Monday, October 24, 2011
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE GENIUS IN MY BASEMENT – The Biography of a Happy Man” by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate, $34:99)
I was under a misapprehension when I read the first 30 pages of Alexander Masters’ The Genius in My Basement.
I had noted the way the text sometimes breaks into cartoonish illustrations and I had noted that there were some photographs. But the opening pages give such a wonderful over-the-top description of the childhood of a mathematical genius, and of the chosen squalor in which the genius (now nearly 60) lives, that I was convinced I was reading a clever fiction. You know - one of those cod biographies complete with cod documentation and photographs that jolly parodists sometimes make up.
Then I came across some things that could only possibly be factual, so I did a little Firefoxing and Googling. In no time I discovered what I was beginning to suspect. This is no fiction. It is a factual account of a real eccentric genius who lived downstairs from the author in what the author frequently dubs “The Excavation”.
Of course, “fiction” is a relative word with this sort of book. Alexander Masters makes it clear that he is not writing an orthodox biography, nor even an orthodox memoir, although The Genius in My Basement lives in the same ballpark as a memoir. It’s a series of encounters between author and subject in which the author pushes himself forward as a main character in the story, admits when he doesn’t know enough about certain areas of his subject’s life, makes up things in order to hear his subject grunt or guffaw about them and in short has a thoroughly enjoyable time while giving us the essence of his chosen subject’s personality, but without all the documentary facts. This is the same technique Masters used in his award-winning first book Stuart: A Life Backwards, which grew from his encounters with a vagrant drug-addicted man when Masters was working for a Cambridge charity. (Stuart: A Life Backwards was later turned into a BBC tele-movie.)
Let’s consider his subject in The Genius in My Basement.
Simon Phillips Norton was a budding mathematical genius when he was a tot. He won awards while still in elementary school, got the highest-ever scholarship entrance exam score to qualify for Eton, repeatedly scored 100% in international school Maths competitions, winning gold medals and astounding judges by the speed with which he could solve complex problems. By the age of 17, while still a schoolboy at Eton, he had completed a masters degree in Pure Maths through he University of London.
On he soared to Cambridge, readily recognized as a genius, zipping through complex three-hour exams in about 40 minutes and tossing off in casual conversation solutions to problems that had baffled his mathematician peers for months. He was given a fellowship and for some years worked on what may have been the definitive book on Group Theory. He worked with five other gifted mathematicians (one of whom, John Conway, was almost his equal as a genius). The book, Atlas of Finite Groups was published.
And then… and then… and then?
Well, academically, nothing really.
Simon had never been good at teaching and his Cambridge fellowship was granted on the condition that he never taught. The research team was dissolved. John Conway fled from Cambridge to become a respected Professor of Maths at Princeton. In about 1985, without other geniuses to spark off, Simon fell apart. He was fired by Cambridge (or as he prefers to say “his contract was not renewed”). He gradually became the man he is today - a cheerful eccentric who still worries away at aspects of Group Theory which all his Cambridge contemporaries have dropped. He has spent 25 years picking at a Group Theory problem concerning the right equation for a number with 53 digits. Mathematicians nick-name the problem “The Monster” , says Masters, “because of its gargantuan complexity and fiery insight into the fundamental structure of the universe.”
Simon loves collecting bus and train timetables and taking long journeys on public transport, in which he tots up the mileage and makes elaborate calculations. He is an activist in the promotion of public transport and frequently fires off letters about how iniquitous the Tory government is in making cuts. He lives in what the author just avoids calling squalor – a room piled high with what most people would call junk. He seems celibate by choice (at one point he tells a loudly gay tradesman that “If I was interested in sex it would be with women”). And yet it is quite clear that he is still a genius – he’s just gone off in his own, odd direction.
I must admit that sometimes, amid my general enjoyment of this book, a few things jarred. Alexander Masters is himself a mathematician of no small ability (he has degrees in Physics and Applied Maths from London and Cambridge), but he is aware that he is writing a book for the general, non-mathematical public. In a series of chapters (each denoted with an asterisk) he attempts to explain to us what the heck Group Theory is anyway, using jolly cartoons and the simplest of explanations. While they give us an inkling of the subject, I think he over-compensates for our collective stupidity and makes his explanations too childish. We end up not really knowing what the fuss about Simon’s specialty was in the first place.
There are a few things that don’t add up. Simon has two brothers, one of whom is immensely wealthy. A discreet and brief footnote tells us that Simon contributes many thousands of pounds a year to the cause of better public transport. But we are never exactly told how Simon now earns his own living.
Yet I think overall this book hits a bull’s-eye. The best of it is the way Masters avoids allowing us thickos to indulge our Schadenfreude. Over the years, there have been many books giving accounts of child geniuses or prodigies who crashed into nonentity in adulthood. Usually they comfort us with the implicit idea that, while we may be dullards, at least our lives have never become as miserable as that of the burnt-out genius.
This is definitely NOT the theme of The Genius in My Basement. You will note that the book is subtitled The Biography of a Happy Man. Masters is at pains to show that, in his own way, Simon is perfectly happy with his life. He has his own circle of friends and acquaintances, even if he relates to them in an odd way. He enjoys what he does, as he makes his regular train and bus journeys and accompanies the author on a trip to Norway. Nobody now thinks he is going to explain the mathematical structure of the universe but – amazingly – just a couple of years ago he was able to turn up at an international maths conference in Canada and give an impromptu lecture which set the academics chattering with its stimulating, and totally intuitive, ideas.
He’s not unhappy and there’s an even chance that he’s still a genius.