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The Rise and Fall of William J. Sidis

Article #230 • Written by Alan Bellows

In the waning years of the nineteenth century, boatloads of Russian Jewish immigrants were arriving in New York harbor as they fled from the religious and political persecution of their homeland. Boris and Sarah Sidis arrived in such a fashion, and they quickly gained notoriety in the United States as brilliant individuals. Boris established a reputation for himself as a pioneer in the study of psychology, and his wife Sarah became one of only a handful of women in America to receive a medical degree. Though they were widely regarded as the possessors of highly gifted minds, they were also renowned for their eccentricities.

After breezing through Harvard as a student, Boris became a professor of psychology there, where he taught and wrote about his ground-breaking theories in the field. He was influential in the areas of hypnosis, group psychology, and mob frenzy; and he was fascinated with the effects of evolution on the human psyche. He was also an advocate of some bizarre treatments such as the "rest cure," whereby victims of mental disorders were isolated in bed for up to two months, sometimes in tandem with electrotherapy. Much of Boris's work was experimental and adventurous in a time when the field of psychology was making great strides.

On April Fool's day in 1898, Boris encountered a unique opportunity to begin applying his eccentric theories of psychology in a real-world environment: his wife Sarah gave birth to a son. Under the tutelage of these ingenious yet neurotic parents, young William James Sidis developed into an individual with astonishing talents.

Boris and Sarah began their child's education in his first few months, and William's infant mind absorbed the information at an extraordinary rate. Using wooden blocks, Boris began demonstrating the alphabet to his young son, using techniques similar to hypnosis to coax the baby into pronouncing the letters. At six months, William uttered the word "door," and by the following month he had doubled his vocabulary to include "moon." At eight months old, his proud parents boasted that he was able to feed himself with a spoon, a skill that very few children develop within their first year. He was also able to recognize and repeat the letters on Boris's toy blocks, giving him a four-year-old's grasp of symbol recognition.

The Sidises believed that aggressive curiosity was a quality to be nurtured, so Sarah gave up her career in medicine to dedicate her life to the child's development. William's thirst for knowledge never went unquenched, and by his first birthday-- an age when most children are still babbling-- he was honing his spelling skills. At one and a half years of age, he was reading the daily newspaper.

As William approached his fifth birthday, his spectacular abilities began to draw the attention of the press. He had taught himself to operate the typewriter from his high chair, tapping out a letter to Macy's regarding an order for toys. He had also taken it upon himself to learn Latin, Greek, Russian, French, German, and Hebrew. His appetite for information seemed endless as he easily chewed through weighty tomes such as Gray's Anatomy and the works of Homer. He entered grammar school at age six, but in just over half a year he had advanced into high school curriculum. His stunning accomplishments soon became a frequent feature on the first page of the New York Times.

Boris and Sarah were understandably proud of their son and his intellectual achievements. By cultivating his precocious nature it seemed that they had confirmed some of their outlandish theories, and they paraded young William around as evidence of this. But the question of how much 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.

At age nine William attempted to enroll at Harvard, and though the entrance exams were not a challenge for the young intellect, he was turned down on the basis that he was too "emotionally immature" for college life. As William 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. When the boy prodigy reached eleven years of age in 1909, the prestigious university finally relented and accepted William as a student.

On a cold January evening in 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. It was sufficiently advanced that it bewildered many of his audience members, as indicated by the depth of his introduction:

"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."

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.

Sidis graduated cum laude at age 16, having grown a bit introverted in response to the sudden fame and pressure. At his graduation, he told the gathered newspapermen, "I want to live the perfect life. The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds." He began a lifelong policy of vigorously rejecting sex, art, music, or anything else that would distract him from the pursuit of pure knowledge.

William briefly taught mathematics at Rice University in Houston, but he resigned when it became apparent that his age and fame were inescapable distractions to the students. He went back to Harvard for a short time to pursue a law degree, but dropped out when he found that the law did not suit him. In 1919 William was once again subjected to public scrutiny when he was arrested for participating in an anti-draft demonstration which developed into a riot. The ensuing trial further underscored his unconventional philosophies, such as his lack of a belief in God-- particularly the "big boss of the Christians"-- and his socialist leanings. His political views later evolved into something resembling Libertarianism.

He sidestepped imprisonment thanks to his parents' influence, but they confined him to their summer home in California for a year after the event. Embittered, William moved back to the east coast in an effort to retreat from the press, his parents, and his talents-- all of which he regarded as blights. He took up a series of menial jobs working as a clerk and a bookkeeper, 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." On one occasion Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company hired him and handed him a stack of blueprints and statistics in the hopes that he could improve their system; he was reduced to tears at the prospect of the computations, and quit the new job on his first day.

Sidis made a noble effort to avoid the public eye in his adult years. He wrote several books, but most of them were under assumed names and about obscure subjects. One such book, entitled Notes on the Collection of Streetcar Transfers, discusses his unusual hobby of peridromophilia at painstaking length. 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.

A clipping from Boston Traveler (click for full view)The press continued to hound William for years, poking fun at his humdrum jobs and scorning his neglected potential. One New Yorker article entitled "April Fool" was so scathing and filled with personal details that it prompted Sidis to sue for invasion of privacy, a case which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He finally won a partial victory in 1944, but it was a bittersweet success.

William did not live long after that; in the following July his landlady telephoned the police after discovering him unconscious in his Boston apartment. Forty-six year old Sidis had suffered a massive stroke, and he never again regained consciousness. Such was the end of the one-time prodigy who had astonished a Harvard math audience at age eleven; he died a reclusive, penniless office clerk.

Those who knew him in his later life spoke of his conspicuous brilliance and his mastery of over forty languages, but his tangible contributions to society seemed to be relatively few for someone of his talents. Some argue that his parents pushed him too hard in his youth-- overexerting his exceptional mind at an early age-- and some blame the press for driving him into isolation. There is considerable evidence that William favored the Okamakammesset tribal philosophy of "anonymous contribution", a principle which implies that one's value is not measured by one's visible contributions to society.

Though he probably would not have put much stock in formal measures of intelligence, it is estimated that William Sidis's IQ was as high as 300, where 100 is average and over 140 is considered genius. 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.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 07 November 2006. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article suggested by Adam.

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100 Comments
Garamond
Posted 07 November 2006 at 04:28 am

Yay! First one.


Joee
Posted 07 November 2006 at 04:30 am

Only 300? Pfft.


Kourage
Posted 07 November 2006 at 05:03 am

wow, what a waste. Reminds me of the paparazi. although it does make me wonder if his genius was genetic or social.


Man
Posted 07 November 2006 at 05:19 am

I've read nearly every article on this brilliant site and this is, in my opinion, THE most interesting.

(I'd love to know more about his parents teaching techniques .)


1c3d0g
Posted 07 November 2006 at 05:34 am

Joee: and you have...50? Thought so.

Hmm...IINM isn't 158 or higher the barrier that someone is officially recognized as a "genius"? Nevertheless, very interesting story. 40+ languages! Damn! And I have trouble learning a fifth... :-/


another viewpoint
Posted 07 November 2006 at 06:10 am

"As William 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."

...could have been marbles, bottle caps or even green stamps, instead...the boy genius decided to collect streetcar transfer slips. Sooner or later, you can set all that high powered thinking, analyzing and postulating aside and return to something so basic that it may bear little value sometime in the future. But it's still fun.

After a database crash...this was definitely worth the wait. Thanks Alan...DI strikes again with another home run!


mestebanez
Posted 07 November 2006 at 07:07 am

I agree with who said it's one of the most interesting post ever wrote here and thereby in the Internet.


Dave Group
Posted 07 November 2006 at 07:17 am

Boris and Sarah Sidis, the patron saints of helicopter parents. :-) Though their efforts were admirable, such constant pressure on a child can backfire in a big way, as it did here. As for the 300 IQ, it is extremely difficult to calculate such a number due to the complexity of the human mind and the limitations of IQ tests. How do you measure creativity and artistic/musical talent? How would you rate da Vinci? Picasso? Tesla or Edison? Perserverence and social skills are also very important, as well as a person's contribution to society. Watson and Crick supposedly had IQs barely above average, yet they made one of the most important contributions to science of the 20th century; Sidis' contribution was a book on streetcar transfers.


Brandie
Posted 07 November 2006 at 07:56 am

Pretty amazing. It seems to me like he was pressed so hard to succeed so early in his life that he completely flamed out. To me, the most interesting thing was his comment that all he wanted to do was run an adding machine. Such a brilliant mind and he wanted to do something brainless.

