The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 10, 2008

Eidetic, I Tell You

In a funny 'interview' of Rajan Mahadevan, champion mnemonist, a famous humorist of the Usenet generation (whose name eludes me at the moment), described how Mahadevan attempted to prove to him that he could memorise any string of numbers he was shown. It went something like this:
"What's your credit card number?" said Mahadevan.
"5413, ..." said the humorist. "Yeah, real smooth. You nearly got me there."
Now Mahadevan is famous for his recital of several tens of thousand digits of p from memory. He is exceptional in this regard, of course. I can barely hold ten digits of a phone number in my head: by the time I dial the first few, I've forgotten the last. It's possible that my short-term memory is all shot to pieces, because I still recall our home phone number in Moscow (2320960) - and that was from 30 years ago. Thus, garbage accumulates in the brain.
I remember reading about the mathematicians at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies in the 1930s who played chess with each other - mentally. Of course, I have no recollection of where exactly I read this. Possibly some biography of Einstein. Or was it of Feynman? At any rate, they would swap moves verbally, and follow the progress of their game in their heads, without recourse to a board. Their visual imagination was so powerful that they couldn't be cheated by illegal plays.
Isn't that a neat trick?
I was reminded of Mahadevan and the humorist and the mathematicians when I read what the wife of that brilliant polymath Joseph Needham said about his eidetic recall. This is a quote from Simon Winchester's biography of Needham, reviewed in the International Herald Tribune:

“She recalled watching him lying awake in bed, mentally visualizing the book’s page proofs, and then correcting in a notebook any errors or infelicities. Once this activity became too humdrum for him, she said, he further occupied himself by translating the selfsame pages from English into French, also in his head, and then correcting any errors that he fancied he could also see in this new translated text.”



Anonymous said...

The humorist in question appears to be Ramesh Mahadevan (or Mahadevan Ramesh)
The actual article (As Easy as PI) can be found at
Actually, RM, the mnemonist asked RM, the humorist his AT&T calling card number.
I guess in those days, calling cards were more valuable than credit cards!

Fëanor said...

Hey! Thanks, man, for the link. I searched and I searched, but having forgotten the name of the humorist, I was unable to locate it. And, evidently, my memory is nothing like RM's, because I couldn't even remember that it was a calling card.

Anonymous said...

Though my comment has nothing to do with memory... or like in my case lack of it... talking of chess... i remember something amazing from when i was 12... my dad was a big wig of a plantation company and we had many divisions... one was a chemical pest control division headed by a 100% Brahmin who was all brains... what i remember that amazed me was that in his living room in a glass box... locked... was a chess board... it was an active chess board with a game in progress... he was playing a game of chess with a guy in the US... moves came by airmail... game took a year or two to finish... i prayed to God ...take away a portion of my brains so that i may never be like him...
coming to think of it i think God short changed me and took away a bit more!!

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