Actually, there was a certain amount of genuine quality to my guesses. I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples. For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they’re all excited. As they’re telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions.
You know, you have a set (one ball) — disjoint (two balls). Then the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever, in my head as they put more conditions on. Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, “False!”
If it’s true, they get all excited, and I let them go on for a while. Then I point out my counterexample. “Oh. We forgot to tell you that it’s Class 2 Hausdorff homeomorphic.” “Well, then,” I say, “It’s trivial! It’s trivial!” By that time I know which way it goes, even though I don’t know what Hausdorff homeomorphic means.
I guessed right most of the time because although the mathematicians thought their topology theorems were counterintuitive, they weren’t really as difficult as they looked. You can get used to the funny properties of this ultra-fine cutting business and do a pretty good job of guessing how it will come out.