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Sun February 26, 2012
Author Interviews

Meet The Mathematical 'Genius In My Basement'

In the mid-1980s, Simon Norton was considered one of the great mathematical prodigies of the 20th century. He worked on a hyper-dimensional math problem so complex it was called "The Monster." But then things fell apart for Norton, and he ended up in a dingy basement packed with bulging plastic bags and piles of bus timetables.

And he may have remained there in obscurity if it weren't for his upstairs neighbor in Cambridge, England: biographer Alexander Masters. Actually, Simon Norton was Masters' landlord. The two men developed a kind of friendship, and they even traveled together. Their time together is documented in Masters' new book, Simon: The Genius in My Basement.

"Here he was, this extraordinary genius, the envy of everyone around him," Masters says. "And now he is a person who wanders around on trains and buses, whom some people will cross the street in order to avoid."

Since leaving academics, Norton has become fixated on public transportation, and he believes he can make it more efficient.

"He has had this extraordinary capacity, he has enjoyed it, he is now enjoying something else, which is the desire to battle for better public transport in this country and around the world," Masters says. "He's dedicated his life now to that. He doesn't feel a sense of loss, he constantly feels a sense of purpose. I think that's magical."

Norton's field of pure mathematics "arises out of great simplicity," Masters says, but becomes extraordinarily complex at Norton's level. "When I listen to Simon, I just listen in awe. It's a pleasure just to listen to him ... and he never made me feel small that I couldn't understand the elements of his subject."

As for whether Norton has autism, "Everyone thinks about that the instant they see him," Masters says. But the author didn't want to bring this question into the book, and readers won't find the word "autism" anywhere in it. "It seems to me, you take Simon as Simon is," Masters explains. "If you're born with this degree of genius, this degree of capacity, you're going to grow up a bit weird."

At 5, Norton was doing high school-level mathematics. At 15, he was solving the types of problems professors puzzle over.

"He might be autistic or he might not be autistic," Masters concludes. "I think it would be very hard to tell whether genius is what he suffers from or autism is what he suffers from. And in a way, it just doesn't matter."

Even though Norton has all but abandoned academics, Masters chafes at the suggestion that he's failed. "Amongst other mathematicians, they would consider him a catastrophic loss of capacity," says Masters. "But he is the only person — amongst all these people who are all weeping for his lost ability — he is the only one who's not weeping. He's content. He's happy."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the mid 1980's Simon Norton was considered one of the great mathematical prodigies of the 20th century. He worked on a hyper-dimensional math problem so complex it was called simply, The Monster. But then things fell apart for Norton and he ended up in a dingy basement packed with bulging plastic bags and piles of bus timetables.

And there he may have remained in obscurity but for the fact that his upstairs neighbor in Cambridge, England was biographer Alexander Masters. Actually, Simon Norton was Mr. Masters' landlord. The two men developed a kind of friendship, even traveled together. The result of their time together is Alexander Masters' new book, it's called "Simon: The Genius in My Basement."

And Alexander Masters joins us now from the studios of the BBC in Cambridge.

Welcome to the program, Alexander.

ALEXANDER MASTERS: Hello, thank you very much.

MARTIN: First let me ask, was it just pure chance that threw you and Simon Norton together?

MASTERS: Yes, I knew very little about him. He was a character I had seen around the city a bit. One of the things I enjoyed about him, as a subject for the book, is he looked the stereotypical cracked mathematician.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MASTERS: And he's got wild hair. It all sort of seems electrified. And quite frequently his trousers were a bit torn and his shoes flapping. So I'd seen them in him about. But when I'd eventually arrived at this house and knocked on the door to apply for a room, I hadn't known that he was going to be the one to open the door. And then didn't know till several months later what his qualities were, I mean that he'd been this extraordinary mathematician.

MARTIN: When did you first comprehend the extent of his intellect?

MASTERS: Well, it took me - I studied math myself as an undergraduate and was intrigued when I found out he was a mathematician. But his math was a very different - I was applied mathematics, physics. And he was pure mathematics and infinitely harder. So I had very little sense of the sort of world he worked in.