Damn Interesting! Thanks!


haQpod
Posted 07 November 2006 at 08:14 am

One of the best articles i read so far as well. Very well written, keep up the good work.


thatsjustwrong
Posted 07 November 2006 at 08:16 am

"Watson and Crick supposedly had IQs barely above average, yet they made one of the most important contributions to science of the 20th century"

I'm will have to argue with you on that. Watson and Crick took most of their ideas from thier assistant, Francis. If she hadn't done most of the work and come up with theories, they wouldn't be famous. I bet her IQ is much higher.


FMZ
Posted 07 November 2006 at 09:08 am

Amazing article... thanks for this one Alan.

This really shows the importance of balance in all things. Too much weight put on either side will cause us to topple and end up a big mess.

William is a testament to the potential of mankind. What a brilliant mind, at such a cost.


sulkykid
Posted 07 November 2006 at 09:35 am

It is interesting to me that everyone assumes that a "genius" must contribute in the fields of science and/or mathematics.


junebee
Posted 07 November 2006 at 10:01 am

Sullykid, I believe Mozart, Beethoven, et. al. are also considered "geniuses".

Somehow I could predict the end of this story before I read it!


branewalker
Posted 07 November 2006 at 10:09 am

It is more interesting that everyone assumes a genius must contribute to society. Does that intelligence give them any more responsibility than we have? Or, to put it another way, does our lack of intelligence give us less responsibility to contribute to society?
The assumption that the fields of science and math are the main ways to make such a contribution is quite natural, given our tendency to equate social progress with technological progress.

Also, though he might have scorned organized Christianity, "the Okamakammesset tribal philosophy of 'anonymous contribution'" sounds very much like the Christian philosophy of generosity, wherein the point is not to be visible, and to take credit for the contribution, but to give freely of one's own wealth, talents, time, or whatever one has to give. I guess the reference is there because Sidis identified with that belief from that source. But it is not the only source of such beliefs.

Finally, the "freedom of the press" is so often stretched beyond its limits, that it can become tyranny of the press. "The press" does not mean those who work for newspapers. It means those who publish and distribute anything, really. And that freedom extends only to the content within such publications, (such that it does not violate laws against libel, obscenity, or the like). What it does not cover is the supposed "right to know" wherein reporters pry and bother, and harass simple citizens who have their own rights to privacy. Or they leak classified information, or whatever. The freedom of speech and the press is a right to disseminate information, not to collect it at all costs. That's the real tragedy here: they just couldn't leave the poor man alone.


Coherent
Posted 07 November 2006 at 11:14 am

Children who develop into child prodigies under the intense pressure of their parents remind me of children who are sexually abused, strangely enough. Although things seem to go well for a number of years, upon reaching adulthood they inevitably implode, their minds do not develop in a manner that allows them to reach emotional maturity and stability. How many child prodigies actually end up making a substantial contribution to any particular field as adults?

It seems clear that although you can force exceptional intellectual development early on, that development comes at a devastating cost to the overall well-being of the forming mind. The unfortunate "child prodigy" will spend the rest of their life trying to regain the deep-structure psychological development that they lost as a child. Trying and failing! The plasticity of your formative years can not be regained by the adult mind.

Child prodigies are psychologically crippled for life. Although they might retain some savant abilities, they lack the underpinning development that would allow them to make substantial contributions as adults over the long term. They are to be pitied more than admired.


Shandooga
Posted 07 November 2006 at 11:24 am

Damn, that was interesting. Same thing almost happened to me. Oh, wait. No it didn't.


Anthony Kendall
Posted 07 November 2006 at 11:38 am

@Coherent:
I'm not sure that any of us, even the most stable and well-rounded could sustain the tremendous pressure of constant attention and fame. Look at celebrities, for example. Most of them end up screwed up to some degree, and they invited the fame upon them. Young Mr. Sidis did not. His fame was thrust upon him and he could not escape it.

Perhaps it is not the lack of mental development, but rather the feeling of utter powerlessness that drove him to the opposite extreme. It was only be rejecting his prodigious talent utterly that he could even marginally escape the unwanted and intrusive attention it had brought him. If he and other children like him were allowed to mature without the glaring lights of public renown, then maybe they would continue on to produce marvelous results and contribute immensely to society.


Krull
Posted 07 November 2006 at 01:04 pm

Spelling at the age of one. Reading the paper at 1½. Typing at five, and "He had also taken it upon himself to learn Latin, Greek, Russian, French, German, and Hebrew. His appetite for information seemed endless as he easily chewed through weighty tomes such as Gray's Anatomy and the works of Homer."

Does nobody else think that's just plain wrong? How could the parents do it?


HiEv
Posted 07 November 2006 at 01:30 pm

Dave Group said: "Watson and Crick supposedly had IQs barely above average, yet they made one of the most important contributions to science of the 20th century"

I looked and I couldn't find any evidence supporting that claim. I found one guy who claimed that he saw in a documentary that one had a 100 IQ and the other had a 140+ IQ, but that doesn't seem any more reliable than your claim. Still, Watson has noted that while some geniuses were working to crack DNA at the same time, he and Crick succeeded not necessarily by being smart, but because they were willing to work with others rather than keeping their thoughts to themselves as many of their other colleagues had been doing.

thatsjustwrong said: "I'm will have to argue with you on that. Watson and Crick took most of their ideas from thier assistant, Francis. If she hadn't done most of the work and come up with theories, they wouldn't be famous. I bet her IQ is much higher."

Huh? Francis Crick took the idea from himself? I believe you are talking about Rosalind Franklin, and no, she wasn't their assistant and they didn't take her ideas any more than any other scientist does in their research. DNA had been known since the mid 19th century, but it wasn't until Watson and Crick that the exact structure was known. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin helped provide some of the data that lead to Watson and Crick's discovery, and their work was cited in Watson and Crick's paper. Franklin died prior to the Nobel Prize award (which is not awarded posthumously,) so the Nobel went to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. If she had been alive her name would likely have been included. Despite that one omission her contributions have not been ignored.

All scientists stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, but in this case credit has usually been given where credit is due.


Drakvil
Posted 07 November 2006 at 02:54 pm

Krull said: "Does nobody else think that's just plain wrong? How could the parents do it?"

I don't. I think that they provided the best they could to stimulate their childs mind starting at a very young age, and the natural tendency (and ability) of a child to learn took off from there. The press and unwanted attention are the most likely culprits, probably coupled with lonelyness. If you have a 300+ I.Q. and everyone around you is 100, it must be fairly difficult to find a satisfying conversation. Intellectually he was probably living in the equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank. Can you imagine your life if everyone you came in contact with had an IQ that was only 1/3 of yours? For the average person, that would mean being surrounded all day by people with a 33 IQ. The conversations would get old really fast. If you were surrounded with people who had 2/3 your IQ, (66 based on the average) you would also find yourself having difficulty putting up with it.

If his parents had also been able to apply the same techniques with several other children at the same time as they did with him, he probably would not have had all the attention to himself and he would have had people who understood him better and could keep company with him.

Strangely enough, this story parallels a sci-fi book called "Superbaby" by Felix Mendelsohn (1969). I have a feeling that the book was inspired by Sidis. The end result is fairly similar, and my interpretation of this article was influenced by the book.


Flatfoot1954
Posted 07 November 2006 at 02:55 pm

Oh, the joys of being dumb………like me. The trouble with genius to magnitudes like this one is that it’s a trade-off between social ability and intellectual ability. Genius I would think requires special handling and special method and training for dealing with the world or the results can be disastrous. I submit that the reasons are as follows: A genius never has a need to apply patience to himself. Learning is almost instantaneous. Analysis is almost instantly clear and obvious. Application is superfluous. Given that a genius has no need to exercise patience for himself, he therefore develops no patience or empathy for others. This is not an inherent evil; it is merely an aspect that goes with the territory. Nothing that anybody does is particularly praiseworthy to him and consequently he is unimpressed with others. When he corrects another, especially if it’s for the same mistake it seems to him unfathomable that it could happen and due to a narrow frame of reference he perceives it as deliberate. This causes anger and misunderstanding between him and the offender. The ordinary person perceives him as grouchy and arrogant. He perceives the offender as resentful and rejecting for no apparent reason. A spiraling circle ensues and the genius, outnumbered by many angered associates who don’t understand the dynamics, withdraws, thinking that the world hates him for no good reason. A genius, who is smart enough to see this dynamic, needs only to exercise a great deal of will power to be socially compatible. Have you ever noticed that the best teachers you ever had were people who had to struggle as students, and the worst teachers were the people to whom learning came easily? I have. (Anybody wanna be a genius?) William James Sidis’ failure to employ his talents toward practical good was inevitable. His parents’ lack of spiritual dimension caused them to neglect the other important parts of being human. We are so much more than simply a brain being carried around inside a body.


