Photo: Geoff Oliver Bugbee
Known for his ability in language and math, Daniel Tammet is a prodigious savant and author of two books, "Born on a Blue Day" and "Embracing the Wide Sky." A third is on the way.
Beginning by saying it was another language he would have to add to the ones he currently speaks, Daniel began by trying - and failing - to put a southern spin on the word "Louisville."
As a child, he had to learn to how connect with people, he took solace in numbers, they became his friends complete with personalities. He felt safe and in control, and could play with them.
Prone to seizures a child, he discovered a bigger world "at the age of eight or nine." Based on intense feelings of loneliness - which he later says he would have traded in an instant for a normal life, and a feeling that he only belatedly understood - he pushed himself to understand the wider world. Like a scientist making observations, he would watch and the playground, "making predictions," to understand social situations. Over time he has learned to read body language, to eliminate his "accent" in social situations.
He told a moving story of entering a library for the first time and, seeing all the books with names on them, of searching in vain for a book with his name on it so "that he could find out about his life too."
Going abroad for Lithuania he first understood that he, too, might fit in, joking quietly that the Lithuanians excused his eccentricities. He was, after all, British.
He may be best know for a feet recorded on his return to Britain in 2004. Having been approached by academics, he went to Oxford and during a lengthy, exhausting sitting, recited Pi to 22 thousand digits from memory, relying on the landscapes built from with knit-together shapes in his mind. Having attracted quite a crowd for this rather manufactured event, he noticed that nearby people were moved by the experience into silence. It was the first time he understood that he could express the beauty he encountered in his own peculiar way.
Encouraged, he followed that up with the completely unexpected best seller "Born on a Blue Day" (Wednesdays are always blue), which, he added, finally let him walk into a library and find his life on the bookshelf.
Embracing the Wide Sky elaborates on his unique abilities, suggesting, for example, that when we think in puns, similes and metaphors, we're thinking not unlike a savant. One metaphor, however, that has worn out its usefulness is the idea of the brain is a computer. It is not. Sometimes, not always, intuitions flower into fact.
Those intuitions, he believes, inform the words we get. Shorter words like "dog" and "shoe" for example often refer to common items. Certain sounds like the "gl" sound in English, are associated with light and objects like glasses, which reflect light. While most will outgrow this kind of thought, or, more accurately, of connecting that kind of thinking to real world objects, those underlying intuitions make the acquisition of new languages easier. It's one reason for example, he could learn conversational Icelandic in only a week. With some examples, he goes on to describe how the grammar rules that we learn can also work against those intuitions.
Word and number sense seem to be part of our inheritances.
For that reason and others, he suggests that we learn by acquiring "our own meanings," in other words to make sure the process is personal to you.
Having experienced a very personal isolation - isn't all isolation personal? - he remarked on the importance of diversity of people and thought, pleading quietly against the exploitation of identity that he sees occurring in America; because, rather than enlightening a public, politicizing ways of viewing the world based on particular experiences of it, will inevitably corrupt national health and the collective knowledge we ultimately get.
And with that, he ends with a reading of an Emily Dickinson poem that include the words to his second book, Embracing the Wide Sky.
Challenged in the Q&A at the end of his talk to describe the colors he might see when he looked at the number 1,000,400 - he smiled a knowing smile and said "you Americans love big numbers." Pausing a moment to recall how that number might appear in his mind, he then looked back at the audience and said the colors must be "red, white and blue."