Say it With Flowers

Kate, a close friend since my undergraduate days, is one of the people I have taken into my confidence about my diagnosis.

Once, I stayed with Kate and her family for a week while attending a conference near her home. During that time I shared about how my Asperger’s is a form of ’emotional deafness’. I think she understands.

At the end of the week, I gave Kate a bunch of flowers to thank her for letting me stay. She was most effusive about the gift and gushed for a few minutes about how lovely they were. Now, I couldn’t tell whether her gushing was because I had bought just the right sort of flowers that she really adored, or whether she was emphasising her gratitude to get past my emotional deafness.

In the past, my main concern would have been whether they were the kind of flowers she really liked; if I can’t tell whether the gushing is genuine, how can I know whether to get the right kind of flowers next time?

But suddenly, I realised that the point of the flowers wasn’t the flowers but the message they conveyed.

If I had chosen well, and the gushing was 100% genuine, this was a big win.

But if Kate was gushing for my sake, it was intended to communicate that she was really appreciative of the gesture. In this case, I had at least succeeded in communicating gratitude, and she in returning appreciation. This is also a win!

As I write these words, I am reminded of several occasions in the past when I have plainly displayed my disappointment that a gift hadn’t been what I had wanted. I had always assumed the business of gift-giving was about identifying what the other person really liked and giving appropriately. But am I wrong? Is it about communicating affection through the intent to give?

I also sent another friend flowers after spending time with her family. The message back was “Thank you – no need, but thank you.” I think that counts as another win!

X + Y

Have you seen the movie “x + y”? It’s a drama based on the life of International Maths Olympiad competitor Daniel Lightman, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged 16. The movie’s main character, Nathan Ellis, is mainly but not wholly a reflection of Daniel, who also acted as a consultant to help keep the portrayal true to autistic traits.

A key part of the plot stood out for me – here are necessarily spoilers, so be warned!

The plot shows how Nathan deals with touch. Repeatedly we are shown how his mother wants to touch him, especially in moments of high emotion, but Nathan draws back. His mother needs closeness for her comfort; Nathan needs space for his. But in the course of the movie, Nathan enters a relationship with a girl who has strong feelings for him; he overcomes his aversion to touch when they kiss. Shortly afterwards an emotional dam bursts and he is able to weep for his late father, recognising for the first time that the tender memories he has of his Dad are a sign of what love is; he is finally able to accept his mother’s embrace as she comforts him.

I can recognise the time in my life, up to age 19, when I basically didn’t want to be touched. I had various elderly aunties who expected to be greeted with a kiss, sometimes on the lips, and I always found that to be most uncomfortable. I understood that Mum expected a kiss on certain occasions, but when I gave her one it would be perfunctory.

Then a girl kissed me. Not a snog – I have never snogged anyone in my life! – but a simple thank-you kiss on my forehead for doing her a good turn. And over the next few days, a dormant part of my psyche awoke. I realised I was living in a  world of touching, feeling, human beings but missing out! No-one who was a friend rather than an auntie has kissed me before. This was amazing!

There followed a rather embarrassing period in my life when I tried to kiss lots of my female friends without understanding when and how this might be acceptable. On the plus side, Mum got the first sincere kiss of her life from me when I got home from University at the next vacation!

Over more recent years, I have noticed friends and parishioners becoming more likely to touch me. I don’t know how much that is to do with my body language changing, and how much is the maturity of the people I am mixing with. But this is also a bittersweet truth. Now that it is not so rare for someone to touch me, touch seems to have lost much of its emotional power. So was it the touch itself, or the novelty of being touched, which once provoked an emotional reaction in me?


Didn’t you get the Memo?

One of the most frustrating things in my life as a priest is taking part as a visitor in large Masses without a Master of Ceremonies. If an MC tells us where to process, bow and genuflect then the whole ceremony can be carried out with dignity. Without an MC it depends on priests having a shared knowledge of the liturgical rules and a respect for the dignity of the liturgy.

Few priests seem to realise than in the revised Roman Missal, in the absence of a deacon, a concelebrating priest should speak the invitation to the sign of peace and the dismissal. Of course, when I am the second and only other priest present with a principal celebrant, I never initiate this, because I can almost guarantee you he won’t expect it. (I have only once since 2011 had a presiding priest point at the relevant texts and expect me to say them!)

