Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Color of Numbers

I Heart Savants...

So I just learned about Daniel Tammet, a young Brittish savant who, unlike most number geniuses, is fully functional despite some genius compulsion issues. But besides the fact that Tammet succesfully memorized and recounted Pi to 22,514 digits, and spoke it aloud in only five hours, or the fact that he succesfully learned to speak Icelandic in only 7 days, here is what truly has me in awe of Daniel Tammet, in his words:

"I see numbers in my head as colors and textures, so when I see a long sequence [of numbers], the sequence forms landscapes in my mind."

He sees numbers as richly-colored landscapes! This is AWE-ing to me! When he calculates or memorizes numbers, its not a matter of him scanning over the memory of computer-print-out numerals, its an orangebluegreenpurpleyellow bumpysharpbillowingtoweringsloping vista. WOW. He actually has unique colored images that he sees in his mind for each number up to 10,000. I can't locate an image online, but on 60 Minutes, they showed his water color rendering of how he sees Pi.

How would our world change, if we raised our kids to Imagine Pi? To Imagine numbers? When I told my roomate Carrie about Tammett, she was equally awed, and expressed her desire to see things his way because she sees the world with so much color, but numbers have always been black to her. Isn't this so true?

It made me wonder about the numeric system we currently use that seems pretty universal (well, planet Earth, anyway) and how is it that for the most part, no matter where you go on Earth, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 mean the same thing. (I would have said 2 means two but 2 does not mean "two" wherever you go. "dos" "due" "do" "deux" "zwei" etc).

So I did some searching. This will not be news to some of you, but the numeric symbols we use are commonly referred to as Arabic Numerals, and originated in India somewhere around 400 BC. If you want to learn more, I suggest Wikipedia's article on Arabic Numerals, to get the history of how the written number morphed into what we have now. It's one of those "China Below Us-Constant Revelations of the Obvious" things that I never thought about again after kindergarten. You know, like the Blue Whale? I also recommend Wikipedia's short article on Daniel Tammet. Golly, I wish I could figure out how to make direct links in here. Anyone want to tell me how? If you want to see some Tammet interviews, and his rendering of Pi, just google his name, along with "60 minutes" and you'll get some pretty good stuff.

Besides my mind being blown by the idea of colored number landscapes, I was really touched when I learned that Tammet tends to avoid beaches because of feeling the compulsion to count the grains of sand. Isn't that beautiful? And frustrating? It's just like how I can never have fruit in my cereal because there's too much stress involved in figuring out the ratio per spoonful of cereal to fruit slice so that I'm not left with tons of cereal and no fruit, or worse, 3 slices of strawberry and no remaining cheerios. Needless to say, Lucky Charms have always been problematic for me.

But honestly, the relationship to what we see as color in our minds is so fascinating to me. I know that there are types of music and even certain albums that I subconsciously see as certain colors. Even thinking of my Itunes playlists, I know what color most of them represent to me.

What do you think in colors about?

Book recomendations: please read these and report back to me...

PS. The artwork in this post is by my homeboy Sean Scully. Albeit, these aren't very representative of color landscapes, but they're very close to how I see color in my head. Dig it.


Lucy said...

Kj, that was fascinating.

Garth said...

To create a link to, for example, Garth's World, you'd just type:

<a href="http://www.garthsworld.org">Garth's World</a>

Kj said...

So if I wanted to help someone visit the site of the worst named Casting agency ever, I would just do this?

Let's see if it worked.

Keepitmoving said...

I once made the mistake of saying to a new knitter..." Don't worry, reading a pattern is just like algebra!" which sent them running for the door. To me, this is a nerdy, cool idea, but to her I guess algebra was a nightmare.

On the day these two worlds came together for me, I finally felt at peace. I only feel that peace when in the depths of some knitting dilema that requires numerous math problems and "number crunching."

Normally, numbers totally overwhelm me and float up off the page. But when they become tangible objects (colors, landscapes or for me, stitches) perhaps our mind is better able to digest them. They become less active and intentional (running) and more passive and natural (pumping blood or digesting food.)

I would have said breathing, it being a much more beautiful image... but breathing is the one bodily function that our brain totally takes care of on it's own YET...we can also completely control it.

Kj said...

Nice example kimmy. Numbers for you can be seen because they increase, decrease, change color and shape, depending on what you're knitting. I love you and your Texas Instruments Caluculator, graph paper and Yarn!

Lark said...

Good words.

Anonymous said...

I have the same thing, but my numbers lack texture, and only the numbers 4 and 1 contain shape. 1 is a deep red 'V' cut off at the bottom... and 4 is yellow, has three two long blurs like 'll' which move lightly up and down, alternating in direction... and in between is a dot, which focuses in and out from top to bottom... other numbers only represent color, and have no discernable shape. I started thinking about it a while ago... and thought, 'what color is 4?' Yellow... in my mind, I can't see it as being anything else...