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No. 87: May-Jun 1993

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Calculating prodigies, gnats, and smart weapons

In a thought-provoking letter to New Scientist, J. Margolis commences with the observation that calculating prodigies (idiot savants), who are often also mentally retarded, can easily and almost instantaneously recognize 20-digit prime numbers! Gifted mathematicians with so-called photographic memories cannot perform such mental feats using known methods for identifying primes. What do the calculating prodigies know that the rest of us do not? Better algorithms; that is, calculating methods? Margolis expands on this:

"All this suggests some relatively simple, subconscious algorithms which have not, as yet, been explicitly formulated. Research in this direction might well result in new mathematical insights.

"It need not be surprising that mathematical insight is more fundamental than language. Even a primitive animal brain is 'wired" to perform exceedingly complex computations essential for survival in an unpredictable environment. The latest 'smart' weapons are rudimentary compared with a humble gnat. Mathematics could be a by-product of these functions. Language is a comparatively recent evolutionary innovation and it is quite possible that conscious manipulation of abstract symbols has not caught up with an innate ability to perceive quantitative relationships."

(Margolis, Joel; "What Gnats Know," New Scientist, p. 58, January 30, 1993.)

From Science Frontiers #87, MAY-JUN 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987