If I am the principal, without the assistance of a deacon, then in theory I am supposed to elevate the chalice myself. But to the concelebrant standing next to me, this will seem a rude and selfish gesture unless he has read the new rules and knows he is not meant to assist with the chalice at that moment.

For a principled Aspie, this is a terrible dilemma. I have made a promise to celebrate the liturgy according to the rules (liturgical law is an extension of canon law). But if I follow them I will sow discord. At least in this case there is a principle, which the Church has thoughtfully put in writing (GIRM 95 and 96), that you go with what makes for a harmonious display of unity even when that’s against the letter of the law. The rules apply more directly to being a member of the congregation (so if the majority stand when they should kneel, you should too, rather than implicitly rebuking your fellow worshippers by kneeling anyway).

As for processions, it’s rare that a group of more than a handful of priests will intuit the same ideas about where they should bow and genuflect on a given sanctuary. Hence the need for an MC.

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, we are given the story of Jephthah. In a fit of joy, he makes a rash promise that he will sacrifice to God the first living creatures he spies on his estate when he returns home. But when he is within sight of home his only daughter runs out to greet him – “Daddy, Daddy, you’re home!”

Jephthah faces an impossible choice – sacrifice his daughter or break a solemn vow to God. He decides to be a man of his word, though he allows his daughter some months to ‘bewail her virginity’ before sacrificing her. Here the Bible is clearly warning against rash vows rather than endorsing human sacrifices, but there is also a cautionary tale against forcing believers into vows which could backfire. The New Testament generally advises against the making of oaths (see e.g. James and Matthew).

At least there is some wriggle room in the liturgy to preserve harmony rather than the letter of the law, but I do dream of a day when all the priests at Mass have read the same Memo so we know what to do. The Book of Revelation describes Heaven as a liturgy – perhaps that’s so we priests can finally have a chance to get it right!

Friends Like These

How do I make new friends? Often enough, it’s by looking for the person in a crowd who isn’t talking to anyone. and going to say hello. When I went to a lot of youth retreats in my early 20s, I did this a lot. I saw it as my Christian duty to welcome the stranger. But back then, I didn’t ask myself why they weren’t getting conversations, nor why I wasn’t. In my case, it was probably to do with the lack of ‘talk to me’ body language I was broadcasting. But as for the others… I’ve noticed over the years that I seem to pick up more than my fair share of manic depressives, paranoid schizophrenics and other troubled individuals among my friends and acquaintances. I’m guessing this is because I am blissfully unaware of the negative body language which is putting off most of the crowd from approaching them.

Back then, I was naïve enough to believe an unlikely sob story which I would now recognise as someone’s paranoid delusions – showing part of  an Aspie’s trusting nature, but also a symptom of our tendency to prize what is apparently empirical evidence (a first hand account from the paranoid person) over our own lived experience of how the world usually works.

Nevertheless, I have made friends over the years, and not only those with troubled backgrounds. On more than one occasion, my first meeting with someone has been marked by a sharp disagreement. But an Aspie doesn’t worry about losing face if they turn out to be in the wrong, and a heartfelt and humble apology can be a powerful foundation for a lifelong friendship.

You may be aware of the concept of ‘Five Love Languages‘ – that of the five things we can do to deliberately communicate affection (words, helpful deeds, gifts, spending time together and physical touch). Most people have one or two which speak to you most strongly and fill up your ‘love tank’. That makes sense to me – I definitely have a love tank, but it is empty most of the time. Several weeks can go by before someone communicates affection in a way direct enough for me to notice and feel an emotional response.

There is a much misquoted statement that 83% of all communication is nonverbal; the correct version is that A. Mehrabian found that this is true in the particular case when we are trying to briefly communicate how we feel about a particular idea. But it doesn’t hold for communication in general!

I once asked my friend Chelsea if it was true that when we were together, even before I used any of these five ways of communicating affection, that she would already sense that she was in the presence of a person who cared for her deeply. To my surprise she said yes, and when pressed about how that worked, said she could see it in my eyes.

That makes me wonder… what is really going on in my Aspie brain? Is the ‘feeling centre’ atrophied and only responding to the biggest, most obvious tokens of affection? Or is it working well enough, and even signalling contentment through my eyes, while for some reason not transmitting that positive emotion into the bit of my brain that holds my consciousness?

In the past it puzzled me why my friends didn’t do more to tell me they cared – a card now and then, a phone call for no motive other than ‘just to catch up’, an invitation to do lunch. In part it is probably because most of them don’t need to go to those extremes to know I care for them, or to communicate care for their friends. In part it is the structure of the priestly life, which means I am often too busy to go out or even take a phone call in social hours.