Xoebe
Posted 07 November 2006 at 03:57 pm

Did the movie "Pi" enter anyone else's mind when they read this?


Asshe
Posted 07 November 2006 at 04:53 pm

Wow Flatfoot1954 - great comment! You wrote what I was thinking, but made it even better.

This article makes me glad my parents didn't send me to that school for gifted kids! But I can say that from first-hand experience, extreme expectations and pressure do stunt emotional growth. When you're in a situation with so many people expecting so much, all that matters is getting the job done and getting everyone to go "wow" about you again. It is destructive.


Coherent
Posted 07 November 2006 at 05:22 pm

@Anthony Kendall:

By your argument, anyone who is famous can not also be productive. They will be crushed under the psychological weight of that fame. The vast number of famous people who are also productive effectively disarms your logic.

The simplest explanation to the lack of Nobel-Prize-Winning child prodigies is that they are not crushed by fame, but by the psychological vulnerabilities associated with their abnormal development. Therefore by Occam's Razor, this explanation is more likely to be true.


Coherent
Posted 07 November 2006 at 05:30 pm

To be clear, I'm not saying that the fame didn't crush them.

I'm saying that the abnormal development of their childhood simply failed to give them the psychological defenses that they would have used to maintain their perspective in their adult years.

If they had been allowed to develop normally (without coaching, specifically), they would have been able to enter adult society and truly reach their full potential in time.


Didoka
Posted 07 November 2006 at 07:11 pm

Confusion!!!!

Someone can someone clarify what happened to him when he grew up?
He wanted to pursue mathematical knowledge and go into seclusion. But then what happened? Why did he work at low jobs and avoid mathematical equations so much??


Kuz_Sam
Posted 07 November 2006 at 09:20 pm

He is a loser. As if you would reject sex, art and music...mainly sex... how would he have coped at school. I bet he didnt have any friends. You cant have intellectual prowess and still be a social butterfly (unless you are me :-D).


Joee
Posted 08 November 2006 at 12:31 am

My comment on 'Only 300" related to the misunderstanding of IQ tests. IQ tests cannot measure, for example, creativity. IQ is also a relative, not absolute, measurement.

And no, my IQ is not 50. I know what it is, but what would be the point of sharing it with you? More bickering, name-calling?


Misfit
Posted 08 November 2006 at 12:34 am

Dave Group said: "...As for the 300 IQ, it is extremely difficult to calculate such a number due to the complexity of the human mind and the limitations of IQ tests. How do you measure creativity and artistic/musical talent? How would you rate da Vinci? Picasso? Tesla or Edison?"

You make an extraordinary point Dave. Time Magazine once ran a front-page-worthy article on what's not-so-widely-knows-as E.Q. (Emotional Quota). Let's just say it doesn't fall under the recent EMO trend. It's speculated to be more important than I.Q. in many repects.


CanInternet
Posted 08 November 2006 at 12:48 am

@Coherent
"their minds do not develop in a manner that allows them to reach emotional maturity and stability"
You might say: a genius is mentaly challenged.


wh44
Posted 08 November 2006 at 02:59 am

Wow! Really good article and really good comment Flatfoot1954.


Oasx
Posted 08 November 2006 at 04:55 am

That's a pretty sad story, seems as though he would have done great things if it wasnt for people hounding him, it would be interesting to know for sure if his talents came from his parents or if it was simply the unique way he was raised and taught, it would be amazing if results such as these or even close to it could be replicated on other children


Krull
Posted 08 November 2006 at 05:59 am

Xoebe said: "Did the movie "Pi" enter anyone else's mind when they read this?"

No but now that you mention it yeah! I thought of Rain Man and that documentary about the genius who went to meet him.

Hey great comment Flatfoot1954

@Drakvil - yeah I see your point. To me it just doesn't seem right for a child that young, practically a baby, to be so intellectually advanced. But I suppose that's really just because we're not used to seeing it.


dday
Posted 08 November 2006 at 08:17 am

ugg... what is this perversion to thinking that somehow child-raising techniques can 'make' a genius. Although I can accept Coherent's presentation on abuse and inward perverted behavior, but realistically 'genius', whatever shape or form you determine it to be (and there's a few here :) ), is innate to the person. It is quantitudes different than typical thought...and the trials of simpler minds (mine included) to try and think that there must be some technique to create this behavior is pretty much akin to doing bloodletting to 'get rid of the illness that plagues'.

now, i need to go find some virgins to feed to my 'Be A Millionaire' statue....

enjoy the day...


irea6242
Posted 08 November 2006 at 09:52 am

I feel sad for the kid (even though he's been dead for years). I take this as evidence that a genius can't survive or thrive in a community that is well below his own level. And somehow I doubt the human race is evolved enough to give up social behavior and devote itself only to knowledge, I mean, let the kid *play* with his toy blocks, already. It might work for other children but until the majority of kids are raised in this way (and WHY?!) it'll never work.


irea6242
Posted 08 November 2006 at 09:53 am

CanInternet: shouldn't that be "socially" challenged since his brain is obviously quite functional? =P


CanInternet
Posted 08 November 2006 at 10:33 am

"a genius can't survive or thrive in a community that is well below his own level"
phew that´s a relief... aliens won´t stand a chance then.


Dave Group
Posted 08 November 2006 at 10:51 am

Dave Group said: "Watson and Crick supposedly had IQs barely above average

I had heard/read this once, but am unable to verify it, that's why I said "supposedly".

branewalker said: "It is more interesting that everyone assumes a genius must contribute to society."

How else would we know there are geniuses? Isn't that-- broadly speaking-- how we define "genius"?

BTW, anyone else but me think of that Godawful movie "Baby Geniuses"?


BrianTung
Posted 08 November 2006 at 11:52 am

IQ is garbage, especially at the high and low ends. To a large extent it merely measures how much the test taker thinks like the test writer. (And I say this as one who routinely scores well on IQ tests.) Whatever it measures, it is not intelligence.

It boggles my mind that anyone thinks that mental aptitude can somehow be summed up in a single number, like height or weight. Think about how hard it would be to describe someone solely by the way they think; what that illustrates is that our mental abilities are wonderfully multi-dimensional. What IQ tests examine is only the barest surface of what human brains are able to do, and yet some people view them as the intellectual equivalent of bench pressing.

It seems clear that Sidis was able to learn quite prodigiously, though I'm always wary of claims of extreme speed: I think that speed learning tends to be poorly retained and of the rote variety. It is unfortunate that he was made a spectacle; we simply do not know how much he might have produced, and how much happier he might have been, if he had been permitted simply to be an otherwise normal, highly intelligent person, rather than some kind of freak child prodigy--especially one produced by an orchestrated regimen.

I do think that "genius" tends to be bandied about too freely. Genius, in my opinion, has little to do with IQ, and much to do with how differently the person views the world. Language--the way we share ideas--hides so much of our private perspective; I'm always fascinated when I get a glimpse of how someone sees a phenomenon completely differently from the way I do, even though we speak of it casually in the same terms, and the difference is only perceived upon closer examination. Genius permits the fortunate gifted to reveal relationships to the rest of us that we would otherwise be unable to see; it is not merely a heightened ability to identify which one of five apparently unrelated words doesn't belong in a set.


sulkykid
Posted 08 November 2006 at 12:48 pm

dday said: "ugg… what is this perversion to thinking that somehow child-raising techniques can 'make' a genius. Although I can accept Coherent's presentation on abuse and inward perverted behavior, but realistically 'genius', whatever shape or form you determine it to be (and there's a few here :) ), is innate to the person. It is quantitudes different than typical thought…and the trials of simpler minds (mine included) to try and think that there must be some technique to create this behavior is pretty much akin to doing bloodletting to 'get rid of the illness that plagues'.


now, i need to go find some virgins to feed to my 'Be A Millionaire' statue….

enjoy the day…"

Yes, however perverted and abusive, these parents did "make" this genius. Consider the probabilities, such geniuses are 1:10,000 (or greater!). The parents' techniques are 1 for 1. Occam's razor says take the 100%, not the .001%.


