Excerpts

Born on a Blue Day, (2006)

“I was born on January 31, 1979 – a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing.”

“Sometimes I’d press my fingers into my ears to get closer to the silence, which was never static in my mind, but a silky, trickling motion around my head like condensation. When I closed my eyes I pictured it as soft and silvery.”

“Everywhere was pitch black. It was warm, too, unusually for the time of year, and my hands were sweaty and stuck to the sill as I pulled myself off. Then I heard a creaking noise coming towards my room. The door opened and in came a trembling, orange light atop a thick, long, white candle. I stared at it until a voice, my mother’s, asked me if I was all right.”

“I counted the seven seconds that it took my father to stagger and slump to the living room floor, falling into his own shadow. The sound of his breathing as he lay on his back was coarse and dingy, and his eyes looking up into mine were round and staring and bloodshot.”

“Over cups of coffee she recited some of her poems to us and afterwards we walked together along a lake of clear, blue water. The sky was cloudless and the sun shone brightly, its light sparkling on the water’s surface like solar flotsam.”

“I had eventually come to understand that friendship was a delicate, gradual process that mustn’t be rushed or seized upon but allowed and encouraged to take its course over time. I pictured it as a butterfly, simultaneously beautiful and fragile, that once afloat belonged to the air and any attempt to grab at it would only destroy it.”

Embracing the Wide Sky, (2009)

“Our minds are miracles – immensely intricate webs of gossamer light inside our heads that shape our very sense of self and our understanding of the world around us. Moment by moment throughout our lifetime, our brains hum with the work of making meaning.”

“It is what we learn, more than how, that helps determine the shape of our lives and even the kind of people we become. For this reason, how we use our minds remains a personal choice we each have to make.”

“Imagine entering a room around which a dozen everyday objects are scattered. After a few minutes, you step outside while someone else enters and removes one of the items. When you return a short while later, you will likely be able to tell immediately which of the objects has been taken. As though endowed with some superhuman power, you will do this by seeing what is not there. Such is the magic of memory.”

“The beauty of mathematical thinking is that you can do it anywhere. All you need is a little peace and a lot of patience. A willingness to look beyond what conventional wisdom says helps, too.”

“Logic – often seen, mistakenly in my view, as cold and calculating – need not detach anyone from the mystery of love and faith, the ambiguities inherent in living a human life. Rather, careful reasoning and independent thought help to keep our feet on the ground – from where we have the best view of the stars above us.”

Thinking in Numbers, (2012)

“With abstraction, birds become numbers. Men and maniocs, too. We can look at a scene and say, ‘There are two men, three birds and four maniocs’ but also, ‘There are nine things’ (summing two and three and four). The Pirahã do not think this way. They ask, ‘What are these things?’ ‘Where are they?’, ‘What do they do?’ A bird flies, a man breathes and a manioc plant grows. It is meaningless to try to bring them together. Man is a small world. The world is a big manioc.”

“Things were changing; I was changing. All swelling limbs and sweating brain, suddenly I had more body than I knew what to do with. Arms and legs became the prey of low desktops and narrow corridors, were ambushed by sharp corners. Mr Baxter ignored my plight. Bodies were inimical to mathematics, or so we were led to believe. Bad hair, acrid breath, lumpy skin, all vanished for an hour every Tuesday and Thursday. Young minds in the buff soared into the sphere of pure reason. Pages turned to parallelograms; cities, circumferences; recipes, ratios. Shorn of our bearings, we groped our way around in this rarefied air.”

“Perhaps talk of counters turned the boy’s thoughts to his father’s glove shop. His father would have accounted for all his transactions using the tokens. They were hard and round and very thin, made of copper or brass. There were counters for one pair of gloves, and for two pairs, and three and four and five. But there was no counter for zero. No counters existed for all the sales that his father did not close.”

“We know next to nothing with any certainty about Pythagoras, except that he was not really called Pythagoras. The name by which he is known to us was probably a nickname bestowed by his followers. According to one source, it meant ‘He who spoke truth like an oracle’. Rather than entrust his mathematical and philosophical ideas to paper, Pythagoras is said to have expounded them before large crowds. The world’s most famous mathematician was also its first rhetorician.”

“One particular aspect of Siddhartha’s revelation of the outside world has always struck me. Quite possibly he lived his first thirty years without any knowledge of number. How must he have felt, then, to see crowds of people mingling in the streets? Before that day he would not have believed that so many people existed in all the world. And what wonder it must have been to discover flocks of birds, and piles of stones, leaves on trees and blades of grass! To suddenly realise that, his whole life long, he had been kept at arm’s length from multiplicity.”

“A bell cannot tell time, but it can be moved in just such a way as to say twelve o’clock – similarly, a man cannot calculate infinite numbers, but he can be moved in just such a way as to say pi.”