I do wish my friends would communicate affection more often. It is sad to spend most of my time with an empty love tank. But it is difficult to ask directly for help – if I say ‘I won’t feel loved unless you write, call or touch me’, that sounds like emotional blackmail. I sometimes get angry about this – ‘Hey, I have an emotional disability, can’t you at least make a reasonable adjustment?’ But I guess for the typical human being, it feels weird to over-emote and perhaps even risks triggering the wrong sort of affectionate feelings in them. Nevertheless, I live in hope that one or two of my friends will realise I am emotionally hard of hearing, and start shouting!

Explaining Myself

Over the years since I got my diagnosis, I have found it useful to explain myself, at least to some degree, in appropriate circumstances. it’s not always necessary to use clinical labels.

When I’ve had a ministry in a school, I have confided in the Headteacher that I am autistic. I trust Heads, as educational professionals, to keep confidences and understand something about what a diagnosis of Asperger’s implies.

As a newly appointed parish priest, I haven’t used the clinical label. Rather, what I say to my new parish council goes like this: In seminary, we are encouraged to became aware of our own personal strengths and weaknesses. What I learned about myself is that I am very head-centred, and in committee meetings I might focus to exclusively on the task at hand. I might not notice if I have touched a sensitive nerve for one or more persons present – so if that should happen, please bring it to my attention.

With friends, it gets a bit more difficult. When a friendship becomes close enough, I do disclose my diagnosis. But here the tricky part is around how I talk about communicating affection. I can say, quite truthfully, that if they feel warm towards me, I will not pick up on that warmth unless they communicate it very directly through an unambiguous word, action or touch. But it’s almost impossible to explain this without it sounding like ’emotional blackmail’ – ‘Unless you tell me that you care about me, I won’t believe that you do!’

So, gentle reader, if you have a friend who is an Aspie, let me ask on their behalf. If they were deaf, you would speak up, wouldn’t you? So in this case, check what they are comfortable with, learn their love language(s), and when you find yourself naturally emoting, amplify it to become a big, unambiguous gesture.

I once read an account of someone who arranged for a group of badly disfigured World War II pilots to each have a beautiful female companion for a special evening event – actresses who were well able not to betray any feelings of disgust at the wounded faces. The story touched me deeply, because it showed that someone understood the need “to be loved” is present in people who are repulsive for reasons beyond their control. So if you care about your Aspie, tell him or her, even if communicating it so clearly takes you out of your comfort zone. Isn’t this what you’d want someone to do for you?

Objectively Disordered?

Sometime after I received my diagnosis, a thought struck me. It is official Catholic teaching that a person experiencing homosexual tendencies is ‘objectively disordered‘. Should the same label be applied to a person on the autistic spectrum?

Why does this arcane topic concern me? It’s because of the church’s principle that an objectively disordered person should not seek ordination unless they have overcome the disorder. In 2005, the Vatican issued a document about the ordination of homosexuals which was not a total bar, but required the aspirant to honestly no longer ‘present deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ to qualify. This leaves an ambiguity. The document explicitly identifies the case where the tendencies were a phase which a person has grown beyond after adolescence, but leaves open the unspoken case where the deep-seated tendencies are still present but the aspirant has gained sufficient self-mastery to ensure that these tendencies are no longer ‘presented’.

The key word here is ‘disordered’, which implies a concept of natural order. This leads us to two underlying questions: what would we mean by a ‘normal’ human being, and therefore what do we mean by a ‘human being’? As a scientific question, this is a special case of the very large question of ‘what is a species’.

To forestall comments, I acknowledge and accept that theologically, human beings are ontologically different from mere animals. But this does not invalidate the biological approach, which can only analyse and recognise the continuum between the human species and other species.

As we now understand genetics, the basic unit of living creatures is the gene, a string of chemicals (using an alphabet of just four molecules, coded A, C, G and T) which instructs a living cell to make something or do something. A particular combination of genes (a genotype) results in a particular kind of creature (a phenotype). When a phenotype can exist and thrive successfully in its environment, the genotype (which always suffers random errors when reproduction takes place) tends to stay stable. Unsuccessful tweaks die out quickly from the gene pool. Sometimes, a random change produces a new phenotype which, even if only subtly different from the old pattern, is slightly more successful in the same environment, and thus evolution occurs.

