The Genius in my Basement by Alexander Masters

Fourth Estate (Harper Collins)

“Tartle” is an old Scots word that describes the moment of panic when you’re about to introduce somebody to someone else and all traces of their name have left your memory. There is no English equivalent, and of course there should be; who doesn’t know that feeling of confusion that turns to hand-wringing nervousness and results in absurd tittering and running away so that the problem of names can be sorted out between the two strangers?

A word should also be thought of for the similar panicked feeling when faced with a mathematical equation, or the brow-furrowing and sweat-inducing bewilderment when the conclusion you’ve reached in your long-division question refuses to match that of the answer on the blackboard.

If this particular problem has ever applied to you spare a thought for Alexander Masters, biographer of Simon Norton, mathematics prodigy and subject of Simon: The Genius in my Basement, who, despite holding a first-class honours degree in physics, suffers this affliction continuously during the writing of the book because Simon is, as you may have gathered, a prickly, eccentric mathematical mastermind.

If you, like I, didn’t quite know which one was algebra and which one was geometry until the night before the Leaving Cert maths paper, then you probably wouldn’t be inclined to pick up a book of this kind. I did only because the cover caught my eye and the blurb seemed, to my bemusement, interesting. But after reading the first few pages I knew that this wasn’t any ordinary biography, or a preachy and sycophantic back-patting exercise. This was the portrait of an unassuming and endearingly odd man who defines his life not by his mathematical accomplishments but by the bus schedule, and who just happens to be brilliant.

Simon - The Genius in my Basement by Alexander Masters
Simon – The Genius in my Basement by Alexander Masters

Alexander Masters, whose previous biography was of a man named Stuart, told backwards from his death to his birth didn’t have to go far to find his next subject; he was literally underneath his feet. We meet Simon at the age of fifty, when he is living in the basement of a house that he owns in Cambridge, renting out the other floors to reliable occupants. Above him resides the author, his friend, admirer and frustrated tenant, putting up with unusual noises emanating from the floorboards from day to night. Each sound tells you something about Simon, from frustrated clunks to satisfied dhunks, to the characteristic “huunh”’s and “hhnnn”s, grunts that pepper his sentences and reveal more than even spoken words can. For Simon is not a words man, he is a numbers man. When asked what it’s like to be a genius he can barely comprehend that the word applies to him. Knowing numbers is something inherent, it’s as natural to him as looking at a chair and recognising that it is, indeed, a chair, is to you and me.

As a one-year-old child he started playing with blocks and arranging them into regular groups – at three he was mastering long multiplication. As a teenager he competed in the Mathematical Olympiads three times and out-classed the ten thousand other competitors each time. He gained a first-class bachelors degree before leaving school and then went on to study and research in Cambridge, where he and another mathematician named John Conway conceived of a whole new area of mathematical study.

Throughout the book are chapters laid out simply to explain the area of maths of which he’s concerned, an area called group theory, and the hunt for what he and his colleagues deem “the monster”. Helpfully for mathematical idiots like me there are amusing little illustrations to go along with it courtesy of the author, of which I would have been grateful for when studying geometry (or was it algebra?). It’s a nice addition, and even as the chapters go on and the tables get ever so much more complicated I can’t resist but try to keep up. The funny drawings certainly helped keep this pictorially stimulated brain interested.

One could very safely assume that maths and numbers are Simon’s life, all he thinks about and all he is concerned with. As a child he called his beloved mother “45” for pity’s sake! Bafflingly to everyone but himself that is not the case. He lives and breathes numbers because they are part of what makes him him, what earns him a living and yes, what often makes him excited when he is on the cusp of discovering something new or of proving a long puzzled over equation right. He likes numbers, sees beauty in them and respects them, but his main area of interest in life, his passion and joy, are buses. Bus routes and timetables and public transport in general excite him more than anything else, even mackerel and Bombay mix.

So although this book is initially concerned with Simon Norton: Genius, man of extraordinary intelligence, we get a remarkable understanding of Simon Norton: Happy Man. We also get an interesting view of the people around him who can’t fathom his lack of concern around his vast intellect, from his older brothers, to his teachers, former classmates (and in an insightful passage, bullies) and his co-workers to the author himself. The course of the book ranges from “excavating” his unbelievably untidy lodgings in search of memorabilia to taking a trip to Norway interspersed with interviews of the aforementioned associates and the chapters to illustrate “the monster”. In the end it presents a remarkable portrait of a man who has no concern for his past achievements, no desire to confirm or deny reports on getting the highest score imaginable in his Ph.D. paper and just a general lack of co-operation into helping in any way with a biography of, to his mind, a normal man whose main concern is campaigning for better bus routes.

It’s interesting to see how people want to define him, how you are routing for him to reach his potential. There are many instances that show his precocious intelligence, designing a workable game of three-player chess whilst still a teenager is just one of them. But his accomplishments to his mind are merely thing’s he has done, the equivalent of a crayon drawing that a proud parents may have stuck to the fridge in admiration when he was young.

Masters treats his peculiarities with head-shaking affection and you do feel you are laughing with and not at him. It’s a very funny and touching book not only of a man, but an odd-couple of sorts, one who is intent on getting to the bottom of the mind of a genius only to discover it’s bottomless, the other who is intent on simply enjoying his life on the bus lines.

– Aoife B. Burke

First Published in The Tuam Herald on 04.09.12

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