SIMON by Alexander Masters


The Genius in My Basement
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The breezy biography of a highly eccentric mathematician.

Masters (Stuart: A Life Backwards, 2006) does a solid job of portraying Simon Phillips Norton as a peculiar, once-reputable math prodigy with immense intelligence who devolved into a disheveled recluse­—and the author’s live-in landlord. With droll undertones, Masters depicts Norton as a brilliant child who amazed educators with a 178 IQ, penned a sonata at age 10 and excelled as a teenager in the development of mathematical group theory at Eton College in the 1960s and then at Trinity College. After co-authoring a seminal text, The Atlas of Finite Groups, Norton botched a mathematical equation in the presence of peers, and a systematic collapse of genius ensued from which he never quite recovered. Years later, the author found himself a tenant sharing physical space in Cambridge with Norton, who shuffled around in a cavernous basement flat cluttered with garbage and transit timetables. This residential arrangement afforded Masters copious face time with the cosseted mathematician and his lifestyle oddities, including a penchant for odorous canned kippers, grunting communication and a scruffy, unkempt appearance—much akin to Russian math genius Grigori Perelman. Writing with uncanny delight and wonder, Masters offers a hectic amalgam of comical drawings, complex numerical calculations, photographs, articles and letters, all contributing, in one quirky way or another, to the elevation of Norton’s hyperactive intellect.

A rarefied glimpse at bizarre brilliance.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-385-34108-0
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Delacorte
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2012


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