Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet

Years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on autistic savants in the world.  Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie, Rainman, was a contribution to the program, but another major focus was on a twenty-something Daniel Tammet.  He was filmed setting the European record for reciting over 22,000 digits of pi, the irrational number which has an infinite amount of decimal digits.  When I picked up ‘Born on a Blue Day,’ I didn’t have this person in mind, but it was a nice surprise to find his autobiography in the pages.

Tammet was the first born in a large family with many siblings, but the new parents could tell from an early age he was unlike most children.  He cried constantly and found it difficult to make friends in school.  His interests were fascinating but bordered on obsessions.  He collected hundreds of ladybirds over a period of weeks (lady bugs to the US readers) and proudly brought them to school one day.  He had thoroughly read about the insects and was excited to share the small pets to classmates and his teacher.  The teacher realized the bugs may live a better life in the wild, so he created a note to send Tammet out of the classroom while a classmate freed the insects outside.  Tammet was crushed and didn’t speak to the teacher for weeks.

Daniel also had a fascination with numbers from an early age.  He uses a rare case of synesthesia to develop visual images of numbers.  The number nine, for example, resembles tall figures, and the number six is represented by a dark hole.  Putting these figures together, he can quickly find arithmetic answers, and even large prime numbers (his favorite).  When he set the record for reciting the digits of pi, he created a landscape of the digits which helped him memorize the thousands of numbers in the correct order.

Tammet’s synesthesia not only gives him numerical gifts, it also allows him to learn foreign languages more easily than most.  One challenge given to him was to learn a language in less than a week, and speak fluently enough in it to be interviewed on a local news program in the native language.  The language chosen by producers was to be Icelandic.  It is a difficult language spoken by only around 300,000 people.  It was a great challenge, but Daniel was successful and gave a great interview on the local news program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though his gifts are now apparent, it wasn’t always that way.  As a child, Daniel had few friends. As is common with children with autism, he lacked emotional connections to peers, and found it difficult to maintain conversations. Daniel Tammet said of his experiences, “The very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood, and to make new friends.”

Currently, Daniel Tammet runs a successful website in the UK that provides language tutorials to consumers.  From a teacher’s prospective, Tammet is  an ideal model for many students with autism.  He has focused on his abilities to create a successful living and has overcome some challenges to become successful in the world.

 

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An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Col. Chris Hadfield

Wow, a very enjoyable book.  I grew up with a father who followed the news of space and he even took us to watch a shuttle launch in Florida one summer.  Reading and watching programs about space exploration and science have been fascinating and this book was no exception.  I first learned about Colonel Chris Hadfield as many others have, singing a version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while in orbit in the space station (Click here for video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo ).  As a teacher, I shared multiple youtube videos of Hadfield in space demonstrating things like what happens to the water when you wring out a wet towel, or how you throw up in space.  Students loved the Canadian Space Agency’s youtube channel and it was a go to on many days in the classroom.

So now to the book.  Let me begin the review by including Hadfield’s description of the night sky from the International Space Station, one of the nicest lines I’ve read in literature, “The night sky was beautiful, too: fine-spun necklaces of countless tiny lights dressed up the jet-black cloak covering Earth.” (p179)

As a child in the 1960’s, Hadfield watched the astronauts land on the moon in 1969 from his neighbors house in rural Canada.  From then on he dreamed of being an astronaut.  At the time, this was impossible.  Canada had no space agency and only Americans and Russians were allowed into the space programs.  He never gave up on his dream, and in 1995 he made it into orbit.  The first third of his book was very motivational and told how he got to the position he achieved.  Many times, he asked himself, “What would I need to do to get myself closer to the dream?”  He studied mechanical engineering, flew fighter jets in the service and became a test pilot, all preparing him for the impossible. Until one day, NASA opened up their applications to other counties and Colonel Hadfield made the cut.

The last two-thirds of the book went into great detail of training, launching, living in space, and landing.  Riddled in with the technical details, Hadfield included many personal stories which helped bring the reader into the book at a more personal level.

Many people wonder, what does an astronaut do when they aren’t in space.  As Hadfield explains, the astronauts train for nearly two years after they have been assigned a mission, before the blast-off.  Many medical tests, and simulations are done to ensure the safety and success of a mission.  Planning, practicing, and executing are essential for space exploration.  Hadfield made a great point that being successful at any profession finds necessity in these ideals.  Perhaps, though, preparation is a little more thorough in space exploration.  It makes more sense to have a few individuals who are ‘jacks of all trades’ than to have a specialist in each need on board.  Astronauts are trained in dentistry, plumbing, electronics, robotics, just to name a few skills they have on their repertoire.

Hadfield wrote “Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them.  When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy.” (p65)

In all honesty, I could probably write a book about this book.  I really liked it and found so many interesting points he made and stories he told.  I recommend it to any and all who have the slightest interest in aviation, space exploration, or just want to know what it’s like to be a successful person.  Colonel Chris Hadfield, thanks for a great read.

Rating: **********10/10

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