Eton educated, Simon P Norton is a mathematical prodigy, genius in the making and societal misfit and the subject of this highly unusual biography by Alex Masters.  While we are guided through the life of Simon, who until 1984 was considered by his peers at Cambridge to be a true genius and in collaboration with three others produced the Atlas of Finite Groups, we are left hanging and wondering as to why such an intellect is considered now to be merely eccentric and no longer a genius.  A man gifted with such intellect now lives in squalor in his Cambridge flat and no explanation is given of the event which precipitated this demise?  An error that surprised his colleagues resulted in the light of genius being extinguished? Unsatisfactory.

Master’s gave Simon permission to vet, amend, interject or change his writing and their communication over this, at times vocal and sometimes by email, provides tender but comical moments in the book.  

Master’s attempts to explain group theory and the accompanying doodles are wonderful.   The typography , particularly those passages  descriptive of Simon’s grunts and of the bullying he endured at school provide memorable moments in this book.    However these charming interjections provide little explanation of Simon.   His background (Iraqi Jewish), his family (two brothers) and defining moments in his life fail to provide any explanation of his mathematical genius and the whole book singularly fails to provide any explanation of why such genius is now reduced to a grim absorption in bus routes and campaigning  against motoring.

In many ways this was a highly unsatisfactory book but so fascinating that I find I need to have it on my shelf to re-read and ponder over the mystery of Simon.

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