What Color is Pi?

Ask Savant Who Memorized Pit to 22,514th Place

By Jeffrey Tannenbaum
Source: Bloomberg.com

Daniel Tammet has peculiar skills. He sees numerals and words as "shapes, colors, textures and motions," and that ability makes him a whiz at doing arithmetic and memorizing numbers and phrases.

The young Englishman -- he's 28 now -- set a European record in 2004 by publicly reciting the first 22,514 digits of pi from memory. To prove he can learn foreign tongues rapidly, he conversed in Icelandic with a TV interviewer after just a week of exposure to the language.

But, as Tammet makes clear in his memoir "Born on a Blue Day,"' there's a tradeoff for these skills: His differently wired brain also makes him awkward in social settings and obsessive about following routines. He uses an electronic scale to make sure he eats exactly 45 grams of porridge each morning -- a gram too much or too little would ruin his day.

People like him used to be called idiot savants, though the medical community of today uses "savant syndrome" for this rare combination of disability and genius. Tammet, who calls himself an autistic savant, has a neurological condition known as synesthesia, meaning that his senses of color and shape are triggered by numbers and words.

Given the public's fascination with extrasensory perception, it's important to note that Tammet's talents have been proved. He isn't a crackpot plugging the paranormal; he has been studied by brain scientists at Cambridge University and elsewhere.

Loving Pi

His take on life reflects his abilities, as when he describes pi, the irrational number representing the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, as "an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing... Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it."

The author was born on a Wednesday, to him a "blue" day because his synesthesia prompts him to associate Wednesdays with blue. Growing up in East London he suffered from epilepsy, which he got over only to be diagnosed, at 25, with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism.

"Numbers are my first language, one I often think and feel in," Tammet writes, adding that he has trouble understanding emotions and being empathetic. Nonetheless, he has a successful Internet-based business offering language tutorials and a stable relationship at home in Kent with a man he loves.

Though Tammet focuses mostly on his own case, he also writes about Kim Peek, the American who inspired the 1988 movie "Rain Man," in which Dustin Hoffman played a savant. For Tammet, the fact that Peek is missing the membrane that normally separates the brain's hemispheres makes him "a miracle'': "He can read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye, with near perfect retention.''

New Language

Tammet's own achievements have been recognized in the TV documentary "Brainman'' and he has been a guest on David Letterman's show.

While words rank behind numbers in his universe, he loves them enough to be developing a new language -- he calls it Manti -- for which he has invented a grammar and coined more than 1,000 words (such as "puhekello'' for "telephone'').

"Each word, shining with color and texture, to me is like a piece of art,'' he writes. "When I think or speak in Manti, I feel as though I am painting in words.'' Tammet's English isn't bad, either, and with it he paints a startlingly memorable portrait of himself.

"Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant -- A Memoir,'' is available at Amazon

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