Alexander Masters - The Genius in My Basement
Affectionate, dynamic tale of mathematician child genius
Our bookshelves have groaned with populist tomes on maths over the past few years – from the excellent likes of Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Music of the Primes to myriad facsimiles – but it is well worth making room for The Genius in My Basement. Alexander Masters’ second volume is a biography of a mathematician, a maths book about the biography business, and an affectionate, dynamic tale of ‘a happy man’ called Simon P Norton.
Norton was a child genius – history calls him one the greatest mathematical prodigies of the 20th century – and he also happened to live in the basement of Masters’ Cambridge home. This afforded the author an intimate setting in which to observe (and hear, and smell) his subject. As with Masters’ hugely-acclaimed debut, Stuart: A Life Backwards, this is an inventive, compelling biography (although it is notably less overwhelming).
He explores and patches up Norton’s life story through mathematical problems and sketches (the ‘embloomered triangle’ is genius); old photos and newspaper cuttings; hand-drawn maps of his habitat; questing narratives and family/acquaintance interviews of varying success; and best of all, through snatches of Norton-Masters dialogue and manuscript feedback, which endears us to the pair of them.
There’s a sense of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller in Masters’ alternating chapters and salutation of the reader; and his arrangement of maths and biography recalls Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture. But the general effect is versatile, and the author’s observations are stunning. He rails against clichés (of the tortured genius and the past-it prodigy), instead celebrating the life of a man who revels in the minutiae of bus timetables, packet rice, day trips, socks and carrier bags. It makes you wish that you knew Norton. And it makes you wish you could do maths.