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Friday, August 1, 2014

Who Is Your Guess for the Smartest Person Ever?

Have you ever heard of this man?

"His IQ was estimated to be 50 to 100 points higher than Albert Einstein's. He could read The New York Times before he was 2. At age 6, his language repertoire included English, Latin, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish and Armenian. At age 11, he entered Harvard University as one of the youngest students in the school's history." 

 January 23, 2011)

Who was the smartest person ever? Would an IQ test accurately measure the intelligence of such a phenomenal person? I'm quite sure no one can give a definitive answer, but reports -- full of factual information and disputed evidence -- do exist.

For example, Albert Einstein's IQ was estimated at 160. Charles Darwin and Wolfgang Mozart were both estimated at 165. While Galileo Galilei was estimated to have a 185 I.Q., Bobby Fischer, the chess master, comes in even higher with an IQ of 187.

But ...

How about William James Sidis? He is the man referred to in the quote above.

Amy Wallace wrote The Prodigy: a Biography of William James Sidis, the biography of child prodigy William James Sidis. In 2011, she spoke to NPR about Sidis from her home in Los Angeles. Much of the information below is taken from her interview.

(NPR Staff. "Meet William James Sidis: The Smartest Guy Ever?" January 23, 2011)

The Remarkable William James Sidis

William James Sidis made headlines in the early 20th century as a child prodigy with an amazing intellect.

It was later acknowledged that some of the claims about Sidis were exaggerations, with a researcher stating: "I have been researching the veracity of primary sources of various subjects for about twenty-eight years, and never before have I found a topic so satiated with lies, myths, half-truths, exaggerations, and other forms of misinformation as is in the history behind William Sidis."

(Larry Neal Gowdy. "Was William James Sidis the Smartest Man on Earth?" 
The Logics. October 19, 2013)

Still ...

Amy Wallace, Sidis's biographer weaves a very compelling argument for "the smartest" claim.

Young William Sidis

William James Sidis was born to Jewish Ukrainina immigrants on April 1, 1898, in New York City.

Wallace reveal Sidis' parents were pretty smart, too. His father, Boris, was a famous psychologist, and his mother, Sarah, was a doctor. They were pushy and aggressive with their young son. "They believed that you could make a genius," Wallace says. His mother spent the family's savings on books, maps and other learning tools to encourage their precocious son.

"One thing that was very unusual about [Sidis] compared to other child prodigies [is that] very few prodigies have multiple abilities," Wallace says.

At 4, he was speaking Latin. As a young boy, Sidis invented his own language and wrote French poetry, a novel and a constitution for a utopia.

He entered grammar school at age six, but in just over half a year he had advanced into high school curriculum. He reportedly had taught himself eight languages (Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German. Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian) by age eight. His stunning accomplishments soon became a frequent feature on the first page of The New York Times.

Boris, Sidis's father, said of his son: 

"He is not a freak who can perform vast sums in arithmetic, as some children have done, but he understands the underlying principles of mathematics and whatever he learns.

"You must begin a child's education as soon as he displays any power to think. Everybody knows how hard it is to learn a new language late in life. The same holds good of all our acquisitions. The earlier they arc acquired the more truly they become part of us.

"At the same time keep alive within the child the quickening power of curiosity. Do not repress him. Answer his questions; give him the information he craves, seeing to it always that he understands your explanations.

"You need not he afraid of overstraining his mind. On the contrary, you will be developing it as it should be developed―will he habituating the child to avail himself of the great fund of latent energy which most of us, to our detriment, so seldom use."

 ("Boy Prodigy of Harvard." Current Literature, 48. 1910)

The question of how much of William's intellectual achievement was due to their influence and how much was was due to his own natural genius is a matter of some debate. Whatever their approach may have contributed to his development, it is clear that his mind had a natural propensity for gorging itself on information.

Sidis was accepted to Harvard at age 9, but the school wanted him to wait until he was 11. As he waited for the Harvard admissions board to capitulate, he spent the intervening time at Tufts College correcting mistakes in mathematicians' books, perusing Einstein's theories for possible errors, mastering foreign languages, and diligently collecting streetcar transfer slips. He discovered that he could mentally calculate the day of the week for any given date in the past or in the future, and he wrote four books.

He entered Harvard as part of a program to enroll gifted students early. The experimental group included inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller and composer Roger Sessions.

Some say the most remarkable achievement of the youthful Sidis was his exposition of what is termed the fourth dimension.

In January 1910, about a hundred professors and advanced math students gathered in a Harvard lecture hall to observe the eleven-year-old William Sidis's first public speaking presentation. He spoke in a quiet, shy voice and had to stifle the occasional giggle, but his lecture on Four-Dimensional Bodies was very well received.

Young Sidis's own definition of the fourth dimension was technical. "It is an Euclidian space," he said, "with one dimension added." To quote from the lecture delivered before the faculty of Harvard:

"My own definition of the Fourth Dimension would be that it is an Euclidian space with one dimension added. It is the projection of the figures of the Third Dimension into space. The third dimensional figures, such as the cube, are used as sides of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, and the figures of the Fourth Dimension are called configurations. It is not possible to actually construct models of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, or to conceive of them in the mind's eye, but it is easy to construct them by means of Euclid's theorem."

