploration of those pure possibilities. As Nemirovsky and Ferrara suggest, there are numerous similarities in the patterns of thinking and creating shared by writers and mathematicians (two vocations often considered incomparable). In ‘The Poetry of the Primes’, for example, I explore the way in which certain poems and number theory coincide. At the risk of disappointing fans of ‘mathematically-constructed’ novels, I admit this book has been written without once mentioning the name ‘Perec’.

The following pages attest to the changes in my perspective over the seven years since that summer in southern England. Travels through many countries in pursuit of my books as they go from language to language, accumulating accents, have contributed much to my understanding. Exploring the many links between mathematics and fiction has been another spur. Today, I live in the heart of Paris. I write full-time. Every day I sit at a table and ask myself:
what if?

Daniel Tammet


March 2012

Family Values

In a smallish London suburb where nothing much ever happened, my family gradually became the talk of the town. Throughout my teens, wherever I went, I would always hear the same question, ‘How many brothers and sisters do you have?’

The answer, I understood, was already common knowledge. It had passed into the town’s body of folklore, exchanged between the residents like a good yarn.

BOOK: Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives
5.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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