Review of Born on a Blue Day

"Why learn a number like pi to so many decimal places? The answer I gave then as I do now is that pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing. Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it."

- Daniel Tammet, in Born on a Blue Day, speaking of his achievement in memorizing and reciting pi to 22,514 decimal places to set a new British and European record.

In Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet recounts his early life growing up as someone quite different from those around him. He has Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism, and epilepsy.

Daniel is an autistic savant.

Autistic savants exhibit seemingly superhuman abilities in mathematics and memorizing facts and figures. Combined with his Synaesthesia, an unusual ability to see letters, words and numbers, often as shapes, colors, motions and textures, Daniel displays extraordinary capabilities of memory, calculation and language.

But being an autistic savant comes at a steep price. Many autistic savants have trouble expressing even their basic needs or wants and suffer from debilitating conditions. Many have great trouble with social interaction, communication, empathy, understanding emotions and have an obsessive need for order. Just like the autistic savant portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man, these disabilities can make many autistic savants completely dependent their entire lives.

Except for Daniel Tammet.

While his descriptions of his early life clearly show how different he is from other people, and he has some of the negative characteristics of autism, he is unusual in his lack of severe disablility. The kinds of incredible abilities that Daniel displays, such as his historic 5-hour recitation of the decimals of pi, are usually matched by terrible debilitating limitations which he has mostly avoided. The fact that this is an 'auto' biographical memoir is remarkable in itself - most autistic savants have difficulty expressing themselves at a most basic level.

But, communicating doesn't seem to be a problem for Daniel.

His ability with mathematics and numbers is matched by an extraordinary ability to learn new languages, and this is what led me to read his book. He seems to absorb the vocabulary and structure of new languages intuitively, without directly memorizing or learning rules of grammar. This pattern recognition ability is symptomatic of Aspergers. And as with numbers, his synaesthesia lets him see words as colors which helps him to group them together in recognizable patterns.

"The relationship I have with a language is quite an aesthetic one, with certain words and combinations of words being particularly beautiful and stimulating to me. Sometimes I will read a sentence in a book over and over again because of the way the words make me feel inside," he writes.

He discovered an early interest in and aptitude for languages, but it was in his early adulthood (and he is still a young man, just in his 30's) that it really began to take off. At my last count, Daniel had learned Lithuanian, Spanish, Romanian, Welsh, Icelandic, German, Esperanto, Finnish, Estonian, French, and even a constructed language he is inventing himself called Mänti.

All this has made Daniel somewhat of a researchers dream. Specialists on autism have been studying Daniel to learn how autistic savants learn and think. To his great credit, Daniel is more than willing to help them, hoping it could provide some insights into how the brains of savants work and how that relates to the brains of 'normal' people. And this is the subject of Daniels latest book Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind

Overall, Born on a Blue Day is a quick and easy read that simply and clearly gives us a glimpse of the world that Daniel Tammet sees and we begin to understand his unique point of view. Besides being an author, Daniel owns Optimnem.com, a website that has helped teach foreign languages to thousands of students. You can see a documentary on Daniel called The Boy With the Incredible Brain in five parts. In the last and fifth part you can see Daniel learn the Icelandic language in one week and go on national television in Iceland to prove it!


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"Each language can act as a stepping stone to another. The more languages a person knows, the easier it becomes to learn a new one."

- Daniel Tammet