HiEv
Posted 08 November 2006 at 02:01 pm

Joee said: "My comment on 'Only 300' related to the misunderstanding of IQ tests. IQ tests cannot measure, for example, creativity. IQ is also a relative, not absolute, measurement."

IQ tests can't measure lots of things that they weren't designed to measure. Whether it's relative or not isn't that important either. A ~300 IQ simply means a remarkably high intelligence. I don't think anyone takes it to mean anything more than that.


TheZingerLingers
Posted 08 November 2006 at 04:02 pm

As a school psychology student (read: guy learning to give IQ tests the rest of his life), I can say that an IQ of 300 really doesn't make any sense at all. The statistical idea behind (most) IQ tests conforms to a normal or bell curve where the average score is 100 and every 15 points is a standard deviation. The way the standard deviations work, 1 standard deviation above the average is greater than about 84% of the population, 2 standard deviations would be greater than about 97.75 percent of the population, and 3 deviations above the mean would be greater than 99.9 percent of the population. The entire population should be included within a 4 standard deviation range (which on most IQ tests, ranges from 40 to 160). However, an IQ of 300 would be more that 13 standard deviations above the mean. IQ scores as a measure of intelligence are shaky at best, anyway, particularly when just using the one number.


whatiris
Posted 08 November 2006 at 11:21 pm

Great article and some excellent discussion as well. That's probably in itself a testament to the article!

BrianTung said: " It boggles my mind that anyone thinks that mental aptitude can somehow be summed up in a single number, like height or weight. Think about how hard it would be to describe someone solely by the way they think; what that illustrates is that our mental abilities are wonderfully multi-dimensional. What IQ tests examine is only the barest surface of what human brains are able to do, and yet some people view them as the intellectual equivalent of bench pressing.

I would argue that IQ tests are almost precisely the intellectual equivalent of bench pressing. I know you probably share my views but I'm picking on semantics here. The weight someone can bench press tells nothing of their flexibility, coordination or even physical strength in other regions of the body. Likewise I.Q. tests that I've seen are woefully inadequate for anything beyond assessing some basic spatial ability and logical reasoning. There is so much more to intelligence than that, even discounting less traditionally accepted forms of intelligence such as artistic ability.

I'm rarely impressed by child prodigies - I'd much rather see a well-adjusted experienced adult with similar mental faculties. Child prodigies strike me as having a sort of freak-show aspect to them which makes me uneasy.


donlaudanny
Posted 09 November 2006 at 05:01 am

whatiris said: "Great article and some excellent discussion as well. That's probably in itself a testament to the article!

I would argue that IQ tests are almost precisely the intellectual equivalent of bench pressing. I know you probably share my views but I'm picking on semantics here. The weight someone can bench press tells nothing of their flexibility, coordination or even physical strength in other regions of the body. Likewise I.Q. tests that I've seen are woefully inadequate for anything beyond assessing some basic spatial ability and logical reasoning. There is so much more to intelligence than that, even discounting less traditionally accepted forms of intelligence such as artistic ability.

"

I disagree. How much someone can bench press tells you a lot about their flexibility, coordination, and physicial strength in other parts of their body. People who can bench press more than average are usually more fitness minded, and thus are better at the other three aspects. People who can bench 225+ lbs probably are weightlifters, so that tells you more about their coordination, flexibility, and physical strength. There's a reason why benchlifting, squating, and deadlifts are considered the 3 major exercises that predict overall body strength.

IQ is very strongly correlated to general socialeconomic success, and is a prime predictor of socialeconomic success later in life. Correlation doesn't mean causation, of course. For instance, some people may have a high IQ even if they can't quickly grasp new concepts because they're willing to persevere in logic training. This, of course will still translate to other aspects in life.

The IQ test isn't a perfect predictor of performance - performance is - but it's the best we have and it's pretty good. Of course, it's predictive power becomes less and less the further you go away from the norm.


BrianTung
Posted 09 November 2006 at 07:02 pm

I don't disagree that IQ is correlated with general socio-economic success; however, that's a far cry from saying it has worth as a general measure of intelligence. It seems to me that there is a significant question of causation here: Do high-IQ people succeed in life because of whatever intellectual quality they possess that allows them to score that high, or is it more directly because they score high, and are given more opportunities as a result?

In other words, two different people might perform a given job equally well, but they might go about it in completely different ways, befitting their distinctive intellectual make-up--a distinction that also leads one to score higher on an IQ test than the other. Who do you think will end up getting the job? I'm somewhat sensitive to the subject because I feel that IQ tests and their ilk are used to justify treating people differently in ways that are not really warranted.

As an erstwhile, minor-grade child prodigy, my opinion is that child prodigies are not in and of themselves worthy of contempt. The real danger is that they are cosseted and coddled for nothing else but being child prodigies, and pushed ahead in school by several years on the barest of pretenses. This impresses upon them firmly a disproportionate sense of the worth of their own abilities. But being, say, four years ahead in science and math means very little, if it also means being inserted into the social milieu of college party-goers while you're still prepubescent. Little wonder many of them end up being socially maladjusted and distrustful of others. That need not be their fate--all that's needed is for them to be taught a proper sense of proportion.

(Incidentally, I don't want to get involved in a drawn-out discussion of how to measure physical strength, but my comment about bench-pressing was simply that IQ test scores are often treated as a reliable, consistent measure of one's intellectual abilities. I find them to be an unreliable, inconsistent measure of a very narrow slice of one's intellectual abilities. So long as you know that's what they are, they're OK, but typically people don't recognize that.)


BrianTung
Posted 09 November 2006 at 07:08 pm

sulkykid said: "Yes, however perverted and abusive, these parents did "make" this genius. Consider the probabilities, such geniuses are 1:10,000 (or greater!). The parents' techniques are 1 for 1. Occam's razor says take the 100%, not the .001%."

Small sample size. How many parents have tried to create child prodigies and failed? We don't hear from them, because the results were ordinary. There simply is no known formula for creating geniuses, and besides, it is far from clear that Sidis was any kind of genius, unless by genius, you simply mean someone whose intellectual abilities are quantitatively better than yours or mine. I have a possibly more selective definition of genius: one who can apprehend things that you or I never would, without their assistance, even given a lifetime of training and trying. If, in addition, they have the knack of explaining what they see (or someone around them does), then you and I reap the benefits of their genius without sharing in it directly.


Coherent
Posted 09 November 2006 at 07:41 pm

I'm with BrainTung! His comments pretty much sum up my perspective too.


Tink
Posted 10 November 2006 at 04:28 am

" The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. He began a lifelong policy of vigorously rejecting sex, art, music, or anything else that would distract him from the pursuit of pure knowledge.

Those who knew him spoke of his brilliance and his mastery of over forty languages...There is no telling what William might have accomplished for mathematics and science if only his talents had not been squandered".

Sex, art, music and language , the basic things that make us emotionaly sound humanbeings. So he created himself as a perpetualy horny, unimaginative, rhythmicly challenged bore, who had in his head nearly forty ways to say "I love you"; and not enough heart or soul to gift those words or emotions to another human. How very sad. It is no wonder that he stroked out at such a young age.

I can not help but wonder what kind of training his parents used to break this mans spirit so. The problem he had was not with the press, but deep within himself a critical piece was missing. My suspicion is that the parents used a sadistic form of "tough love" on this infant, withholding affection in exchange for performance. This would create a Pavlovs dog type of mentality, in which ones only reward was to learn more, regardless of the merits of the subject studied.
Afterwards, as an adult he could never find affection, or satisfaction from another person (as who on earth could be smarter or wiser than Mommy Dearest?) And due to his unnatural intelligence he recognised this and resigned himself to a fate sadly worse than death; a life of lonelyness, frustration, and dispair.
DI! article, with plenty of food for thought.


BrianTung
Posted 10 November 2006 at 12:12 pm

Tink said: "Sex, art, music and language , the basic things that make us emotionaly sound humanbeings. So he created himself as a perpetualy horny, unimaginative, rhythmicly challenged bore, who had in his head nearly forty ways to say "I love you"; and not enough heart or soul to gift those words or emotions to another human. How very sad. It is no wonder that he stroked out at such a young age."

I don't see how you can really conclude that he was horny, unimaginative, rhythmically challenged, or boring. It may be tempting to see his life through our own eyes, and find that life emotionally unsatisfying, but I think it's fallacious to do so. There is creativity and imagination in extending Euclid to a fourth dimension on one's own, even if it has been done before--just because it isn't Shakespeare or Beethoven doesn't mean it isn't creative. I think he was unhappy; I just don't think it was because he was lonely or lacked rhythm (really--I think I must have missed something in the article). Rather, I think it was because other people, from his parents to the unrelenting media, had sent him up to fail.