(Alan Bellows. "The Rise and Fall of William J. Sidis." November 7, 2006)

After William's presentation, MIT professor Daniel Comstock predicted to reporters that Sidis would become the foremost mathematician of the 20th century. The story of William's exploits shortly became national news.

Five years later, at age 16, he graduated cum laude. His Harvard days, however, were not full of happy memories. Sidis came to despise the attention he got as one of the youngest students in Harvard's history.

“I want to live the perfect life,” he told newspaper reporters on his graduation day. “The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds.” He already had vowed never to marry, and had struck a medal commemorating the decision.

"He had been made a laughing stock at Harvard," Wallace says. "He admitted he had never kissed a girl. He was teased and chased, and it was just humiliating. And all he wanted was to be away from academia [and] be a regular working man."

After a brief stint as a mathematics professor after graduation, Sidis went into hiding from public scrutiny, moving from city to city, job to job, often using an alias.

According to Wallace, he briefly served on the League of Nations before leaving because 28th U.S. president Woodrow Wilson would not withdraw troops deployed during World War I. He was outspoken about his pacifism.

In 1919, shortly after his withdrawal from law school, Sidis was arrested for participating in a socialist May Day parade in Boston that turned violent. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison under the Sedition Act of 1918.

His arrest featured prominently in newspapers, as his early graduation from Harvard had garnered considerable local celebrity status. During the trial, Sidis stated that he had been a conscientious objector to the World War I draft, was a socialist, and a spiritualist.

His father arranged with the district attorney to keep Sidis out of prison before his appeal came to trial; his parents, instead, held him in their sanatorium in New Hampshire for a year. They took him to California, where he spent another year.

After returning to the east coast in 1921, Sidis worked in New York City and became estranged from his parents. He was determined to live an independent and private life. He took work as a clerk and a bookkeeper doing fairly menial tasks, moving to a new employer whenever his identity was discovered.

"The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill." he once said, "All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won't let me alone."

(Alan Bellows. "The Rise and Fall of William J. Sidis." November 7, 2006)

It took years before he was cleared legally to return to Massachusetts, and he was concerned about his risk of arrest for years.

All the while, he wrote a number of books, including a 1,200-page history of the United States and a book on streetcar transfer tickets, which he loved to collect. Notes on the Collection of Streetcar Transfers, discusses his unusual hobby of peridromophilia at painstaking length. For years Sidis had been prowling the streets after work and on weekends, seeking the discarded slips of paper. He had over sixteen hundred different ones.The work was described by one Sidis biographer as "the most boring book ever written."

William also alluded to the existence of dark matter before it had been formally theorized, and wrote about how one democratic Native American tribe may have strongly influenced the politics of America's founders. In the meantime he continued to learn new languages, absorbing dozens of foreign tongues with ease.

His books were never widely published, and he used at least eight pseudonyms. "We probably will never know how many books he published under false names," his biographer Wallace says.

Recently, an inscribed copy of a book he wrote in 1925 — The Animate and the Inanimate — was sold in London to an anonymous collector for 5,000 pounds — almost $8,000.

Sidis lived successfully out of the limelight until 1937, when the New Yorker magazine sent a female reporter to befriend him and gather information for an article on what had happened to the boy wonder.

According to Wallace, Sidis thought the article's description of him was humiliating and "made him sound crazy." It accused him of having a nervous breakdown he had never had. After the article was published, "Sidis decided to come out of the woodwork and out of hiding, and sued the New Yorker," Wallace says.

Sidis argued in court that the magazine had libeled him, and he won. Wallace reports almost immediately after, that incredible brain exploded. He had a brain hemorrhage, and he died in 1944. He was only 46. His father had died of the same malady in 1923 at age fifty-six.

His many books were never widely published, at least not under his real name. It's the reason many people today have never even heard of him. 

"People who knew him adored him," Wallace says. "So I think he really went from being completely traumatized as a young boy to becoming a happy man."

Whatever the reason for his underwhelming output later in life, he was certainly one of the most profoundly gifted human beings who ever lived. There is no telling what William might have accomplished for mathematics and science if only his talents had not been squandered.

An interesting note: an inscribed copy of a book Sidis wrote, called The Animate and the Inanimate, was sold in London to an anonymous collector for almost $8,000. The book is about the existence of black holes. It was written more than half a century before Stephen Hawking wrote about the same topic.

"His (Sidis's) death in 1944 as an undistinguished figure was made 
the occasion for reawakening the old wives tales about nervous breakdowns, burned out prodigies and insanity among geniuses." 

--Dr. Abraham Sperling in Psychology for the Millions, 1946

"William Sidis had one great cause―the right of an individual in this country to follow his chosen way of life. He had never been able to do this for himself, first because his father made him a guinea pig for psychological theories; then because the public, through newspaper articles, insisted that he was a “genius,” abnormal and erratic."

--Shirley S. Smith, The Boston Traveler, Wednesday, July 19, 1944

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