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Telling Stories Through Numbers with Daniel Tammet

Posted: 14/11/2012 12:04

"Mathematics isn't simply about counting - it's about recounting stories".

This is how Daniel Tammet, best-selling British author, mathematician and autistic savant sees numbers. Not as simple numerical quantities. But as dynamic keys which can unlock the doors to human experience. "It's about how we tell a story about ourselves, our lives, our world, using numbers as well as words." This story-based approach informs his latest book, Thinking in Numbers, which was featured on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week, and is an assorted set of essays exploring how the beauty of maths permeates our everyday lives.

For Daniel, numbers are more than present; they're been personable. Having both Asperger's syndrome and synaesthesia, he sees them as visual entities with colours, shapes and personalities. This allows him to work out extraordinary sums of mental arithmetic and in 2004 he came to world-wide attention when he broke the European record for reciting pi from memory - setting it to 22,514 places.

Thinking in Numbers makes a number of parallels between maths and poetry - indeed, one chapter begins by exploring a poem written about Pi. Daniel explains that their similarity relates to their ability to be economical - "they are able to take huge amounts of info and condense it into a few lines of a poem or an equation. They make all that info meaningful because they find a pattern."

He echoes the sentiments of Einstein who famously said that for him the biggest test of a mathematical equation is asking, is it beautiful?

Daniel sees this beauty lace through the most complex of equations to the simplest of units. The number One is a familiar trope in the language of love, and of worship. The lover is presented as zero and the Beloved is One. "The ancient Greeks didn't have any idea of zero. They start with one - the idea of existence, of presence. It's a very powerful idea."

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His book refers to maths as "the science of imagination", but if its creativity is so accessible, why do so many students feel alienated from the subject? Daniel argues that schools don't teach maths in a way that captures the imagination - he himself almost had his love for maths snuffed out at school. "If when we are taught English we are just taught the rules of grammar, it would take all our love of our language away from us. What makes us love a subject like English is when we learn all these fantastic stories. Feeding the imagination is what makes a subject come alive."

So how would he recommend maths teachers do this? Daniel was once a maths tutor and recalls, "I would explain ideas in a way that was intuitive. There was a boy who was about eight who loved football stickers. We would out how quickly a giant would count the stickers, because a giant would have a different perspective of numbers than we would - he would count in tens or hundreds or thousands whereas we count in ones. This gave him an idea of groupings and multiplication."

The history of mathematics is left out of many curriculums. Daniel dedicates a chapter of his book to the great Persian philosopher and mathematician, Omar Khayyam. He believes his story, amongst many others, should be taught in schools. "That's a much more inclusive way of teaching - to make it clear it's not something we are imposing on children, but that something that is being passed down from generation to generation has a value, has a meaning. Every culture has contributed to maths just as it has contributed to literature. It's a universal language, numbers belong to everyone."

His book reflects this universality of numbers but also explores the diversity of their experience. The aborigines are cited as a community who understood time as defined by activity such as cow-milking. "We may say five minutes - but this very abstract idea doesn't have meaning in our lives as milking a cow would to people living on farms." Indeed, there are parts of the world where counting as a concept doesn't exist because those cultures have no need of numbers. Daniel explains that they categorise differently - "They simply divide things into big and small. So a bird is a small flock and a flock is a big bird."

Thinking in Numbers forces us to see the world from Daniel's perspective. Even if we feel numbers don't come naturally to us, one must wonder at their depth and insight into human experience. By the end of the book we may not share Daniel's passion and zeal for maths but I suspect he does succeed in making readers realise that numbers are, as he puts it, "a way of helping us to reflect on all those big universal questions about time, life, death and love".

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