If I sound a little defensive, it's because I think one of the most pernicious notions in popular culture today is that writers, artists, and musicians are creative, emotionally developed, and warm; and scientists and mathematicians are robotic, emotionally stunted, and cold. There's no reason why that should be so, and in fact it isn't so. But I think a lot of gifted children today are made to feel (mostly by peers, but by some adults, too) as though it's true.


Griffin
Posted 10 November 2006 at 02:24 pm

I've studied WJS for sometime now with a curiosity towards how frequent these High IQ individuals pop up in the world. The births of these gifted humans is rare indeed, especially when left to natural methods of conception and development. I doubt that his parents had much impacted on his accelerated brain functioning, rather they simply made data and knowledge available to him. It is unethicial to do a study of such children, but I would be curious on the outcome of a group of 20 or more Sidis type children raised in isolation, but with directed pathways towards knowledge aquistion wide open. They would be outcasts and shunned by "normal" society, but imgine what new knowledge they might be able to open up to the rest of human kind? I'm prompted to this idea by a previous DI article on the deaf Cental American children who developed a new sign language on their own.


Tink
Posted 10 November 2006 at 03:57 pm

BrianTung said: "I don't see how you can really conclude that he was horny, unimaginative, rhythmically challenged, or boring. It may be tempting to see his life through our own eyes, and find that life emotionally unsatisfying, but I think it's fallacious to do so. There is creativity and imagination in extending Euclid to a fourth dimension on one's own, even if it has been done before–just because it isn't Shakespeare or Beethoven doesn't mean it isn't creative. I think he was unhappy; I just don't think it was because he was lonely or lacked rhythm (really–I think I must have missed something in the article). Rather, I think it was because other people, from his parents to the unrelenting media, had sent him up to fail.

If I sound a little defensive, it's because I think one of the most pernicious notions in popular culture today is that writers, artists, and musicians are creative, emotionally developed, and warm; and scientists and mathematicians are robotic, emotionally stunted, and cold. There's no reason why that should be so, and in fact it isn't so. But I think a lot of gifted children today are made to feel (mostly by peers, but by some adults, too) as though it's true."

Thank you Brian,for responding to MHO, you make a valid point, and no you do not sound defensive. I do not feel that scientists and mathematicians are robotic, emotionally stunted, and cold, (some of my best friends are in these fields) it just seemed too sad to me that this boy/man refused the oportunity to experiance the simplier(sp?) joys availiable to all of us; ie: the beauty and wonderment that great art, music and makeing love can give us. Perhaps I was a bit too harsh in my assumptions of his personality traits; in an unimaginative attempt at tongue in cheek humor.... I thusly concede the error and apologise if any one was offended, or felt I was rude as no insult was meant to be implied. Wishing you joy, Tink


BrianTung
Posted 10 November 2006 at 06:30 pm

Griffin said: "I've studied WJS for sometime now with a curiosity towards how frequent these High IQ individuals pop up in the world. The births of these gifted humans is rare indeed, especially when left to natural methods of conception and development. I doubt that his parents had much impacted on his accelerated brain functioning, rather they simply made data and knowledge available to him. It is unethicial to do a study of such children, but I would be curious on the outcome of a group of 20 or more Sidis type children raised in isolation, but with directed pathways towards knowledge aquistion wide open. They would be outcasts and shunned by "normal" society, but imgine what new knowledge they might be able to open up to the rest of human kind? I'm prompted to this idea by a previous DI article on the deaf Cental American children who developed a new sign language on their own."

There's obviously no way to know for sure what would happen, but my personal guess is that the best one could hope for would be something like the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. He learned mathematics in nearly complete isolation from other top-notch mathematicians. Possibly in consequence, he obtained results that perhaps no one else could have--I do consider him to be a genius, incidentally--but Hardy, the British mathematician who is most associated with Ramanujan, wondered in writing whether he would have produced more of consequence had he grown up in a more conventional environment. On the other hand, Hardy felt we would have lost more of what made Ramanujan the particular kind of genius he was, and perhaps that loss would have been greater.

But in general, I feel that genius still needs to interact. Perhaps largely with other talented people in their field, but complete or near-complete isolation does not seem likely to generate greater results. There's a reason why yesterday's breakthrough is tomorrow's ordinary achievement: We progress by building upon the work of others. Science and mathematics are social activities, and even a genius needs to develop a sense of what works and what doesn't.

Of course, that's my opinion. But I feel pretty firm about it. :)


BrianTung
Posted 10 November 2006 at 06:38 pm

Tink said: "Thank you Brian,for responding to MHO, you make a valid point, and no you do not sound defensive. I do not feel that scientists and mathematicians are robotic, emotionally stunted, and cold, (some of my best friends are in these fields) it just seemed too sad to me that this boy/man refused the oportunity to experiance the simplier(sp?) joys availiable to all of us; ie: the beauty and wonderment that great art, music and makeing love can give us. Perhaps I was a bit too harsh in my assumptions of his personality traits; in an unimaginative attempt at tongue in cheek humor…. I thusly concede the error and apologise if any one was offended, or felt I was rude as no insult was meant to be implied."

I was not offended at all--no need to walk on eggshells around me. I merely think that lots of people--not you--have a disparaging view of a special interest in mathematics and science. It is not aptitude that people disdain; it's the interest. I'm curious as to how they suppose aptitude in mathematics and science develops. Granted, the interest and aptitude are causally intertwined--the one feeds off the other--but still, they must be correlated! But kids who are highly interested in those fields are dismissed as nerds or worse. And people wonder why the U.S. lags behind in science and math. (Before someone raises this objection: Our top students can go right up against the top from any other country. Any other. But our underbelly is soft and unprotected.)

I also think that it might be a bit premature to conclude that he rejected the "simpler pleasures" because he felt them to be inferior. Perhaps he rejected them because he found them painful, or did not find them pleasurable after all. There's no question Sidis was a queer duck, so he might not have viewed his own life the way we do today. The interesting question was whether his queer-duckiness was made or just happened.

(Milo: "Made." Oliver: "Just happened.")


defenestrated
Posted 10 November 2006 at 09:13 pm

thatsjustwrong said:

Watson and Crick took most of their ideas from thier assistant, Francis. If she hadn't done most of the work and come up with theories, they wouldn't be famous. I bet her IQ is much higher."

I love how you assumed that the one female scientist (assuming you did mean Rosalind Franklin, "physical chemist and crystallographer," according to Wikipedia) was the assistant. Welcome to the first half of the last century!


Burning
Posted 11 November 2006 at 07:10 am

My comment is coming rather late in the game, but I hope it can give someone a shred of insight.

Brandie said: "To me, the most interesting thing was his comment that all he wanted to do was run an adding machine. Such a brilliant mind and he wanted to do something brainless. "

I used to be a temp worker sitting in a cube and doing repetitious data entry. After doing this a number of months, it became second nature. While I was automatically entering data into a computer, my mind was someplace very different. I'd be contemplating philosophy and whatever else I pleased as I sat and contentedly typed away.

A mindless job can leave the mind to its own devices, which could be exactly what William wanted!


?qi
Posted 13 November 2006 at 05:40 am

3oo? I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did... here... There is a man I don't like much, and his name is Fredrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche devalued the masses by calling them a mass of thorns on the path to becoming a genius. They want to pull everything down to the ordinary, down to their precious little level, he said. So, being a nice kid I scolded the late Nietzche in my skull and in just about every place I could find a fellow philosopher. "People are Precious" was my motto, the genius is worth as much as the ordinary, we all die on the steps of time to fade into nothingness. It is, however, when I read of cases like that of Sidis that I am reminded that I my idealist views are not only a shame and a nightmare to myself, ultimately, but to these people most of all, to the ones who were struck to death by their own brilliance and by a bunch of sheep. The really sad thing? These people, intimidating as they are, are usually the saddest, most caring and thoughtful beings of all the sheep. The pain of realising you will hardly be accepted into ordinary/non-jealousy-filled/ truly equal company is such, such a sad thing. Suspicion, suspicion, the common man sheds it every day for only for a new such skin, does it make way. So, anyway, I was lying in my bed last night and having just a silent moment for Sidis. For people who are blinded by the thought that genius is everything, are, sadly, sickeningly, wrong.


