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Simon: The Genius in My Basement Hardcover – 28 Feb 2012
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About the Author
Alexander Masters studied physics and mathematics in London and Cambridge. For five years he worked in hostels for the homeless and ran a street newspaper. He has also worked as a newspaper columnist, a travel writer, an illustrator, and a bedspread salesman.
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Peter Masters’ Simon: the Genius in my Basement is a scattershot attempt at writing a biography about the adult day to day life of a child prodigy, math wizard who is perhaps too much the living cliché of what a math genius is supposed to be. We get a front end load out of poor personal and domestic hygiene, bad eating habits and occasional bait of how record breakingly smart Simon Norton was and may still be. Around the last third, I stopped caring. Having Simon’s suggested edits and corrections can be confusing and collectively had me wondering just how much the biographer was making up or getting wrong. I cannot recommend this book.
Simon Norton was a highly honored and favored child mathematician. His later career including participation in a very important exhaustive study of the esoteric field of set theory. Lest dangling in the reader’s mind is the degree to which he is still that much of a leader in his field.
Initially Masters presents us with a repellant reclusive figure living in a basement excavation choking on trash and poorly cleaned clothes and kitchen area. Slowly we are reintroduced to a person liked by strangers and remember with affection by school yard bullies and fellow mathematical thinkers. Reconciling these images is not well handled.
Small errors and editorial decisions drag the author’s credibility. The genius is not living in Master’s basement. Simon owns the building and Master’s is a tenant. There is an entire chapter about Master’s attempting hypnosis to better understand his Simon. It tells us noting about Simon and if it does help the writer, we hear nothing about it. There are numerous editorial remarks by Simon At first these seem to suggest that Simon is too delicate about his own feelings, but added to the author’s weak writing one can conclude that Simon knows better than to let his biographer get the facts wrong. The biographer comes off as more interested in what makes a good story than what tells us about the subject.
Ultimately Master’s is wrong. This might be a huge letdown except that mostly I just wanted to be done.
There is this: "It's a cliché that mathematicians are over the hill by their mid-30s, but often it's not loss of mathematical intelligence that weakens their ability, but loss of focus ... Simon says that in his case, it was grief." Simon calls his colleague and father figure John Conway's departure for Princeton as "a sort of bereavement", and he is also grief-stricken over "an additional trauma", the Deregulation of the Buses Act. Simon sees this as the destruction of public transport and it becomes his new devotion. The author never fully develops these ideas that are crucial to Simon.
Simon is clear as to his reasons for agreeing to help Masters: "You said I could use the book as a soapbox for the issues on which I care deeply ... The two things that I would recommend to anyone who is lonely: politics and public transport." Simon Norton is fascinating, but I don't think that Alexander Masters fully explains that in this book.
has arrived. I miss Simon already.