I review Alexander Masters’ biography of the finite group theorist Simon Norton in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
When Simon Norton was 3 1/2, his I.Q. was measured at 178. For three years running in high school, he was among the top scorers in the world at the International Mathematical Olympiad. At the age of 27, he and a colleague, John Conway, formulated an audacious conjecture in group theory called “monstrous moonshine,” which inspired a frenzy of mathematical work around the globe that culminated in a Fields Medal-winning proof by Richard Borcherds almost two decades later.
Today, Norton holds no paid employment, publishes in his field only occasionally, subsists largely on canned mackerel and rice packets, and spends much of his time riding buses around Britain in a campaign to preserve public transport against deregulation. He lives in the basement of a house he owns in Cambridge, renting out the upper rooms. By chance, one of his tenants is the writer Alexander Masters, whose heartfelt and eccentric book “Simon: The Genius in My Basement” chronicles Norton’s strange journey from prodigy to . . . well, to whatever he is now.