Ironclaw
Posted 13 November 2006 at 07:06 pm

Two items came to my mind:

The brightest bulbs tend to burn out the fastest..

And Gary Larson's The Far Side comic with the pupil in school..
"My brains full, may I go now".


Tink
Posted 15 November 2006 at 08:40 pm

BrianTung said: "I was not offended at all–no need to walk on eggshells around me. I merely think that lots of people–not you–have a disparaging view of a special interest in mathematics and science. It is not aptitude that people disdain; it's the interest. I'm curious as to how they suppose aptitude in mathematics and science develops. Granted, the interest and aptitude are causally intertwined–the one feeds off the other–but still, they must be correlated! But kids who are highly interested in those fields are dismissed as nerds or worse.... But our underbelly is soft and unprotected.)I also think that it might be a bit premature to conclude that he rejected the "simpler pleasures" because he felt them to be inferior. Perhaps he rejected them because he found them painful, or did not find them pleasurable after all. There's no question Sidis was a queer duck, so he might not have viewed his own life the way we do today. The interesting question was whether his queer-duckiness was made or just happened.

(Milo: "Made." Oliver: "Just happened.")"

Thank you, Dear .
Aha! Yes I see your point. Very succinctly said I may add.

I also liked what Burning said:

I used to be a temp worker sitting in a cube and doing repetitious data entry. After doing this a number of months, it became second nature. While I was automatically entering data into a computer, my mind was someplace very different. I'd be contemplating philosophy and whatever else I pleased as I sat and contentedly typed away.

A mindless job can leave the mind to its own devices, which could be exactly what William wanted!

This makes sense too. I've found myself in such a position; making solitude an actual relief in some ways.

And ?qi also made a very good point, but is a bit too long to quote here.

Sooo, let me say that I completly retract my earlier statement and will rethink this "odd duck" through wider eyes. LOL Thank you guys! God, I love this site! :) :) :)


ti83
Posted 16 November 2006 at 10:52 am

This is probably one of the most interesting articles I've read in quite some time. No wonder the man was so weird, people with IQs of 140 have problems with insanity--and it only gets worse as your IQ goes higher. Sheesh.


Jake Brake
Posted 16 November 2006 at 06:33 pm

Those who possess abnormally high intellectual capacity are handicapped, just as people who are developmentally disabled (retarded) or physically disabled. This is for a variety of factors - many of them social - but in everyday life the inability to stop thinking, filter out the vast amount of essentially unimportant stimulus we're bombarded with daily, or relate to the majority of fellow humans who are simply unable to grasp what are relatively simple concepts to the advanced intellect, is an obstacle at best and crippling at worst. Sadly, Sidis is just an extreme example of a fairly common phenomenon.

That is not to say that these obstacles can't be partially or fully overcome, but the "productive genius" is far less common than the self-destructive genius.


Rich
Posted 17 November 2006 at 03:43 am

Sidis was a relative of mine. His mother, Sarah, was my paternal grandfather's sisteer. I remember my grandmother telling me a story or two about William. One is that he was always hungry and never had enough food in his apartment. He would visit them in Revere, MA, and eat them out of house and home. She also recalled picking nits out of his hair, telling me he was never very cleanly. Unfortunately, that's about all the family stories I recall. I was just a kid the few times she mentioned William.

There's a collection of his papers at Swarthmore College outside Philly. My wife and I have two boxes of his stuff - copies of his perpetual calendar including the original pieces of type, some subway transfers, copies of some of his socialist newsletters, and other stuff.

A number of years ago Amy Wallace wrote a book about Sidis - the Prodigy. My father was interviewed for it.

That's about all I can add to the discussion.

Rich


BrianTung
Posted 17 November 2006 at 12:10 pm

The majority of people with IQs over 130 or 140 or 150 (that I know of) are perfectly able to go into "down time" as well as those with lower IQs. What they often suffer from, along with their elevated ability to process three-dimensional figures, is an elevated ability to think highly of themselves. But I wouldn't really call them handicapped. Personally, I think they (well, ahem, we) are able to interact in a non-condescending way. It's by choice that we treat other folks like scum. (Just kidding.)

Again, though, I still think of genius as distinctively different from high IQ. Genius requires a sort of monomaniacal determination that probably does lend itself pretty easily to certain brands of madness. I think it was Emerson who wrote that "Talent does what it can, genius does what it must." That's what I think of genius--it produces the otherwise unproducible because it has no other choice.


Emmy
Posted 17 November 2006 at 11:58 pm

Reading that made me feel suicidal. Thanks.


Emmy
Posted 18 November 2006 at 12:01 am

Reading that made me feel suicidal. Thanks.

Jake Brake said: "Those who possess abnormally high intellectual capacity are handicapped, just as people who are developmentally disabled (retarded) or physically disabled. This is for a variety of factors - many of them social - but in everyday life the inability to stop thinking, filter out the vast amount of essentially unimportant stimulus we're bombarded with daily, or relate to the majority of fellow humans who are simply unable to grasp what are relatively simple concepts to the advanced intellect, is an obstacle at best and crippling at worst. Sadly, Sidis is just an extreme example of a fairly common phenomenon.

That is not to say that these obstacles can't be partially or fully overcome, but the "productive genius" is far less common than the self-destructive genius."

Yeah... This really is like making fun of the retarded kid.


inmyopinion
Posted 19 November 2006 at 12:19 pm

Well now. I do not believe that other people can understand one another so utterly and completely that they might understand 100% what goes on inside them, let alone from an article.

But providing that everything in the article is correct, why are people concluding this extraordinary cognitive ability William Sidis possessed was to blame for his problems?

The article doesnt say he was unhappy when he was studying. It suggests his ATTEMPTED retreat from the publics eye started when his presence at a riot almost got him arrested and the media had a field day picking him to pieces. For a man who seemed to have liked to help people and live in solitude, it would have been harder than for most.

The media makes and breaks their own hero's, dont you know that? It saves the time you would otherwise have to spend on actually locating one.


Tink
Posted 22 November 2006 at 06:03 pm

Rich said: "Sidis was a relative of mine. His mother, Sarah, was my paternal grandfather's sisteer. I remember my grandmother telling me a story or two about William. One is that he was always hungry and never had enough food in his apartment. He would visit them in Revere, MA, and eat them out of house and home. She also recalled picking nits out of his hair, telling me he was never very cleanly. Unfortunately, that's about all the family stories I recall. I was just a kid the few times she mentioned William.


There's a collection of his papers at Swarthmore College outside Philly. My wife and I have two boxes of his stuff - copies of his perpetual calendar including the original pieces of type, some subway transfers, copies of some of his socialist newsletters, and other stuff.

A number of years ago Amy Wallace wrote a book about Sidis - the Prodigy. My father was interviewed for it.

That's about all I can add to the discussion.

Rich"

Wow Rich, thank you for this. That is some cool info!

I have heard before that some of the worlds brightest often have a problem with personal hygiene. I suppose the mind when that highly involved in study, simply forgets about the body. Like an addiction , one can often forget to eat, shop or shower.

Pray tell, are there any other genius's in your family? Of course aside from yourself, I mean. ;-)


Salman
Posted 28 November 2006 at 10:42 am

I can only pity this genius.


jfaughnan
Posted 28 November 2006 at 09:35 pm

Prodigies very often "regress" to mere brilliance. So they move from a one in a million level of performance to merely 1 in a thousand. Prodigality is more a form of accelerated development than it is a form of genius (though the two are not exclusive).

This gentleman may have followed this course. By the time of his mid-20s he would have been very exceptional, but perhaps not much more so than other mathematicians. Productivity also requires more than thinking ability, so his lack of social impact is also not that unusual.

His later course in life suggests some variant of schizophrenia, though with these very high IQ minds I suspect the disorder is complex.

It's cruel to say his talents were squandered. I suspect he did not have much choice in the matter, and even if he'd had no psychiatric illness that by adulthood his talents, though considerable, would no longer have been so unique.


cerebulon
Posted 29 November 2006 at 08:48 am

So if you just kept some guy out in the vaccum of space, how long before he evolved into a new lifeform that could survive in space without a suit? Or would you have to go back to the monkey stage? And just what happened to all those monkeys they shot into orbit? I hope there's not a race of super-evolved space monkeys just waiting to destroy us all! Praise Science!


fimp
Posted 02 December 2006 at 03:11 am

"He discovered that he could mentally calculate the day of the week for any given date in the past or in the future"

That requires no genius, I can do that too. Just a matter of knowing the technique. I guess it does require some genius to figure out the technique on your own.


marios
Posted 03 December 2006 at 08:37 am

Artemis Fowl comes to mind (although I'm quite certain that Sidis wasn't as ruthless as Fowl).


