Friday, January 5, 2018

Touching the Equation

Imagine having a passion for mathematics but lacking the language to express it. Math, with all of its detailed and complex problem solving, is an extremely visual field of study. Because of math’s visual nature, a young blind man named Abraham Nemeth was dissuaded from studying mathematics when he began his academic career at Brooklyn College. Instead, Nemeth studied psychology, and even earned a Masters in the field from Columbia University. His passion for mathematics, however, never dampened.

Born on October 16, 1918, Nemeth was blind from birth, a challenge his parents never used as an excuse and were determined to teach him to explore the world. His parents and grandfather, with whom he had a close relationship, encouraged his independence in his Lower East Side neighborhood and beyond. Nemeth received a full education at the Jewish Guild for the Blind School in Yonkers, New York.

Alas, in the mid-20th century, there were few professional opportunities for the visually impaired, and Nemeth was unable to find a position worthy of his Masters in Psychology. He earned a living playing piano and working in the shipping department of the American Federation for the Blind.

Nemeth continued to explore mathematics. It was his frustration at the lack of Braille coding for anything beyond basic arithmetic that fuelled him into action. In 1950, at the encouragement of friends, he presented the American Joint Braille Committee with an entirely new system that came to be known as the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation. It is still in use today.

Shortly thereafter, Nemeth was hired to teach at the University of Detroit and then attained a Doctorate in Mathematics from Wayne State University. Nemeth was able to teach seeing students by visualizing the chalkboard before writing precise lines of equations.

In addition to his incredible achievements for the general visually-impaired community, Nemeth put his talents to use helping the Jewish Braille Institute (now JBI International) produce Jewish books in Braille and create a single prayerbook (replacing the multi-volume Braille prayerbook).

Abraham Nemeth passed away on October 2, 2013.

January is National Braille Literacy Month.

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