Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Prime Savants… Fascinating

If you are an Oliver Sacks fan you may well be familiar with the story of twin male autistic savants from his best-selling "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" volume. Anyone captivated by prime numbers and savantism can't help but love the account, and George Johnson explores it in this current blog post for Discover Magazine:


A fascinating read. There are further excerpts from the Sacks' chapter here:


The story tells of twin males who demonstrate great pleasure and joy in recognizing prime numbers… LARGE prime numbers, of the sort that normally only a computer might verify as prime in a short order of time, but that the twins appeared able to discern upon brief reflection. It is as if they had personal access to the so-called "Platonic" realm of numbers… the same might be said for other savant-like math knowledge or computational skills that are well-documented, but this is an even rarer facility.

There are dissenters who question Sacks' credibility or interpretation of this particular story which he only related about 20 years after its actual occurrence:


The above rebuttal also includes a YouTube video of the actual twins demonstrating their calendar-calculation skills (not their prime number skills).

Sacks' account is anecdotal and so the skepticism is understandable (by the time Sacks drew attention to the twins they had been separated and lost their special numerical skills)… but still... I admit… I want to believe it true ;-)

Here's a further followup to Sacks' story by another researcher:


And this research abstract indicates that the prime number recognition skill has indeed been reported for other savants:


Mind-blowing stuff!

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