Mez
Posted 03 December 2006 at 11:00 am

I read an article recently in New Scientist magazine. It said that many people like the concept of "genius" as something you either have or don't, so that they don't feel so inadequate in comparison, since they simply weren't born a genius and there's nothing that can be done about it. The article said that conversely, "geniuses" are really people who simply have the willpower to persevere to the extreme in whatever their field of expertise is, a notion which is far less comforting to "non-geniuses", because it implies that our own lack of exceptional successes is our own fault and laziness.

On the other hand, this view can be seen as merely putting the focus on the genetic basis of "genius" on an innate surplus of "willpower", rather than "intelligence".


fakeusername
Posted 08 December 2006 at 04:13 pm

I have to wonder if he was affected by Asperger's or some other level of the autistic spectrum. He seemed socially retarded.


Tyler
Posted 12 December 2006 at 02:12 pm

This is one of the saddest stories I've ever read. What a waste. Still, I find that I have nothing but sympathy for the poor man. Social pressure can be a crippling thing.


Ronom
Posted 15 December 2006 at 07:14 pm

this guy was a monster...

Maybe he should have chosen a single area.


Aero
Posted 20 December 2006 at 12:20 am

I notice how everone double speaks(actually double writes) when they post something on this blog. To look smart?

Anyways, I think that rather than IQ, work kind of measures how smart you are. Some autistic people are considered smart, because they have no social skills, and spend all their time studying. And at school for instance, whose considered smart, the boy with an iq of 153 or the kid taking calc bc and biology with the sophmores in a private school in 9th grade?
The boy taking calc obviously, and all the famous people who helped society were not only smart, but hardworking. They didn't go "I want to invent this" and poof, it was invented. Rather, it was Thomas Edison, who worked very hard in making the lightbulb. It took hard work in dedication. My opinion is that not only IQ, but also alot of other thing factor in to measure your intelligence. For instance, whose going to do better on the math test, the 153 IQ boy or the Calc boy?


Erados
Posted 01 March 2007 at 02:25 pm

I'm supposed to have an IQ of 148 or 150, but I make less-than-average grades, and so on. The only good things I've noticed about myself is that I understand how people think, and so I can usually expect what someone is going to do before they do it. I can also easily lead conversations into the area I want them to be in, which is great in school when the teacher tends to go off-track.
Someone told me once that loads of people are geniuses, but it's far less often that a genius is motivated enough to work for anything. I'm not saying I'm a genius (I don't think of myself as one) but I can say that I'm not motivated enough to do ANYTHING besides talk a lot in class and... I'm gonna stop here before I decide to erase all this. :P


qpernukl
Posted 21 March 2007 at 09:47 pm

I have thought a lot about sidis. The number 300 is just so amazing an IQ. However, it is misleading because our culture on values a certain kind of logical, scientific thinking. There are other ways to be smart: socially, environmentally, etc, which have not been measured. In these areas, sidis would have scored pathetically low. It is not because of his high IQ.

Another point.. Besides being awe-inspiring, having a high IQ has little or no value. In fact, if nature has taught us anything it is that intelligence is actually bad for life on earth. With no nearby planets to inhabit and no where to go, all that are intelligence has gotten us is a planet suffering from global warming, nuclear profileration, etc. There is no IQ high enough to devise travel off the planet earth. Therefore, what real practical value does high intelligence has. I'd argue that it is better to be like the dolphins or the elephants, who are very intelligent, but are also content with what nature has given them; they don't fill the need to create.

One last point. Imagine a world where everyone has an IQ of 300 like sidis. In such a world, every normal person of today would be considered mentally challenged. Sidis would just have an average intelligence. How would the world be different? Would they develop more deadly weapons? Would they build bigger, more sophisticated houses? Would they need more energy to power their society? Would they have destroyed the planet in the 1500's instead of the 21st century? Intelligence is little without morality and values. Don't pine over the intelligence of sidis. Find your oneness with the earth, live with her in peace and content. If in your life you are able to love openly, you will be far more intelligent than sidis, who had trouble loving his own family.


pogmog
Posted 13 April 2007 at 09:04 pm

1c3d0g said: "Joee: and you have…50? Thought so.

Hmm…IINM isn't 158 or higher the barrier that someone is officially recognized as a "genius"? Nevertheless, very interesting story. 40+ languages! Damn! And I have trouble learning a fifth… :-/"

Some people barley can speak one language properly.

The people that ruined his life most probably have an IQ


pogmog
Posted 13 April 2007 at 09:06 pm

an IQ less than 100


Emmy
Posted 22 June 2007 at 12:21 pm

And the moral of this story?

The media is retarded.


furiouslycurious
Posted 31 July 2007 at 06:14 am

A classic example of how our narrow-minded society can impair one's ability to focus intelligence on their own individual goals.

I wonder what would have happened if William himself raised a child??


wasnr
Posted 21 August 2007 at 02:44 pm

wow, this is the saddest article I've read here. what most unfortunate circumstances for such a gifted person.


Kao_Valin
Posted 23 August 2007 at 08:42 am

I can't really say anything about the boy's character or if he really had a game going on in his own head. I will add that we are not entitled to benifit from other's abilities. The only way his life was a waste is if we learned nothing from his life.

It seems to me his reputation preceeded him far too much. His skill became who he was, and no one cared about much else. Hard to be a person when you are nothing but an icon. He had never lived as a person long enough to know how to be one.

I would've liked the chance to befriend him. It seems like he needed someone in his corner to help beat back the prying eyes. I find it interesting that there is all this information about his life, but it seems no one really KNEW him. That to me seems to be the real tragedy of his death.


Alx_xlA
Posted 29 September 2007 at 04:41 pm

An IQ of 300 means (roughly) one person of every ten quintillion (10 000 000 000 000 000) or one with 16 zeroes after it. That means that it will be trillions of years before another person with his intelligence will walk the... Well, whatever planet people will be walking on in the future. If humans are even walking anymore. Or if they exist.


Jeff☠Relf
Posted 04 November 2007 at 10:17 am

To a large extent, education obviates the need for money.
Further, more educated nations can afford a lower birth rate.
William J. Sidis was nothing, if not educated.

At his 1919 trial, when he was 21,
he said something like: “ Evolution is my God. ”.

Q. What did that get him ?

A. A year of torture in his dad's mental institution
plus a year of house arrest in California.
[ According to Bill Sidis,
he was ruthlessly tortured both day and night ]

I too say “ Evolution is my God. ”,
so I highly appreciate Sidis' public assertion.
Society needs more people like him, I maintain.

Q. Why did Stalin ( and, to a lesser extent, Bush and Clinton )
Lord ( like “ Gods ” ) over
proverbial and/or litteral “ death camp forced labor ” ?

A. To promote their genes.

Is it any wonder than, that Sidis was a “ Consciencious Objector ” ?

As I see it,
forwarding one's genes does not constitute a genuine purpose,
it's merely --> something that happened
.+.+.+


Jeff☠Relf
Posted 04 November 2007 at 10:21 am

[ Continuing my earlier comment ]

...otherwise we wouldn't be here. Sidis got it right.

Compared to the above logic,
the Bible's views are childish and less beneficial to humanity.

Sidis only lent his name to one book:
“ The Animate and the Inanimate ”.

From the book:
“ if we come to the conclusion that the second law of thermodynamics
is fundamentally based on a conceptual illusion,

it would be just as logical to admit
the same possibility for the other physical laws,

in which case the theory of the reversibility of the universe
would almost carry with it its own retaliation,
since the reversible physical laws are the foundation of that theory.

If observed facts can be explained in one case as
a conceptual illusion, why not in another case ? ”.

Here, Sidis' theory was wrong.

What Sidis didn't know ( and couldn't have known ) was that,
because outer-reaches of our observable Universe
are expanding away from us faster than light, we'll never see them.

The cosmos is forever cooling, I assume,
and exploitable energy is constantly diminishing.

In other words, the second law of thermodynamics,
like all the laws of physics, is truly cosmic in scope.

“ Life ” is merely a form of consumption,
there's nothing special about the temperature that habors water,
and life will continue to evolve
no matter how cold and dark the cosmos becomes.

Returning to Sidis' comment: “ Evolution is my God. ”,
people only worship rich dudes, I imagine.
If you got money, you're their lord.