A ‘species’ is how we refer to a stable pattern of genotype and phenotype. Within this, we will find plenty of in-species variation. So among the various apes and primates, the stable pattern of ‘no tail, big brain, walks upright, not very hairy’ characterises the human species. Traits like the colour of hair, skin or eyes are in-species variations.

If we measure a lot of individual adult humans, we will find natural variation in properties such as height, foot size and athletic ability. On each of these measures we can define what an ‘average’ human being is like; there will be outliers with extremely large or small values far from the average.

Less commonly, we will find variations not merely of degree but of pattern. A person might be born with an extra finger, only one kidney, or the plumbing of the heart reversed. These differences might be due to a genetic error, or a glitch in the way the body laid down its template while forming as a foetus.

Because the Bible speaks of God forming creatures in their ‘kinds’ (and the very word ‘creature’ implies ‘something created’) there is a long heritage of thinking of a ‘kind’ or ‘species’ as something fixed for all time. But in the light of modern genetics, we can only describe a species as a currently-stable pattern of genotype and phenotype – there is no sense that the pattern ‘ought’ to be a certain way. Now the term ‘disorder’ literally implies failing to live up to the pattern which ‘ought’ to be there (philosophical disorder) but can also colloquially mean ‘something that impairs body function’ (practical disorder).

A reversed heart is clearly a practical disorder, and will prove fatal without surgery.

A missing kidney is only revealed as a practical disorder if the function of the remaining organ begins to fail.

If it moves smoothly together with the other fingers, it’s not clear if having an extra finger is a ‘practical disorder’; it may indeed provide extra ability at tasks such as playing the piano! Its presence may cause a social handicap if the individual is identified socially and penalised for being ‘different’. Whether we consider it a philosophical disorder depends on whether having five digits on each hand is intrinsic or incidental to human nature…

What, then, about homosexual tendencies or autistic traits? Are these variations within the ‘normal range’ of human variation?

In the past it may have been naively thought that all persons were either clearly heterosexual or clearly homosexual in orientation. Nowadays it is acknowledged that there are different degrees of orientation. Autistic traits also exist on a spectrum. The average human (in the mathematical sense, for which you can use mean, median or mode) is neither homosexual nor autistic. But there will be humans whose orientation is mostly or entirely of same-sex attraction, and as a shorthand label, we call these people ‘homosexual’; similarly there are degrees of autism which makes it sensible to use labels such as  ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ and ‘low-functioning autism’.

Are people with strongly homosexual tendencies objectively disordered? They are also objectively far-from-average. But here theology intervenes. There is a strong narrative running through the Old and New Testaments that God’s plan is for men to marry women and for such couples to be fruitful. This indicates a divinely-instituted order within which men and women are either to refrain from sexual intimacy, or marry an opposite-sex partner. So a person of homosexual tendencies is ‘philosophically disordered’ with respect to the divinely revealed plan. Whether or not this is a ‘practical disorder’ depends largely on the prevailing attitudes of society.

Are people with Asperger’s objectively disordered? They are objectively far-from-average, and therefore likely to be socially handicapped. Given the way human society works, this constitutes a practical disorder. Given the mix of typical autistic traits (honesty, integrity and social awkwardness) there are traits which point towards good philosophical order as well as those which point away, so, in my opinion, high functioning autism does not constitute philosophical disorder.

Clergy Support

Parish ministry can be a rather lonely occupation. We carry it out as celibate men, rarely assisted by a resident curate these days. We co-operate with key lay people in the parish, but must keep an appropriate pastoral distance. As one of my seminary professors said: “I fail my parishioners if I make them my friends.”

There is no shortage of support available. I can go to my spiritual director. I can go to the counsellor who gives me supervision. I can go to one of my priest colleagues for advice on handling a tricky pastoral situation, or to the Bishop or Vicar General for a sufficiently serious matter. But all of these require me to take the initiative.

I once worked, as a layman, with a priest who started airing his troubles to me one day. I tried to excuse the source of his troubles, but he responded in frustration with: “All I’m looking for is a little affirmation!” Now I am beginning to understand his point of view.

Who, in the Church, is responsible for coming to me and affirming me? Why can’t some senior priest in the diocese come to me 3 or 4 times a year, take me out to dinner, ask how parish ministry is going, and share the wisdom of his experience? I have asked my dean to do this, but he said it wasn’t his job. My current and previous bishops have agreed that this sort of support structure would be a good idea, but done nothing to implement it. But any such arrangement would only be affirming to me if I was supported by the right sort of the Three Kinds of Priests – the one who is a disciple. Otherwise we would have a fundamental disagreement about what the aim of priestly ministry was.

