Some might say this life was a failure

If, by the end, Simon Norton was concerned that his life had not been what you would expect of one of the cleverest men in the world, he did not show it.

This was the man who as a child was fêted as a prodigy in the Daily Mail and The Sunday Times. Yet as he sat amid the accumulated detritus of his basement — a tidy mind in an untidy world — he displayed little worry that his was not the position of eminence most readers would have predicted years ago.

He was the mathematician who gained his first first-class degree aged 17, who began his second hailed as among the most promising prospects of his generation — and who, indeed, had some notable success in his twenties. In the dim half-light of his Cambridge flat, however, he did not appear to be bothered whether after that he had really fulfilled his potential — whatever that means.

Well, yes, mathematical genius, has breakdown, leaves maths. So, a failure then.

Norton was unambitious and never quite of this world. He was also generous, concerned and kind. He did not have a partner, children or many close friends, but what he did have, wherever he went, was a way of eliciting fondness.

When he died, on February 12, the family said they were surprised by just how many people wanted to pay tribute. “Simon’s funeral was attended by mathematicians, bus campaigners (who look very similar to some mathematicians), publishers, grateful former tenants — a peculiar and lovely mix,” said Alexander Masters. “Afterwards we all ate jaffa cakes (Simon’s favourite biscuit) and went on an hour-long bus ride round London, in celebration.”

There’s a certain glorious – and rather English – victory to that life.

14 comments on “Some might say this life was a failure

  1. “When students stopped coming to his lectures, the maths faculty decided not to renew his contract.” It’s interesting that such an able chap was still untenured at age 32.

    He sounds, though, to have been a delightful bloke. Condolences to his kith and kin.


    Jaffa Cakes are biscuits that are involved in tax evasion.

  3. He might not have been Fields Medal potential but according to Wikipedia he did do some useful stuff with more famous mathematicians. Not enough for tenure at Cambridge though, it seems. I guess he was so far ‘along the spectrum’ that lecturing was effectively beyond him.

  4. @ Tractor Gent
    Or beneath him – unable to understand how Cambridge maths undergraduates could fail to understand what he was saying.

  5. I’ve only recently attended the funeral of a work colleague who’s death has greatly affected people and whose funeral was very well attended. And yet in life very few people regarded him as a friend rather than an acquaintance and it seems nobody had visited his home. Indeed there was shock when I described the video of his home as shown me by his family.

    I find this recurring aspect of the human condition really quite sad.

  6. A First at 17 is not that much of a mark of genius in my book – I got my First at 17, but not in Maths, rather in something much more useful*. And there was me thinking you got it by being reasonably bright and working reasonably hard.

    Getting one at 10 or 12 is genius. Doing something worthwhile has some point to it, genius or not.

    Just to think, all this time I have missed out on being feted as a genius (or prodigy, or some such twaddle).

    * No points for guessing that it was Engineering.

  7. @NDReader March 7, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Biscuits go soft when left out; cakes go hard – Jaffa Cakes go hard

    Thus, no VAT to pay on Jaffa Cakes by the consumer

    Consumer involved in tax evasion?

  8. @Ironman…

    A home is the ultimate safe space, it’s rare to open the door to anyone other than immediate family and the closest of friends. Have travelled far and wide, and being invited to someone’s home was always the ultimate privilege rather than an expectation.

  9. “Getting one at 10 or 12 is genius.” Nope. Genius is when astonishingly unusual creativity is shown: mugging up maths (or anything else) at age 12 isn’t creative.

    “not in Maths, rather in something much more useful”: whether maths is more useful than engineering depends on what the graduate does with it. None of the engineering you’ve ever done is remotely as useful as Newton’s maths. Or Euclid’s. Or …

  10. @ Excavator Man
    There is a difference between Genius and “genius-level IQ” which was invented a few years ago to make clever people feel better about themselves. You almost certainly need a “genius-level IQ” to get a First while still at school – which implies that you haven’t attended the lectures – but that does not, of itself, make you a genius.

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