Last updated: August 31, 2011 7:06 am

The Genius in my Basement

Alexander Masters’ study of an eccentric mathematician is a worthy follow-up to an acclaimed debut

Alexander Masters’ debut was Stuart: A Life Backwards, a biography of a Cambridge-based rough-sleeper and “thief, hostage-taker, psycho and street raconteur” who gradually – because the story is told backwards – becomes a charming little boy. It was written partly as a dialogue with its subject and includes his remarks on the developing manuscript; “It’s bollocks boring” is a typical example. The book won numerous awards.

This is his follow-up: another interactive biography of an eccentric, nonfamous individual, namely Simon Norton, formerly Masters’ landlord in Cambridge, and “the most astounding mathematical prodigy of his ­generation”.

Norton (now in his 50s) certainly looks the part. The numerous snapshots in the book show an ursine man with Einstein’s hair; he wears the same T-shirt for days and “rotten trousers”. His personal hygiene is not of the highest. I was eating at the time I read the description of his basement kitchen – and I had to stop eating. It’s not actually clear why he needs a kitchen since he lives on tinned mackerel and Bombay Mix. He is, naturally, an obsessive reader and memoriser of bus timetables.

As if this weren’t enough to clinch his genius, we also have the following. In childhood he identified himself as a number: 5. His beloved and beautiful mother he called “45”; he wrote out sums for her on letters headed “Sums for 45” and signed “Love, 5”. When, as a boy, he had his IQ tested, the score was “eerie” (178 – officially, genius level is anything above 140). When Norton, who is from a prosperous Jewish family, sat the maths paper of the Eton entrance exam a strange ululation was heard from the examination hall. It was Norton, yodelling with pleasure, and instead of writing a mere alpha alongside “Mathematics” on the results slip the marker wrote two exclamation marks.

At Eton Norton took an external maths degree from London University and scored a first. After gaining another first at Trinity College Cambridge he joined a team of mathematicians who were working on ... well, I kept thinking I was about to get a faint inkling of this endeavour but I never quite did, and if I have one criticism of this exuberant and compelling book it’s that Masters could have tried harder to explain it, especially since he is himself the holder of an Msc in applied maths (which, incidentally, cuts no ice with Norton, who casually confides to one of his fellow geniuses that his biographer is “not a mathematician”).

Norton is interested in symmetry. Along with those other geniuses, he compiled The Atlas of Finite Groups. It is (perhaps) a directory of symmetrical shapes, one of which – “the monster” – has 808,017,424,794,512,875,886,459, 904,961,710,757,005,754,368,000,000,000 sides. It happens that the monster coincides with some other mathematical product that I don’t understand, and the explanation of this coincidence, which is not yet known, might reveal the answer to more or less ­everything: “the voice of God”.

But Masters is more interested in Norton’s character. On the many bus journeys they undertake together he tries numerous theories on him: as a boy he confused numbers with humans; he likes timetables because they offer a way of travelling through numbers. Norton shrugs, refusing “philosophical” speculations.

At which point, the word “autistic” might be looming rather large in some readers’ minds but Masters insists his subject has no “pathology”. His extreme scruffiness only counterbalances the neatness of his brain. Moreover, he is happy and “spends most of his time smiling”. He is also busy, not a tragic burn-out, like many middle-aged mathematicians. Although things have gone a bit quiet on the “monster” front, he is exercised by a new conundrum: “If exactly half the time he pulled two socks out of the drawer they were the same colour ... what would this say about how many socks he has of each colour?” He edits a transport journal, in which he writes elegantly and interviews people even more indignant than he is about the absence of a rail link between Cambridge and Haverhill.

A female observer of Norton is quoted as describing his habitual expression as “I know – but can you guess?” and this book has the magnetic power of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which we read not so much for the solution of the mystery as to enjoy the otherness of Holmes. Norton does condescend towards Masters with a Holmesian mixture of impatience and charitable tolerance for a lesser being. For instance, when Masters mentions some theorem or other he snaps that he’s never heard of it. Masters presses the matter and Norton relents: “That’s so elementary I didn’t even think it was a theorem.”

This is both a happy and a funny book. It is decorated with Masters’ elegant cartoons and his language is lyrical and vernal. There is “a ballyhoo of cherry blossom” on the wall of Darwin College Fellows’ Garden. On a trip to Norway he and Norton eat strawberries “of a sweetness you normally only read about in children’s books”. But I was rather haunted by a remark of Norton’s, quoted at the start of the text: “Oh dear, I have the feeling this book is going to be a disaster for me.”

I do hope not.

Andrew Martin is author of ‘The Somme Stations’ (Faber)

The Genius in my Basement: The Biography of a Happy Man, by Alexander Masters, Fourth Estate, RRP£16.99, 352 pages

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