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Unformatted text preview: The last word My life as a Rain Man Daniel Tammet is an autistic seven: for whom math is an intensely cinematic experience. In his new memoir, he explains why 5 is a clap of thunder and 9 stands tall and blue. 1 was born on Jan. 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednes- day, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing. i like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualize most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach. That’s because they are prime numbers: 31, 19, 197, 97, 79, and 1979 are all divisible only by themselves and 1. I can recognize every prime up to 9,973 by their “pebble-like” quality. It’s just the way my brain works. I have a rare condition known as savanr syndrome, little known before its portrayal by actor Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning 1988 film Rain Man. Like Hoffman’s char- acter, Raymond Babbitt, l have an almost obsessive need for order and routine that affects virtually every aspect of my life. lior example, I eat exactly 45 grams of porridge ior breakfast each morn- ing at my home in Kent, England; 1 weigh the bowl with an electronic scale to make sure. Then I count the number of items of clothing i’rn wearing before I leave my house. I get anxious if I can‘t drink my cups of tea at the same time each day. Whenever i become too stressed and can’t breathe prop— - erly, 1 close my eyes and count. Thinking of ' numbers helps me to become calm again. Numbers are my friends, and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality. The number 11 is friendly and 5 is loud, whereas 4 is both shy and quiet—it’s my favorite number, pen haps because it reminds me of myself. Some are big—«23, 667, 1,179w-while others are small—6, 13, 581. Some are beautiful, like 333, and some are ugly, like 289. To me, every number is special. No matter where I go or what I’m doing, numbers are never far from my thoughts. In an interview with talk show host David Letterman in New York, I told David he looked like the number 117—tail and lanky. Later outside, in the appropriately numeri- cally named Times Square, Igazed up at the towering skyscrapers and felt surrounded by 9s—the number 1 most associate with feel- ings of immensity. Scientists call my visaal, emotional expe» rience of numbers synesthesia, a rate new rological mixing of the senses, which most cornmdnly results in the ability to see THE WEEK February 16, 2007 ForTammet, numbers are maps to other peoples emotzorrs. alphabetical letters andlor numbers in color. Mine is an unusual and complex type, through which I see numbers as shapes, colors, textures, and motions. The number 1-, for example, is a brilliant and bright white, like someone shining a flashlight into my eyes. Five is a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks. Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow. Using my synesrhetic experiences since early childhood, I have grown up with the ability to handle and calculate huge numbers in my head without any conscious effort. My favorite kind of calculation is power multiplication—equating and cubing for example. Squares are always symmetrical shapes in my mind, which makes them espe— cially beautiful to me. i never write anything down when I’m calculating, because I’ve always been able to do the sums in my head. When multi- plying, 1 see the two numbers as distinct shapes. The image changes and a third shape emerges—*the correct answer. When I divide one number by another, in my head i see a spiral rotating downwards in larger and larger loops, which seem to warp and curve. Different divisions produce different sizes of spirals with varying curves. From my mental imagery I’m able to calculate a sum like 13 + 97 (0.1340206...) to almost a hundred decimal places. Different tasks involve differ— ent shapes, and I also have various sensations or emotions for certain numbers. Whenever i multiply with 1.1, i always experience a feeling of the digits tumbling downwards in my head. I find 65 hardest to remember of all the numbers, because I experi- ence them as tiny black dots, without any distinctive shape or texture. i would describe them as like little gaps or holes. I have visual and sometimes emotional responses to every number up to 10,000, like having my own visual, numerical vocabulary. And just like a poet’s choice of words, i find some combinations of numbers more beautiful than oth- ers: Ones go well with darker num- bers like 85 and 95, but not so well with 65. A telephone number with the sequence 189 is much more beau— tiful to me than one with a sequence like 1 16. . This aesthetic dimension to my synesthesia is something that has its ups and downs. If I see a number I