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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

That's Odd

Oliver Sacks had, over the years, produced a series of fascinating books that catalogue the workings of the human mind. In particular, what happens when the mind suffers from injuries and disorders that manifest themselves in ways that lead to insights on the workings of the brain.

His book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", contains a chapter entitled, "The Twins", an account of two brothers who had been diagnosed as either "autistic, psychotic or severely retarded. " They were the subject of various experiments and studies when they came to the attention of Dr. Sacks. They did, however, have an affinity for numbers as evidenced by their ability, if given a date, to identify which day of the week on which it fell, or would fall . Dr Sacks noticed one interaction that they particularly seemed to savor:

The second time they were seated in a corner together, with a mysterious, secret smile on their faces, a smile I had never seen before, enjoying the strange pleasure and peace they now seemed to have. I crept up quietly, so as not to disturb them. They seemed to be locked in a singular, purely numerical, converse. John would say a number - a six-figure number. Michael would catch the number, nod, smile and seem to savour it. Then he, in turn, would say another six-figure number, and now it was John who received, and appreciated it richly. They looked, at first, like two connoisseurs wine-tasting, sharing rare tastes, rare appreciations. I sat still, unseen by them, mesmerised, bewildered...

...As soon as I got home I pulled out tables of powers, factors, logarithms and primes - mementos and relics of an odd, isolated period in my own childhood, when I too was something of a number brooder, a number 'see-er', and had a peculiar passion for numbers. I already had a hunch - and now I confirmed it. All the numbers, the six figure numbers, which the twins had exchanged, were primes - i.e., numbers that could be evenly divided by no other whole number than itself or one.

My interest here is not the interaction of the twins, but the reaction of the doctor. Two people quietly sharing esoteric information is hardly the stuff of best sellers; what is it about this interaction that catches the attention of a researcher? It's because, from his initial underrstanding, the conversation is, literally, meaningless. Why do we view these numbers as meaningless? Because numbers disassociated from a noun or some grouping, such as "prime numbers", are complete abstractions; there's no hook for human interaction. Humans converse to share meaning. So the researcher finds random six-figure numbers as pointless, but six-figure, prime numbers as fascinating.

The twins are sharing insider information, like wine connoisseurs, creating a link between the two of them over information that is understood and appreciated by them alone.

For mathematicians the numbers, in themselves, are interesting because they are rare examples of an esoteric category. For everyone else, the interesting thing is that two humans find disembodied numbers interesting.

The central thrust of many of these posts is to begin to categorize "Art" and understand its facets. To me, the sine qua non of all art is "meaning": a conversation that does not necessarily contain words.

In Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is a chapter entitled "Ceci Tuera Cela" or "This Will Kill That". The chapter outlines the demise of architecture as the central expression of a civilization - done in by the book. The advent of the printing press allows ideas to be produced so quickly and so widely, that they can never be extinguished.

While in school, I have to admit that I had to stifle a yawn or two during our study of the Gothic period in western Europe. They all looked the same! It was not until much later that I did more research and I understood how impossible and heroic these buildings are. To have what is roundly considered a stunted society with widespread illiteracy and not even a common standard of measurement from one town to the next be able to produce the huge, ornate edifices that dot western Europe, is mind-boggling. But those who made them understood their import, as did Victor Hugo. These buildings have represented the Gothic era more powerfully than any other product of that age. What they provide is a conversation with modern society that describes what was most important to the people of the Middle Ages.

Both the book and the building can serve myriad purposes. Books can tell us how to troubleshoot a gasoline engine or describe a story of an societal outcast who knows more about the human condition than those untroubled by disfigurement. Buildings can provide a place to do business in comfort or describe the value system of a society from a distance of centuries. The highest calling of art is to provide meaning in whatever form it takes. Like the falling tree in the empty forest, if there are no ears to hear it, the sound is for naught.

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