There's nothing new about the 2004 mathematics journal paper in which the life of the late autistic amateur mathematician Robert Ammann was outlined, but I've only recently found the time to read it through properly, and it certainly was worth my time. I can't believe the paper includes arguments against the proposition that Ammann was autistic. He was very autistic, in my opinion, and he also fit well into some of the established stereotypes of intellectually very gifted children who don't fit into the school system. Ammann didn't even fit into the university system. Below is the longer entry that I hope to add to my big list whenever I get the chance.
Robert Ammann 1946-1994, American amateur mathematician, computer programmer and mail sorter who made important contributions to the theory of quasicrystals and aperiodic tiling. When asked to explain how he made mathematical discoveries Ammann described visual thinking. Amman’s father was an engineer.
At the age of 3 years Ammann as an infant geography prodigy was the subject of a front-page news article. He could add, subtract and read at this age. When Ammann was a young child his mother would leave him in the backroom of a post office while she did her shopping, and the boy loved to look around and ask intelligent questions. Before he reached 4 years he stopped speaking, and slowly began to speak again with the aid of a speech therapist. As a child Ammann was happiest as a solitary learner. Schoolwork and other children bored him, and he didn’t like sport. His school grades were low and but his SATs were almost perfect, and he won maths contests. Ammann was invited to apply for entry to MIT and Harvard, but after interviews the offers were withdrawn. Ammann’s time as a student at Brandeis University was not successful as he rarely left his dorm room. After studying computer programming at a business college Ammann worked in a humble position at Honeywell. When Ammann was laid off from one job as a computer programmer he kept coming to work and was put back on the payroll. After a second layoff Ammann was kept out of the building. Many years later Ammann worked as a mail sorter. In 1976 Ammann was evicted after a health inspector condemned his apartment. Ammann enjoyed watching his 3 TV sets at once.
Ammann initially made contact with the world of mathematicians by writing a letter. When interest in tilings and Ammann’s work grew among mathematicians, Ammann was invited to many conferences but he declined, until he was coaxed out of his seclusion in the late 1980s. In social situations Ammann did not make eye contact, did not make small talk, rarely smiled and seemed to be “far away” and sad.
Two papers published in Mathematical Intelligencer have included discussion of Ammann with regard to AS. The 2004 paper by Marjorie Senechal is a fascinating and touching account of Ammann’s short life and work by someone who knew him.
References about Robert Ammann
James, Ioan (2010) Autism and mathematical talent. Mathematical Intelligencer. vol. 32 number 1 March 2010 p. 56-58.
[a number of mathematicians mentioned as having some degree of autism, including Robert Ammann, Andre Weil, Ronald Fisher, Norbert Weiner, Erdos, G. H. Hardy, William Sidis, Alan Turing and the physicist Paul Dirac]
Senechal, Marjorie (2004) The mysterious Mr Ammann. Mathematical Intelligencer. vol. 26 number 4. December 2004 p. 10-21.
[A fascinating and touching account of Ammann’s life and work. The title of article is sometimes given as “Mathematical communities”.]