The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

Halfway through the book you learn that there are pairs of prime numbers separated by an even number, but as numbers get larger, these pairs get rarer. Mattia, an awkward genius boy, considers himself and his girlfriend, Alice, a pair of odd prime numbers. They are an oddity in their closeness but always separated. The novel begins with both their separate childhoods. Alice starts off an anorexic skier pushed so hard by her father that one day she falls in a fog and permanently becomes crippled with a leg that won’t bend. Mattia is a twin, but his twin sister is mentally stunted, and one day he abandons her in the park to enjoy a birthday party without her embarrassing company. The novel doesn’t say until later, but you presume she gets lost and disappears forever. Since then, he likes to cut himself to distract him from the guilt. They meet, they separate, la de da.

Most novels, at least the ones I’ve read, are written by introverts for introverts, turtles, as one novel described them. There are two main reasons. First, extroverts tend not to read while introverts do. Reading is a solitary activity. Let’s say for whatever reason, you’re a social outcast and have no friends, or you’re somehow crippled and forced to stay in bed. Reading becomes a natural solution to kill the endless boredom. On the other hand, who has time to read when you’re enjoying the company of friends and family and going off on wild adventures? Second, while some extroverts may enjoy reading and writing, what they wind up writing may not be appealing to introverts. Hence, they comprise a much smaller market share and are often overlooked and ignored.

This makes me somewhat of an oddity. I started out life highly extroverted, but through the grind and dysfunction of my family exacerbated by what I believe to be a negative physiological reaction to milk laced with growth hormones and antibiotics, I became an introvert. After several years of distancing myself from my family, gaining new friends and experiences, discovering alcohol, and also not drinking milk anymore, I became extroverted again. But I still maintained my love for reading and writing which makes me a rare extrovert.

As the one writer said, novels like the bible, are written for losers. The meek shall inherit the earth, the meek shall also find romance and adventure in novels. The only time you actually get to enjoy the tale of an extrovert is when there is a biography about their lives, but often times, you then discover that as extroverted they seem, the fact that they have worked so hard and diligently to become rich or famous means they actually are introverts too.

In this book, Alice is harassed by the popular girls in school, but as far as I recall personally, it wasn’t the most popular girls or boys who were the meanest. In fact, I found them actually to be some of the kindest kids. It was always those right on the edge of the popular group that were the most insecure and the meanest. I call them the gatekeepers. They would distract the popular kids’ attention from them to others trying to get into the popular group or just pick on total outcasts to come across as threatening or cool. There really is no reason for the cutest girls or tallest, most athletic guys to treat anyone unkindly. Then again, that was my personal experience.

While I find this story rather eccentric, interesting, sad, odd, quirky, poetic, and unique, it always makes me wonder what a novel about a really outgoing, adventurous, extrovert would be like. An introvert would argue that it would probably be shallow, trite, banal, clichĂ©, and stupid. Certainly, there are many extroverts out there who are not that smart, creative, or original, but I would equally argue there are many introverts out there who are closet bigots and just as dumb, unimaginative, and unoriginal. I think introverts actually tend to generalize more than extroverts partly to justify their reluctance or inability to make social connections. Who cares if everyone out there is stupid and worthless? But an extrovert, in experiencing so much diversity, cannot fool himself into believing that everyone is the same, unless they’re fake extroverts and instead of connecting socially are probably just being extremely superficial and not really getting to know anyone deeply, but then I would argue that most likely they’re introverts pretending to be extroverts. People often mistake loud, talkative, boisterous, life-of-the-party people as extroverts. Quite the opposite, most are introverts who need to protect themselves with a wall of sound since any social situation is overwhelming to them. The loudest person in the room or party is often the most lonely and antisocial. In fact, although extroversion implies an interest in social activities, these people may actually expose themselves a lot to social activities but just never make any lasting, meaningful friendships or connections. I often think of politicians like that.

This may seem like introversion-bashing, and I’m probably not making many friends in the book community which is overpopulated with introverts, but I honestly don’t believe humans are naturally introverted. Certainly, some are born shier and more reluctant to socialize, but fact is, for hundreds of thousands of years and more going back to our primate ancestors, the pressure to succeed through socialization was enormous. Arguably our large brains are not the result of pressure to hunt and gather intelligently but to navigate the complex world of social interaction. No other animal has develop such a complex array of facial muscles and expressions. Fact is, our social needs outweigh our selfish needs. We are more fearful of public speaking, the possibility of social humiliation and embarrassment, than death. Solitary confinement is so painful and unnatural that extended periods of it is considered inhumane punishment.