experience as particularly beautiful on a shop sign or a car license plate, there‘s a shiver of excitement and pleasure. On the other hand, if the numbers don’t match my experience of them—if, for example, a shop sign’s price has “99 pence” in red or green (instead of biue)—-—then 1 find that unconv fortable and irritating. It is not known how many savants have synesthetic experiences to help them in the areas they excel in. One reason for this is that, like Raymond Babbitt, many suffer profound disability, preventing them from explaining to others how they do the things that they do. I am fortunate not to suffer from any of the most severe impairments that often come with abilities such as mine. Like most individuals with savant syn» drome, I am also on the autistic spectrum. I have Asperger syndrome, a relatively mild and high-functioning form of autism. Emotions can be hard for me to understand or know how to react to, so I often use numbers to help me. If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, 1 picture myself sit- ting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it. If I read in an article that a person felt intimidated by something, I imagine myself standing next to the number 9. By doing this, numbers actually help me get closer to understanding other people. Sometimes people I meet for the first fauna omitting .._. W ,M.‘ m. m. time remind me of a particular number, and this helps me to be comfortabie arm-ind them. They might be very tall and remind . me of the number 9, or round and remind me of the number 3.1fI feel unhappy or anxious or in a situation I have no pro. _ vious experience of, I count to. myself. When I count-,the hunt- ber's form pictures "and patterns in my mind that are consistent- ' and reassuring to _rne.- ' There are moments, as I’m falling asleep at night, that my f. -- mind fills suddenly. with bright ' ' light and all I can seeare mun hers—hundreds, thousands of them—swimming rapidly over my eyes. The experience is beautiful and soothing to me. Some nights, when Pm having difficulty falling asleep, I imag- ine myself walking around my numerical landscapes. Then I feel safe and happy. I never feel lost, because the prime number shapes act as signposts. My synesthesia also affects how I perceive words and language. The word “ladder," for example, is blue and shiny, while “hoop” is a soft, white word. The same thing hap- pens when l readwords in other languages: jar/din, the French word for “garden,” is a blurth yellow, whiie bnuggz’nnmlcelandic for “sad”-~«is white with lots of blue specks. Synesthesia researchers have reported that colored words tend to obtain their colors from the initial letter of the word, and this is generally true for me: “Yogurt” is a yel- low word, “video” is purple (perhaps linked with Violet), and “gate” is green. l can even make the color of a word change by men— tally adding initial letters return the word into another: “At” is a red word, but add the letter H to get “hat” and it becomes a white word. If i then add a letter T to make “that,” the words color is now orange. Alg eraser: Dagin'ad sci til; .Alldboatfmcom; Associated Press ' up. org, The Atlanta Jourirc‘il Consfimtion accessadanta com/part- nersu'ax: BBC bbc. co. uk; Bismarck. Trihune b'nmarcktribune.- corn; Bloomberg .com; The Boston Globe boston. comiglobe; Busmess Week ligusirJessweek. com; Car and Driver caranddriyetcom; (breetjournal. coon CBSmarlzezwatcb com; Chicago Sim-Timer smitimes .com; Chicago. Tribune chicagotrihune com; The Christian Scam Monitor Lsrnortitoncom; CNN cm. com; Milan Carrier»: (fella Sen: corricre it; London Daily Telegraph dailytelegraph. co. mic; . The Dallas Manning News dailasnews .corn; The Denver Post den .. verpost .com; Departures depamir'es. cool; Detroit Free Press freep. com; Detroit News demewszom, The Economist economist cum,- Enrenmment Weekly eweom'; Financial Times ftcom; Food {9' Wine foodandwine.cmn; Forbes forbes.com; Fortune fortuhecom; Fort Worth Star-Telegram star-relegramcom; Gallup Foil gallup. com; London Guardian guardian.co.uk; Chennai Hindu hindu.com; Delhi Hindustan Tones hmdusranfimescom; London In independentcoulc; Investor’s Business Daily investorscomg Tb: Kansas City Star kcsmtcom; LA Weekly laweeklyborn; Los Angeles Times lanmessom; Mmizetwatcbrom; Men’s Health men- -' strand-Learn; The Miami Herald heraldxom; Money moneymzn; Mommtral.comg MSNBC.com; National Geographic mason. _ name com; New Musical The last ‘T’ is an orange letter to Tammet, perfect for tigers and trees in autumn. Some words are perfect fits for the things they describe. A “raspberry” is both a red word and a red fruit, while “grass” and “glass” are both green words that describe green things. Words beginning with the letter T are always orange like a tulip or a tiger