Thinking in Numbers—on Life, Love, Meaning, and Math

By Daniel Tammet

Little, Brown and Company | 2012

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

daniel tammet

I like numbers—especially when written digitally, though, when spelled in words, they can also be titillating. I like the shapes of numbers, especially the number 5, which is made of two straight lines and a curve. The same is true of the number 3, for that matter, unless it’s made with two curves as shown here. When numbers are used to begin a sentence they should be spelled out—as in, “Fourteen hundred and ninety two is one of most pivotal dates in history.”

Numbers are personal and symbolic—the number of our address on Pine Street where I grew up is 2217. It’s an odd coincidence that the last four numbers of one of my sister’s telephone is 2271. My birthday is on the eighth day of the eighth month of the year—once it fell on 08.08.1988, making it, it would seem, a rather auspicious year.

The address and phone numbers of some New York friends are full of 9’s—they live in apartment 9E in a part of Manhattan with the zip code of 10009. I wonder if all those 9’s bring them some kind of luck.

Certain dates in history are watershed dates for me, a would-be historian. The aforementioned 1492 was not only the year that Christopher Columbus sailed west expecting to run into India, it was also the year that the Moors and Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, marking the end of El Reconquista.

I like to think that Abraham wandered into Palestine about 2000 BC, that King David lived about 1000 BC, that Jesus, of course, was born around 1 AD, that Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258 AD, that Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, and that England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588—these watershed dates allow me to fix other happenings as either before or after.

I could go on and on, and pretty soon you might be wondering what I think about Daniel Tammet’s book, Thinking in Numbers.

From the book jacket―“Thinking in Numbers is the book that Daniel Tammet, author and mathematical savant, was born to write. In Tammet’s world, numbers are beautiful, and math illuminates our lives and minds.”

Frankly, I think the person that penned those lines rather over-stated things. If there’s one thing those of us who appreciate numbers have in common it is that we eschew hyperbole.

Thinking in Numbers is a book of 25 essays. Mr. Tammet was born in London in 1979, the eldest of nine children. In one essay, “All Things Are Created Unequal,” he says, “I am the son of poor parents, poor grandparents, poor great-grandparents, and so on.”   Despite his success as a mathematician and author, he contends, “Unlike diabetes or curly hair, poverty rarely skips a generation. A parent’s bank balance will often dictate his child’s destiny to a far greater extent than his blood…the poor beget more poor.”

Ultimately, his essays tend to be lightweight reading material. As charming as are many of Mr. Tammet’s essays are, after some time I began to lose interest, but that may say more about me than it does about his writing ability.

There was one essay, “The Admirable Number Pi,” that astounded me. I remember learning back in a grade school math class that Pi, the number 3.14159, expresses the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. What I didn’t know was that if one is dividing the circumference of a circle by Pi, the decimal places will extend into eternity!

In England, a much more civilized country than the United States, people celebrate March 14th as Pi Day. On that day various people recite in public as many of Pi’s digits as they can possibly remember.

As such, in 2004 Mr. Tammet traveled to Oxford to the University Museum of History of Science to display his memory of Pi-ian digits. Five hours elapsed while he recited, on and on, until people started clapping―he had established a new world record—22,514 decimal places! Barely able to remember my last address, I can only marvel at Tammet’s memory!

I guess I’m not really a mathematician—my favorite essays in this book, were those in which Tammet discussed being the eldest child born to a poor couple in London, and his inability to figure out his mother and his father’s nobility, in spite of their poverty.

I was sorry that he didn’t write an essay on the simplicity of the binary code that governs computer programs and is made entirely of 1’s and 0’s.

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