There are some support groups around. There’s a local chapter of the Steubenville-related Fraternity of Priests. I enjoyed the shared adoration and the lunches, but the third hour, being part of a group conversation of priests who were generally humanitarians rather than disciples, would drag me down rather than build me up, so I stopped going. There was also a ‘young clergy’ meal twice a year, but again, I don’t thrive so well in groups of differently-minded priests. Rather, the one thing that would communicate powerfully to me that I was cared for by the church at large would be a little bit of personal attention from a critical friend who shared the vision of being a disciple, while casting a discerning eye over my take on how to lead a parish to discipleship.

There are wonderful church documents on how the Bishop is to be a loving father to his priests. As clergy, it is a no-brainer that we are called to ‘love one another’. Why are we so appallingly bad at doing so in practice?

Psychological Testing

In theory, every applicant for the Catholic Priesthood should undergo psychological screening before getting anywhere near a seminary. But my diocese, although hit directly by clerical sex abuse scandals, didn’t put me in for testing before I arrived. This bothered me, so I asked the Rector to arrange testing. My reason was that due process be seen to be done in my case. His reason for consenting was to get to the root of the mysterious ‘being’ issue that hadn’t yet been resolved.

So 18 months into seminary, I filled in a 500-question form (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Version 2) and spent a day with a clinical psychologist and his team. The psychologist seemed to want to make me angry: we reached the topic of sexual self-stimulation and he kept suggesting that it was OK in some circumstances. I kept insisting that the Church clearly taught that it wasn’t. After we had argued back and forth for several rounds, he said: “This is the point where you are expected to say: ‘You’re right and I’m wrong, Dr X.'”

‘But I know the teaching of the church and you are not right, Dr X,’ I replied, in sorrow, not in anger.

When the results came back, they were rather worrying. The computer analysis of the MMPI-2 judged that ‘the candidate has claimed to be so virtuous, he is clearly lying’. But we Aspies are intrinsically virtuous, we tend to follow our principles even when it takes effort to do so – and if there is a down side, we don’t see it as such. We are also pathologically honest in answering questions which others might self-censor. It seems to me there is a need for tests like the MMPI-2 to be normed against a known batch of autistic subjects – it might be detailed enough to identify Aspies as well as liars.

The Clinical Psychologist reported that I was ‘manifestly unfit for pastoral work’. This was a problem, as I was about to spend a month on a school-focussed parish placement. As a result, I was not permitted to go on the placement, but spent a year working with a counsellor external to the seminary who then passed me ‘fit for pastoral work’ but without getting to the root of my problems.

So in the first three years of seminary, none of the in-house counsellors, the MMPI-2, the expert assessors or the external counsellor identified me as autistic. Along the way I was accused several times of lying when I was telling the honest truth about deeply personal things, as well as being challenged to address this mysterious ‘problem with my being’.

Unsurprisingly, once I got my diagnosis, I went through a phase of feeling very angry that none of these psychological professionals had identified what was at the root of my situation. But thanks be to God who found a way for me to reach the right answer by other means!

Postscript: I am glad to see that there is now published research about the MMPI-2 test as it applies to Aspies.

How I Found Out I was an Aspie

During my childhood, my parents often commented that I was ‘born awkward, and awkward ever since’. I was a firstborn, so they had no prior experience of raising a son. I wasn’t failing so badly in school that I ever had to see a psychologist, although my Mum despaired of ever persuading me to play with other children. They never thought I might have a condition with a clinical label, though Asperger’s wasn’t so well known in the 1980s.

Looking back, it explains a lot. School playtimes were a nightmare in primary school. Often I would just walk forlornly around the edges of the yard, kicking up the dirt; sometimes I would go and tell appalling puns to the teacher on yard duty. I simply didn’t know what to do during playtime, and didn’t particularly want to join in any schoolyard games that seemed remotely rough.

Secondary School was a little less taxing, since I could volunteer to work as a Library Monitor during break times. But in my pre-teens I was so sensitive to other pupils using foul language, that quite a few made a point of coming and using it just to wind me up. I had no inhibitions about reporting bad behaviour to staff members, and on those occasions when a class teacher let the pupils go in order of good behaviour, I would always be among the first cohort. And being bright, teachers quite often prefaced their questions to the class with “Does anyone apart from (my name) know the answer?” That didn’t bother me then, but in hindsight I see that being both a goody-goody and a swot doesn’t make you many friends!

