Mine's Pi Square Pink!

By Charles Alexander

Parting Glances

In a triangle whose sides are 23,145,789 yards, 5,642,732 yards and 54,965 yards, how many cubicle 1/8ths of an inch exist? (Good cocktail question for a lull in your next invitational orgy.)

An adult named Jedediah came up with the correct 28-digit answer. It took him five hours to do the figuring. In his head! Equally mind boggling, he couldn't write his name and had only the mental age of 10.

At the end of his synaptic tour de force he asked eagerly, "Would you like the answers backwards or forwards. I can give it either way." Jedediah is a "savant."

For unexplained reasons, savants - who are included in the Autism Syndrome Spectrum (ASD) - are usually male. Their skills have questionable practicality: recitation of railroad schedules, perpetual calendars, cross-country city populations, rapid calculation of large numbers.

Among the best known of savants past was Blind Tom. A slave from birth, he played self-taught piano (sneaking to the instrument at night when everyone was sleeping), and later could play any composition he heard once, no matter how difficult.

His repertory numbered thousands of pieces. His plantation owner made a fortune by showcasing him here and in Europe. Lacking coping skills, Blind Tom died poor when left to fend for himself following the deaths of his care givers (and exploiters).

How the 3-pound universe, as our brain is often referred to, does these mental gymnastics is a mystery. That the brain is a delicate instrument is all too obvious. Stress, disease, crystal meth can unhinge it from its reality moorings. Two examples come to mind.

A guy by the case name of Henry M had a brain operation for epilepsy in 1953. His hippocampus was removed. The result: he was only able to recall information stored before that date. For the rest of his life if asked who was president would reply, Harry S Truman.

A viral encephalitis changed the life of musician and conductor Clive Wearing. After 15 seconds he's unable to form new memories. Each time he sees his wife, he welcomes her with tears, seeing her "for the first time." Oddly enough, he can play musical compositions flawlessly.

A recent, and contrasting example of exceptional brain functioning, is that of Daniel Tammet, who was born in London 34 years ago. Savant Daniel can speak a new language fluently in a week. He sees numbers as shapes, colors, textures. He can do astounding math in his head.

His autobiography, "Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger's and an Extraordinary Mind" made the New York Times best seller list. Daniel writes, "I was born on January 31. A Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday because the date is blue in my mind, and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing."

When asked to multiply 37 to the power of 4, he answered with hardly hesitation: 1,874,161. He's also gay and making tally with a partner. His second. They met during one of Daniel Tammet's much-in-demand lectures. (The trick's in the numbers, and all in his head.)


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