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autism: connecting mishaps

September 24, 2015

Princeton science historian Graham Burnett, explaining his colleague, the mathematician John Horton Conway:

“He had a lot of enthusiasm, even something akin to spring-in-the-step affection for everyone. And yet the enthusiasm and the affection — in fact, his whole mode of reaching toward other humans — appeared to be achieved exclusively through what felt like a giant prosthetic carapace of mathematical knowledge and mathematical appetite. That’s what he could reach toward you with. And this was unusual. It left me with a genuinely disconcerting feeling that I’ve known really on only one other occasion, with another person I think deserves to be called a genius. It is the feeling that one has fallen under the attention of a very animated and apparently good-willed god-monster-being, who really wants to connect, but whose capacity to do so is entirely mediated by this huge and very powerful and just-barely-controlled exoskeleton. He’s in there, you can tell. And he’s probably friendly. He seems friendly. But what you’re actually dealing with — what is looming up over you, swinging its arms around like a dervish — is this gigantic, unwieldy, and frankly sort of menacing animatronic erudition/cognition. And he/it is reaching toward you. Clearly, the only way you are going to be able to interact — and it doesn’t look like you have much choice, because he seems to be very excited to see you — is through the giant articulations of the strange prosthetic machine. If you are going to hug him, you are going to hug that . . . . Plenty of very learned people are sort of ‘trapped’ in their tremendous learning. But most of them — the ones who really are trapped — do not give a shit about reaching out. [With Conway] there is a real buoyant exuberant appetite for connection, it’s just that it works in a way that is really not normal, it’s not normally the way you see somebody reaching out toward you.” (p. 296, Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, by Siobhan Roberts)

I do not think of myself as a “god-monster-being” (nor a mathematical genius), but this description of how John Conway yearns to connect with others, and yet, cannot… resonated deeply for me.

I engage with the nonhuman natural world every day. I’m also “buoyant, exuberant” about a great many things of interest, including connecting with human beings, but… connecting rarely works in a way I find satisfying and enjoyable.


On the flip side, Conway is just as anxious and insecure as anyone. He’s been depressed, he attempted suicide at least once. He’s hyper-competitive, but just as worried as anyone about how he/his work stack up against others and their work. Being a famous genius doesn’t mitigate those preoccupations at all.

I think it’s time to give myself permission to stop obsessing about all of that crap — the stuff that apparently everybody worries about, at least sometimes.

If all memories of me fade into dust the minute I die, and I’m never remembered by anyone… well, I had a really interesting life, that I mostly greatly enjoyed living. Process >>> Results.


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