Friday, August 27, 2010

Ammann was amazing

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 Ammann was invited to apply for entry to MIT and Harvard, but after interviews the offers were withdrawn.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”.]


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Yeah, he definitely sounds autistic, in so many ways. How could anyone miss it? :-)

Lili Marlene said...

I know. How autistic does a person have to obviously be before they are immune to scepticism about their autism? Time and time again I come across people who think they are being very clever in showing scepticism about other people being autistic, and most of the time I'm not impressed, quite the opposite.

Stix said...

I went to school with Robert (Bobby) At the time, we didn't know much at all about Autism, and sadly, he was not afforded the attention needed.

There was no question that he was far and away the most intelligent student in the school, and sadly, he took a lot of ribbing from some students. His attendance in class was one of just sitting at his desk, obviously bored to tears. He would at times pop up with an incredibly acerbic with comment that would leave both teacher and classroom stunned, and howling with laughter.

To avoid ridicule, he would walk the halls close to one wall. He was unkempt, and discheveled, but always found a way to get through each day.

I was shocked to find out a few years ago that he had died. All of us were contacted by a woman who was doing a biography on him. This was shortly before our 40th High School was at that time we all found out about his life after High School

He was a good soul...May he rest in peace

Lili Marlene said...

Thank you for your comment, Stix! If you are indeed a person who knew Robert Ammann (I have no reason to doubt but I also have no means of verifying) then your recollections are most interesting.

My usual thing with interesting comments is to ask for EVEN MORE info. Hope you don't mind.

Do you think the woman biographer who contacted you would have been the lady (Marjorie Senechal) who wrote the article published in 2004 which I cited in my blog post? Is there some book about Ammann that I don't know about?

Do you think that whatever it was that set Robert Ammann apart from other people could be wholly explained as a very high level of intelligence combined with social isolation resulting from a life and an education that failed to meet his very different educational, social and emotional needs due to intellectual giftedness? I'm asking, in summary, do you think we need to look to concepts like autism or Asperger syndrome or disability to explain fully why Ammann was different and apparently very socially isolated?

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be replying to a thread that's over six years old! I just found it.

I shared an office (a cubicle, actually) with Bob for several years in the mid 1970s. It took me over a year to learn that he pronounced his name "AM-man". Everybody at Honeywell pronounced it "ah-MAN" and Bob never corrected them.

He still had the habit of "following the wall" when I knew him. We got along okay, mainly because I'm not exactly normal myself. But I barely knew him and had no idea he was interested in mathematics. I did know he was a demon at chess, as a mutual friend (who was no slouch at the game) once told me that Bob could play rings around him. As a programmer, Bob always gave me the impression that he was firing on only a couple of cylinders -- by that I mean he found the work no challenge at all -- I never saw him break a sweat and his code always worked.

Another mutual friend was the executor of Bob's estate. In organizing his possessions, my friend found years of TV Guide magazines, each with mini reviews of the shows penciled in the margins. So I can believe he watched three channels of TV at the same time!

As for Bob's humor... He had a theory that penguins were running the world (this was before Douglas Adams) and he once remarked that Richard Nixon and Patty Hurst had to be the same person because nobody ever saw the two of them together.

Lili Marlene said...

Many thanks! That's fascinating. What would it be like to be that intelligent?