When someone is very introverted, often, it’s because something went wrong. Today, I would argue that the toxins in our food and everyday life are physiologically destabilizing, not only causing more anxiety in your behavior but also leading to more autistic children who are afflicted with an extreme form of introversion. Often times, modern parents are not nurturing but more reliant on schools, the Internet, and TV to raise their kids. Modern families are fractured so kids don’t get the constant attention and support of grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts.

We crave what is historically rare and take for granted what is historically abundant. As a result, we crave sugar and overlook vegetables. But we also crave privacy and overlook social support networks. For most human history, we have thrived in small social groups full of relatives. We have taken that for granted while craving and overindulging our desire for privacy. Just like going overboard on sugar, we have isolated ourselves in large houses in the suburbs and even left the city where we were raised, leaving behind most of our family. This is just not natural, although we are tricked into believing we crave privacy and overlook social support networks.

I think it’s a societal scam to make people believe that introversion is natural, that it’s okay to be an introvert and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong, because our modern society feeds off introverts. Most things in life, most meaningful things are free, that is, our relationships. As social beings, we derive most of our meaning and pleasure through social connections. But the grand graft is that by studying hard, working hard, sacrificing your social life, you can make a lot of money, then with that money, you can buy a lot of things that make you appear more socially appealing, and then finally at some point, you will be surrounded by high quality, powerful and wealthy people who admire and respect you. Pure bullshit. The more you sacrifice your social life to get ahead and make lots of money, the less capable you will ever be of forming meaningful relationships and being happy. The more likely you will believe that spending more and more money will make you happy and get you that perfect hot wife or billionaire husband or cosmopolitan, intellectually stimulating city friends like Sex and the City or Friends. It’s all a scam to get you to spend a ton, get into debt, and work ever harder for the system.

Everything is an empty distraction from our true desires and fears: wealth, truth, knowledge, power, prestige, fame, glory, grandeur, glamour, glitz, trendiness, brand name accessories, state-of-art gadgets, video games, novels. Sometimes distractions are nice breaks if the path to social connections are hard and frustrated, but other times, they can overshadow what we truly desire. There is an overused narrative in movies and novels, an innocent loner meets a hardened loser, and together, they make magic happen: The Bad News Bears, Scent of a Woman, Kikujiro, etc. The real story is that when any two people work together, they are better and more powerful than two people alone. This is the story of humanity as social beings who took over the world. Unfortunately, the story appears to be ending. We have become psychotically solitary and lonely, mitigated by electronic social networking. At the risk of digressing, I would add one last note. We have a symbiotic relationships with mitochondria, once an independent living archaebacteria that now we cannot live without. We also have a symbiotic relationships with countless bacteria living in and on us, more than the cells in our own body, without which we would also perish. We also have a symbiotic relationship with our DNA. They all communicate with us and influence not only our anatomy and physiology but our psychology, thoughts, and behavior. The more foreign and especially toxic bacteria or material we introduce into our bodies that undermine our existing complex ecosystem of bacteria, the more chaos and damage ensues throughout our bodies, and similarly, our thoughts and behavior become more antisocial and destruction. Studies have shown how bacteria and fungi can take over the minds of ants and mice and actually put them in harm’s way so they get eaten and then excreted. Even humans who live with cats are more at risk of schizophrenia. We fail to appreciate or understand how we are damaging ourselves from bacteria to social isolation and it is reflected in the choices we make, including the choice of political leaders. We fail to appreciate how our choices result in police killing innocent black people and our soldiers and drone pilots killing innocent foreigners. We are at a critical point in human history, where we are upon the precipice of creating a machine with artificial intelligence that can take over every other machine and every human, and if that programmer is antisocial and destructive and fails to appreciate what it means to be a human being, the machine he or she programs will similarly be antisocial and destructive, but in this case, it will take over everything and impose its will upon everything. It can either imprison us as slaves or empower us.


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