Archive for November, 2008

Short story: The Mathematician

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

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The Story Space radio program played BD Wong’s rendition of the Daniel Kehlmann short story, The Mathematician, last night. Listening, riveted, I was severely slowed in my dinner preparations.

Anyone who asked Professor Gauss about his early memories was told that such things didn’t exist. Memories, unlike engravings or letters, were undated. One came upon things in one’s memory that one sometimes was able, on reflection, to arrange in the right order.

He remembered that he had started to count before he could talk. Once his father had made an error when he was counting out his monthly pay, and this had made Gauss start to cry. As soon as his father caught the mistake, he immediately fell quiet again.

Most of his later memories were of slowness. For a long time he had believed that people were acting or following some ritual that always obliged them to pause before they spoke or did anything. Sometimes he managed to accommodate himself to them, but then it became unendurable again. Only gradually did he come to understand that they needed these pauses. Why did they think so slowly, so laboriously and hard? As if their thoughts were issuing from some machine that first had to be cranked and then put into gear, instead of being living things that moved of their own accord. He noticed that people got angry when he didn’t stop himself. He did his best, but often it didn’t work.

The story goes on to describe how, at 8 years old, Gauss was discovered by his elementary school teacher to be — a genius — and transferred to high school, where Gauss discovered that students don’t think notably faster than in elementary.

The story reminded me of a recent conversation between two of my friends. One is a college student. The other has become \”certifiably crazy\” (CC), a ward of the state. The college student moaned, \”There are so many stupid people at school. SO many.\” \”Remember,\” responded CC. \”Fifty-percent of all people are of below average intelligence.\” \”And that’s why,\” CC added, \”I had to go crazy. I really can’t cope with all those very slow people.\”

I’m going to present both M and CC with a copy of Daniel Kehlmann’s book, Measuring the World.