or a tree in autumn, when the leaves turn to orange. ' Conversely, some words do not seem to me to fit the things they describe: “Geese” is a green word but describes white birds (“heese” would seem a better choice to me), the word “white” is blue, While “orange” is clear and shiny like ice. “Four” is a blue word but a pointy number, at least to me. The color of “wine” {a blue word) is better described by the French word vin, which is purple. Seeing words in different colors and tex_ tures aids my memory for facts and names. When I meet someone for the first time I algeographicmm; National Review nationalrevievuoom; Nature Express rune. com; The New Republic 2115mm; New Scientist newscr‘entist. corn, New York nemrlonwo. com; The New Yorker newyorketcom; The New York Observer observeccom; New York Post it scorn; The New York Review ofBooks nybooks.coro; The New York Sun newyorkstmxom; Tire New York Times nytimes.com; London Observer observencomk; ?ortland Oregonian oreganiartcom; The Orlando Sentinel orienti- osentinelxom; People pie com, The Philadelphia Inquirer philly 00in; Boston Phoenix mane-homo. com; Pittsburgh Posr- Gazette “gazettecom; Pittsburgh Tribune Review nlhunewreviem com; Real Simple realsimplecom; Reuters routerscom; Koblenz Rber'n- Zeimmg rheinzeirungde; Rolling Stone rollingstonecom; Salomcom; : San Antonio Expresstews mysanantoriio.com; The San Diego Union‘Tribrme signonsandiegorom; Sam Francisco Chronicle s§gabe. comfchronicle; San Jose Mercury News 111 action Seam savcucoom; Science sciencemag. org; Scientific American sciam. corn; Slate. com, Srmrrmoney smamnoneyrom; Scientific American sciarncom; Mini-lea iis Star Tribune stamibune .0011}; St. Louis Post-Dispatch st}: among Saddmtsdre Zeimrrg sueddeutsche. tie; Baltimore Sun halnmoresunrom; Die Tegeszeitung tazde; Trme timeoom; London Times thefimescouk; Chandigarh Tribune tri- buneiudia.com.; USA Today usatodayxom; Variety var-lemma]; The Village Voice villagevnice.com; The Wall Street 10ml wsicom; The Washington Post washi onyochom; The Washington Times washtimes. corn; The Weekljfgandard theweeklystandardmm often remember their name by the color of the word: Richards are red, Iohns are yellow, and Henrys are White. It also helps me to learn other languages quickly and easily. I currently know 10 languages: English (my native language), Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, lcelandic, and Welsh. Associ- ating the different colors and emotions I experience for each word with its meaning heips bring the words to life. For example, the Finnish word toll is orange to me and means “fire.” When I read or think about the word I immediately see the color in my head, which evokes the meaning. Another example is the Welsh word gweilgi, which is a green and dark blue color and means “sea.” I think it is an extremely good word for describing the sea’s colors. When I was a child, doctors did not know about Asperger syndrome and so for many years i grew up with no understanding of Why i felt so different from my peers and apart from the world around me. I also remember spending hours as a young child looking at book after book in my'local library, trying in vain to find one that had my name on it. Because there were so many books in the library, with so many different names on them, I’d assumed that one of them—somewhero—had to be mine. At the time I didn’t understand that a per— son’s name appears on a book because he or she wrote it. Eventually i learned better. .Ifl ever was going to find my book, I was going to have to write it first. From the book Born on a Blue Day by Dan- iel Tammet. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon 6" Sebaster Inc. . 0 ©2007. All rights reserved. THE WEEK is a registered trade- : mark owned by Felix Dennis. 0 THE WEEK (ISSN 15338304) is published weekly except _ for the first two weeks of January: one week in each July ’ and Sentember. THE WEEK is published by T he Week Publications, LLC, 1640 Avenue of the Americas, New Your, NY 2003.8. Periodicals postage paid at New York. N.Y., and at audi- . tionai maiiing offices. POSTMASTER: Send change of address to TEE WEEK, R0. Box 420235, Palm Coast. FL 32143 ' 0235. One-year subscription rates: U.S. $75; Canada $90: an other countries $195 in prepaid US. funds. Publications Mail Agreement No. 40031590, Registration No. 140467846. Return Undeliverable Canadian Addresses to R0. Box 503. RPO West Beaver Creek, Richmond Hill, ON £48 426. I THE WEEK is a member ofThe New York Times News Service. The Los Angeles Ema/Washington Post News Service. and subscribes to {he Associated Press . For customer service inquiries. call toll—free 1-8?7—245-8151 February .16. 200?: Volume 7. Issue #297 THE WEEK February i6. 200? ...
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