But amazingly, the basics of his subject are quite easy to grasp - that's part of what makes them so intriguing, or make the subject so intriguing, is that it arises out of the great simplicity, without understanding it myself when little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MASTERS: When I listen to Simon, I just listen in awe. You know, it's all a pleasure just to listen to him try and attempt to describe this stuff to me. And it was - he never made me feel small that I couldn't understand the elements of his subject. And it was just a joy to have such a person be prepared to spend the time with me.

MARTIN: He does also have a particular fascination with public transit, right?

MASTERS: Yes. Yes. Now this is one of the things that sort of replaced his mathematics. And I think this isn't that unusual, I mean for mathematicians who have spent a huge amount of their youth just focusing on nothing but this subject, to feel the need to take on something else. And that leads to a loss of concentration on the mathematics and the loss of focus.

So what happens often in their 30s in their 40s, mathematicians, it's not so much that the genius vanishes, as the focus starts to diminish a little bit. And this is what happened to Simon. He had been interested in buses and trains for a long, long time, ever since he was a child.

And then in the sort of '80s, at just about the time he when his capacity was peaking - when he was known at the peak of his powers - also he was starting to get more and more politically involved in this. And trying to figure out ways where a public transport system could be better run and so on. So this has now become the dominant theme in his life, and he spends far less time on the mathematics.

MARTIN: I'm trying to think of a sensitive way to ask this. But the person that you described, the level of genius, his kind of social awkwardness and obsessions, was Simon ever in therapy for any kind of behavioral disorder?

MASTERS: You saying is he autistic?

MARTIN: Yes.

MASTERS: Now, I've thought about this. I mean everyone thinks about that the instant they see him. And I made a specific effort - I didn't want to use the word at all in the book. Because it seems to me, you take Simon as Simon is. Now, if you're born with this degree of genius, this degree of capacity, you're going to grow up a bit weird.

Because when he's and five he can do the mathematics that a 15-year-old can do. When he's 15, he could do the mathematics that a professor can do. You know, who does he talk to who seems worth any anything? So he might be autistic or he might not be autistic. I think, you know, it would be very hard to tell whether genius is what he suffers from or autism is what he suffers from. And in a way, it just doesn't matter.

MARTIN: I think it's fair to call Simon a bit of a social misfit. And you have a certain attraction to people who live at the fringe. Your earlier book, called "Stuart: A Life Backwards," was about a homeless man. What is attractive to you about people who are living at the edge this way, of mainstream society?

MASTERS: I think, with both Stuart and Simon, it seemed to me that if this is a person who could appear in fiction as a type that could appear in fiction; if you read about these characters in fiction, unless the writer is very, very good, they all have a sort of flatness about them because you're constantly aware of the fact that it's the author's imagination and that's presenting an this character. It's not the richness of a genuine character.

It's not about that these two people are on the extremities of society. It's that they are interesting, very complex people who tend to get very simple descriptions given to them. And if you just go and ask them, you shove a tape recorder in front of them and you hang around them for a - in my case, five years each - you begin to realize that this is really a very, very complex character, who it is impossible - in a sense, I feel both my books are failures.

"Cause you don't at the end have a sense that, oh, I now understand this character. My aim is just that at the end of the book you have a sense of, oh, I begin to understand the complexities of this character. And also, that it's someone I can be fond of.

MARTIN: I mean it's clear that you developed a friendship with Simon and a sense of compassion. What did you learn from him?

MASTERS: Oh, boy. I think - oh, I know. I think Simon achieved a great triumph - has achieved a great triumph. Here he was this extraordinary genius, the envy of everyone around him, and now he is a person who wanders around on trains and buses, whom some people will cross the street in order to avoid. And you think, well, this is a catastrophic failure. Amongst other mathematicians, they would consider him a catastrophic loss of capacity.

But he is the only person - amongst all these people who are all weeping for his lost ability - he is the only one who's not weeping. He's content. He's happy. He has had this extraordinary capacity. He has enjoyed it. He is now enjoying something else, which is the desire to battle for better public transport in this country and around the world. And he's dedicated his life now to that.

He doesn't feel a sense of loss. He constantly feels a sense of purpose. I think that's magical. And I think that, as a thing to take away from Simon, is a great, great treasure.

MARTIN: Alexander Masters is the author of "Simon: The Genius in My Basement."

Alexander Masters, thanks so much for talking with us.

MASTERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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