Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Too Interesting to Adequately Describe in One Sentence

This story posted on Boingboing, which is on a roll the last couple of days, is utterly fascinating; an autistic mathematical savant who can describe how his amazing mind works:

Daniel Tammet is talking. As he talks, he studies my shirt and counts the stitches. Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now he is 26, and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He also happens to be autistic, which is why he can't drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. He lives with extraordinary ability and disability.

Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn't "calculating": there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. "When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think."

Wow. There's much more:

Scans of the brains of autistic savants suggest that the right hemisphere might be compensating for damage in the left hemisphere. While many savants struggle with language and comprehension (skills associated primarily with the left hemisphere), they often have amazing skills in mathematics and memory (primarily right hemisphere skills). Typically, savants have a limited vocabulary, but there is nothing limited about Tammet's vocabulary.

Tammet is creating his own language, strongly influenced by the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe. (He already speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto.) The vocabulary of his language - "Mänti", meaning a type of tree - reflects the relationships between different things. The word "ema", for instance, translates as "mother", and "ela" is what a mother creates: "life". "Päike" is "sun", and "päive" is what the sun creates: "day". Tammet hopes to launch Mänti in academic circles later this year, his own personal exploration of the power of words and their inter-relationship.

We're getting close to understanding a lot more about the human mind than we ever have, and I think it all ties in to what the guy who posted this on Boingboing, Cory Doctorow, calls the "singularity," a moment in human history when information, technology and the manipulative power of science will change the world utterly and permanently into something so different from our current one that we may not be able to imagine it.

Consider what endless cheap power supplies, infinite computing power and speed, or for that matter precise and all-encompassing technological control of matter, time and space would do to the world. Imagine what understanding exactly what's going on in Daniel Tammet's brain and being able to reproduce some of it in others would do to the world. A bit more than 100 years ago, no one had ever flown in a powered airplane, and now we take 550 mph travel for granted. In another 100 years, who knows what's possible? At this stage of the game, progress only accelerates.

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