A Secret Grave 148: Abstract Problems

 

The last time I saw Joe he warned me away from doing anything controversial, like investigating alternative doctors such as Victor Goodlove whom he claimed he had never met or heard of (I found this strange considering his close connection with Lloyd, an old client of Victor’s). He actually said: “These are dangerous times we live in,” as if he was worried that I might get in trouble for my rather public research. At the time I hadn’t known Joe had been a soldier in Vietnam or that he’d had an odd prescience about bomb blasts or enemy fire. As I’ve indicated before on this blog, he just seemed like a sweet goofy guy who liked to garden, swim, cook, and who also happened to be a brilliant (and blind) mathematician.

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joe-portrait

Josiah, Blind Man – Nicole Jeffords, Oil on Canvas, 2016

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As an aside, Joe has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare and progressive eye disease that causes severe visual impairment and has hereditary factors. When I painted Joe last year I asked him how he was able to work as a mathematician since his sight was so compromised. He told me he can see numbers in his head as clearly as if they were on a page or blackboard, and all he has to do is mentally move them around. “I guess it’s kind of freaky,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always been able to compute numbers real fast – kind of like a parlor trick.” He was four years old when his parents discovered he had that gift. His mother had been sitting in the kitchen of their farmhouse in Moorhead, Iowa, adding up monthly bills when Joe looked over her shoulder and spat out the correct final sum in one second, just like that.

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math-problem

pull out the purple pen, Dan Bach, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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From then on he helped his mother with the bills, and as he grew older he helped his farmer father with weights and measurements. For him math was a practical matter, though it endlessly amused him to solve abstract problems in his head. I had the opportunity to ask him about this again when he was at an impromptu gathering at my house on a Saturday afternoon in May. Mercer had been working in my studio along with his new friend, Nash, my son’s brother-in-law, who’s the same age as Mercer and has similar interests. The two were mixing paint for me. At least that’s what they were supposed to be doing, but what was really going on was the boys were planning an experiment and needed Joe’s expertise to help them. So they called him and voila, he appeared at my house with Lloyd. I was sitting at my kitchen table, drinking coffee with Nash’s mother, Lynn, when Joe walked in and said, “Ladies, I don’t know what our sons are up to, but they seem to have plans to change the world.”

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Mercer

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nash

Nash

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To be continued…

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Cover photo ~ http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/education/2016/03/andrew_hacker_s_the_math_myth_is_a_great_example_of_mathematics_illiteracy.html

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