Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

"Simon: The Genius in my Basement" by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate, 2011)

The subject of this biography is Simon Norton, who at 15 scored 195 out of 200 in the British Mathematics Olympiad. The 2nd boy in 10,000 entrants got 155. He went on to win Gold Medals at the International Mathematics Olympiads, get a first before leaving school, and do research at Cambridge where there was a taskforce of 5 mathematicians whose different styles combined, working in an office they called Atlantis to uncover the mysteries of The Monster. After the team broke up, Cambridge University failed to renew his contract. He became an "independent researcher" (like Holmes in "Sherlock" and "Elementary").

I used to meet him quite often when I helped run Friends of the Earth in Cambridge. He was our public transport spokesperson. In the Mail section of my office procedures notes (1991) it says "Mail to Simon Norton can be left in the Other Persons tray". At meetings it was with some trepidation that I said "And now over to Simon with Public Transport news". I'd heard rumours that he was clever at maths, but I didn't check them out. I did maths at University. Like Simon, I played chess. I work with Cambridge profs and meet a few of them socially. At school I was friends with a chess prodigy, Glenn Lambert, who I've written about (his personality profile was interestingly uneven too - no A levels, average at maths), so I was interested in how this book would treat its subject matter.

The book

The informal style is much like Stuart: A life backwards, Masters' previous biography. Masters says "Just as ... [minus numbers] are not real things at all, but something you've done to positive numbers, i.e. you've 'minus-ed' them - in short, minus numbers are verbs, not nouns - so in biography, it's not the real subject, but the active, i.e. verbal, relationship between the biographer and subject that ..." (p.35) but Simon disagrees. As in his previous book, feedback's incorporated into the story. He realises that going to the shops with someone might be as character-revealing as presenting a list of their achievements. He's creative with typesetting - for example, p.9 has a black background with text and sketches because the narrator's in a dark room. Masters has a first in Physics and an MSc in applied maths, but it doesn't help much in this case - world-class Pure Maths is a world apart. With the aid of cartoons, Group Theory is described - painfully slowly at first, but I guess the pacing's ok because it gets there in the end.


Masters thinks Simon's mother was much cleverer than his father. His brother Michael (OBE) is no slouch (Chemistry at Cambridge; he's written several books about fundraising and is interested in environmental concerns - a one-man "ideas factory" according to The Guardian). His other brother Francis runs the family antique jewelery firm; the Queen's a customer. "Every year Francis or Michael invite Simon to their house for Passover; and every year Simon arrives with his shoelaces flapping, his holdall bulging, his bus timetables and his smells, and eats all the parsley" (p.67).


Masters tries to assemble a collection of traits to construct Simon's character. I wonder if a standard personality test could have been tried - a Big 5 breakdown would have been interesting.

  • "It's essential to emphasise that in no sense of the term is Simon mad" (p.33)
  • "Everybody is messy somehow, and there's no other place for Simon to store his quota. Inside his head there's no room: all the mess has been swept out" (p.33)
  • "People such as Simon ... don't trust words. Words may be a familiar method of communication (although Simon generally prefers grunts or showing off bus tickets)" (p.34)
  • "Invariably, he knows where we were ten minutes ago, or where we are about to be after the next level crossing; it's where we are now that boggles him" (p.93)
  • "eSimon, the Simon who logs on to his computer at one in the morning, is a different man to Simon the grunter: eloquent, fluent, conversational, reflective, poignant, sometimes funny and ... ascerbic" (p.70)

The hot-house Atlantis situation forced proximity between people who outside maths wouldn't normally mix. The other personalities in the team augmented Simon's traits - he needed a team though he didn't have a team mentality. The chemistry of the team was right for the task. Simon in particular benefited from this stimulation - "People would be working on a problem and he would just say a number, some long number. And people would continue talking, and maybe two or three hours later they would realise that this number explained the phenomenon they'd been puzzling over" (p.285).

Why the interest in public transport? More numbers, more connections, more directions and targets. A chance to be amongst people.


Masters: "A great deal is written about genius ... There is nothing on why it disappears" (p.308). Simon: "What do you mean, my genius vanished? That's the first I heard of it" (p.281)

Masters: "Mathematical ability depends on being able to make links between remote ideas ... they have a superb memory for certain types of details, can use it to draw comparisons with other mathematical discoveries they've made or read about elsewhere, and therefore can exploit tiny and hidden analogies of argument", (p.144). Some poets and comedians use outlandish metaphors and connections too.

Conway (the most famous of the University team) suggested that Simon treated all connections and coincidences as equally significant, and Masters says that "Simon is a collection of disparate facts and no interpretative glue" (p.315). I suspect that in the restricted world of his field of maths, many of the coincidences were significant, but the likelihood of significance lessens as one spans domains, and lessens even more when the real world comes into play. With maths, exams and challenges provided direction and aims. Research needs more instinct or more guidance. When the team broke up I suspect he ended up with neither, though he still produces excellent work.

"Simon has two further points to make about his brilliance." (p.327)

  • He developed quickly but plateau'd - "by twenty, the equal of a professor, only his reading was not as broad. Then Simon's brain stopped developing" (p.327)
  • "I sometimes think that I would not have been capable of doing outstanding work in any field other than what I worked in. In due course I had worked out the field which I was expert in, and the cast of my mind was not amenable to diversifying" (p.328)

He played chess for Cambridge too, which is why Raymond Keene (who I drew with in a simul once) makes an appearance. In the Acknowledgements section on p.356 it says that "Ray Keene explained Simon's talent and (more interestingly) his inabilities at chess", but alas the discussion didn't get into the book.


Neither Woking nor Haverhill come out well

  • "The 'Idle Banter' page of Haverhill's local website had to be shut down because the residents persisted in using it to swear at each other. For some reason Simon wants this wretched place to be connected to Cambridge by rail link
    'This is it,' said Simon, coming to a halt in front of a converted church. We peered through a pyramid-shared window at a community noticeboard and a poster for the Samaritans. But instead of going inside, he was off again, holdall banging against his side, body tilting right to counteract the pendulum effect, bushy head bowed - more barge than walk - past the 'Wanted for Murder' posters on the police station railings and the crowd outside the Wetherspoon's supermarket-sized pub.
    ", (p.244)
  • "The Martian is at the end of a dreary pedestrian walkway, its legs buckled with despair at finding that it's travelled sixty million miles, the last hope of a dying civilisation, and ended up in Woking" (p.98)

In Cambridge "We reached a street corner, stepped out to cross, and Simon paused, apparently confused. The passing cars did not honk. They swerved gently to avoid us. Donnish behaviour is well understood at this road junction in Cambridge.", (p.205)

The book suggests that Cambridge didn't have the means to educate Simon, that he was bored with the generalist nature of the syllabus. His school, Eton, helped him to do a degree early. Conway (an early starter too) thinks it's not a good option in general, but one can go too far the other way. A brilliant Olympiad partner of Simon ended up getting a C at Maths A level because his school didn't have the means or desire to stretch him.


"Beethoven is Simon's favourite composer. He enjoys the 'unexpected modulation' and the fact that 'as with impressionism, the melody does not include every note'" (p.108)

There's a typo on p.203 - "7 - 0 =0" should be "7 - 0 = 7".

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