When I entered seminary, I received some puzzling feedback. My end of-first-year appraisal went something like this: “You are a great student, you seem to be faithful to your prayers and you do your chores. There’s just one thing we, the formation staff, are worried about – your being.”

“My what?”

“Your being.”

“Oh. I’m not sure I understand. Can you explain that in other words?”

“Errm, no.”

“What would you like me to do about it?”

“We don’t know.”

“Is this a significant issue for my onward formation?”


“So you are telling I have a significant issue, you can’t articulate what it is or what I should do about it, but I need to sort it out?”


This was a puzzle. The only sensible action I could formulate for my Second Year Plan was: “To be.” I hesitate to call this an action plan, since being implies something other than doing. Nevertheless, I framed an action of spending time in reflective silence. But I knew this wasn’t touching the heart of the issue.

Half-way through my seminary formation, I went on a pilgrimage with a group of young adults. I got chatting to one of them and it quickly emerged that we had a great deal in common. At our respective schools, we had each been the most intelligent and best behaved child, the one who found playtimes a bore. (Why waste time playing when there were more things to study? And no other child invited us to play, still less explained the rules, anyway!)

At the end of the conversation, she said to me: “I’ve just been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I think you may have it too – you should get it checked out.”

So when I got back to seminary, I went to see the chief counsellor and asked if she had considered the possibility that I was autistic. She hadn’t, but thought it was a good idea. I was sent off for the relevant tests, and the diagnosis was confirmed. Finally, it helped me and the staff put a clearer label on this mysterious “problem with being”. It concerned the subtle exchange of signals through body language which typical humans send and receive all the time without being fully aware of it. (Later, I came to appreciate that reading the emotions in other peoples’ eyes is a key part of this.)

Divine providence arranged that meeting on a pilgrimage in another continent. Because of it, I reached the root of something the seminary might otherwise have failed to diagnose. Thanks be to God!

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

When I was a child, Mum was constantly trying to teach me to be mindful of what other people would think of me. “You can’t wear THAT! Tuck your shirt in! Clean your shoes!”

I couldn’t see what the big deal was about. I never noticed whether anyone else had cleaned their shoes or not, and so what if another person’s shirt was half out? That in itself tells me nothing about the person (except that they haven’t checked their waistline in the last few minutes).

Further, I hated branded goods. I would be the last person to choose a polo shirt or a pair of jeans with some big name embossed on it. No, give me plain every time! I found the idea of wearing some big brand name prominently, quite repellent.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that most human beings have a constant nagging voice in their head reminding them to care about what other people think of them, and most human beings make judgments about other people based on their appearance – cleanliness, tidyness and chosen brands. All of this passed me by and seemed most mysterious. What do dirty shoes tell me except that a person hasn’t cleaned them recently – how on earth could I know what their reasons for not cleaning were? Busyness? Poverty? Lack of care? And why do people want to pay more to have a big name on their jeans, jacket or handbag? This makes no sense to me!

Now I have to accept that most humans are hardwired to care about these things whether they want to or not, and that’s the world I have to live in and interact with.

A Nobel physics laureate, the American Richard Feynman, was a colourful and curious character who played bongo drums and published two volumes of personal anecdotes. Significantly, the second volume was entitled, “What do you care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character.” The titular episode concerned discussions between Feynman and his wife about how formal (or intimate) messages on their greetings cards and embossed pencils should be.

I do not share all of Feynman’s traits – he used his lack of social restraint to become a pick-up artist, for instance – but I admire how he was determined to let the American public know why the Space Shuttle Challenger crashed (it was launched in conditions too cold for a critical component in its booster rockets) without allowing the truth to get buried under bureaucratic obfuscation.

Feynman’s writings provide fascinating insights into how people think. He could count either by ‘hearing’ numbers or ‘seeing’ them – I can only ‘hear’ them. He could imagine physics equations as graphical constructs – I could only mentalise them as algebraic symbols to be manipulated according to certain rules. He helped me to understand the kind of intuitive mind that a great scientist has, and therefore why some scientists can see their way directly to solutions when others (like myself) have to go the long way round. I recommend his two volumes to anyone interested in further exploring a mind not entirely unlike mine.