We lick the crap off the rich dude's boots,
and then jump the homeless, drug addled thief, to cull the herd.

But, as we worship the rich and cull the weak, let's not forget:
consuming more just means dying that much sooner.

If it wasn't for ignorance, we'd see time for what it really is:
a spatial dimension; but, thanks to ignorance, time seems directional,
when, in fact, the future is just as fixed as the past.

For more on this, see:
http://WikiPedia.ORG/wiki/Eternalism_(philosophy_of_time) ”.


Jeff☠Relf
Posted 05 November 2007 at 01:42 am

Oops... the link above is broken, make that:
http://WikiPedia.ORG/wiki/Eternalism_%28philosophy_of_time%29 ”.


Jeff☠Relf
Posted 05 November 2007 at 01:54 am

Hmm... I can't submit comments using FireFox 2.0 and:
“ userContent.CSS ” in “ http://www.Cotse.NET/users/jeffrelf/Games.ZIP ”.

The Previewer isn't faithful to the final outcome.
Also, I doubt that these tags work:


joe2005
Posted 25 December 2007 at 12:07 pm

Bellows is a good writer and wrote an interesting article. There does exist a difficulty, however, that the data within the article is mostly based on Amy Wallace's book "The Prodigy", which was not very accurate with its information. The 250-300 IQ claim may have begun as an exaggeration by Helena Sidis, William's sister. "The Prodigy" stated that Abraham Sperling personally gave William Sidis the IQ test, but Sperling stated in his own writing "The Story of Genius" that Helena told him a psychiatrist had given William the test and that the psychiatrist estimated the IQ to be about 250-300. Sperling's comment was based on hearsay, and it is unknown what reference that "The Prodigy" used for its version, or if "The Prodigy" simply invented the claim. To my knowledge there still does not exist any evidence nor first-hand record of William Sidis' IQ score. Nevertheless, no known adult IQ test can measure with reasonable accuracy above approximately 140-150 today (99.9%+-), and none existed in the 1940s. The older version of IQ testing that used the formula of IQ=mental age x chronological age was useful for measuring children, and a 250-300 IQ score can be reasonably valid for children, but not for adults. Nevertheless, IQ scores do not accurately reflect intelligence, and neither can an IQ score be used for the claim that William Sidis was the smartest man on earth. Sidis may have been the smartest man on earth, we will never know, but an IQ score will not be the deciding factor.

Many speculations exist about Sidis, very few of which are based on evidence. The most damaging of speculations have been the interpretations of prodigious talents by individuals who are not themselves a prodigy and therefore cannot recognize why some prodigies make some choices in life. Also, very seldom are questions asked of the prodigy himself, and it is wrong to invent answers for questions never asked. It is an error to invent a claim about anyone or anything without sufficient evidence.

http://www.angelfire.com/home/sesquiq/2007sesquiqmyths.html


Anthropositor
Posted 30 April 2008 at 01:55 pm

This story is not news to me. It actually played a part in the formation of a theory of mine, which I have not actively refined or polished, because its' consequences are not pleasant for me to contemplate.

I got goaded into taking the Mensa qualification tests in the early eighties. My life at that time could have been termed "gregariously reclusive." On the night before the battery of tests, I partied hard, something which was quite uncommon for me. After about three hours of sleep, I blearily went to the testing location feeling two things: that I was going to fail, and a simultaneous sense of relief. Anyway, it was quite a good situation. I was certainly in no condition to come out well on the test, and my annoying Mensa buddies would be defeated. It was their position that, though most of my education was in the library and used book stores, there was a high chance I would score well. This would prove them wrong. It would settle the matter.

So I went and relaxed, had fun with the tests, and went home quite confident of failure. In retrospect, I should have had less fun, and paid attention to what I was doing. I failed to fail.

Okay, so I made the best of it, even going so far as to attend a half dozen Mensa banquets. (Having had some lean times as a youth, I an a soft touch for a banquet or Buffet. But I was out of place. Sort of a novelty among the PhD.'s and postdocs, whereas my formal education had fragments of eighth and ninth grade, and maybe even a few weeks of tenth.

It is that out-of-placeness that struck me more than anything else.

Mr. Sidis was a tragic figure because he was so precocious before he had discovered the need for not drawing attention to himself. He was a public figure before he was out of boyhood.

Another example, whose name I no longer recall, is another obvious example. He was the subject of a 20-20 Downtown segment, sort of a news magazine style TV show. This could have been eight or ten years ago, yet the stroke of a few years ago hasn't seemed to fog out the show, other than his name. They had billed him as the man with the one-in-a-million IQ. That's what really caught my attention. I wanted to know how it worked out for him to have shown those three extra orders of magnitude on his ratio to the population. And my first thought was that it was great that they didn't just slap an IQ number on him, A number that pretends greater precision and meaning than it has. But that didn't work out. They did actually mention his numerical IQ during the story.

He was being interviewed by a young lady who clearly displayed the perspective that anything this guy said HAD to be right. He was just to smart for it to be otherwise. That did not bode well for the interview.

At one point he said that if there was more than a forty point spread between the IQ's of two people, communication between the two was not possible. which was patent nonsense. Then they showed some stuff on his computer screen which he was writing. Seemed sort of nonsensical to me. But to this young reporter, it was without question probably something great, and cosmically important. As far as I could tell, this guy had never actually done anything with his talent. His employment was as a bouncer in a topless bar.

The story was pretty sparse beyond that. I had hoped she would ask him if he had an eidetic memory. Lot's of folks appear to be pretty bright just because they can remember great volumes of data.

Now I'm not saying a good memory isn't useful, but in some ways, it may actually be a liability in terms of inventiveness and creativity.

The thing to remember is that intelligence is not an end in and of itself. It is just the means to accomplish creative and inventive things with greater facility. Geniuses are actually less likely to gather great wealth, or attain high office, or do anything truly notable, than those bright people closer to the norms of intelligence. The exceptionally brilliant are, more often than not, not suited well to getting along in the real world. If they have any sense at all, they carefully watch out what ideas they choose to announce to others. Sounds selfish, I know. But Giordano Bruno would not have been burned at the stake without the benefit of the pre-strangulation which was considerately provided the usual crop of heretics. He spoke out of turn, and would not shut up.


drogulous
Posted 20 July 2008 at 07:11 am

To me it is a shame that success in life seems so frequently thought of in terms of publicly noted achievements. I think real success comes in the forms of things such as close relationships, mental and spiritual maturity, wisdom and happiness; none of which are publicly noted per se.

Maybe his parents should have considered that from the start - it's not as if it's a new thought.


JesseA
Posted 17 June 2009 at 09:02 pm

I haven't read an actual biography. I am wondering why we assume that he burned out? I read that he didn't want to be around people so much. He wanted to avoid the press, and he wanted to avoid the pressure, and pursue things that way he wanted to.

Why do we assume that people who we acknowledge are smarter than us are always making bad decisions and need our guidance? Why do we assume that they have a burden to make use of their intelligence in ways that we will appreciate?

I'm not saying that being smart is being correct. I'm actually not saying anything. These are questions that I've learned to ask subsequent to my mother telling me that I would be wasting myself if I pursued what I was telling her I was going to. "You could be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer!" If you think of something better than those maybe you could tell my mom? Don't forget to realize that people at NASA are engineers, most politicians are lawyers, and being a brain surgeon isn't overlooked by the category doctor.


Archidemes
Posted 12 April 2012 at 02:27 am

The young Sidis had extraordinary talents.A boy who was pushed over his limits.He thought he was GOD,Alien_out of this universe.Although his intellectual abilities were exceptional,James knew nothing about the universe.Hiss brain was overflowing with information,which could have been used for advancing Earth.James was amazing fellow.He died a cruel death,because of those who were close to him_the press,his proud parents,his unworthy friends.This proves the fact that pride comes before a fall,and goes after a fall;those who are truly our friends will always motivate us.


alotascott
Posted 11 July 2014 at 12:52 pm

I can't help wondering...is there any reason to think that he didn't live his life exactly the way he wanted to, and happily so? I mean, just because he had so much potential, doesn't mean he would have been happy utilizing it the way society might expect him to. His lack of achievements, may not have anything at all to do with his upbringing or the media attention or any other external force, and it seems possible that the direction his life took was simply a matter of free will. ..And probably a very very educated choice at that. I doubt it's even possible for the average genius to even begin to understand all of the motives and reasoning that would come with an IQ in the 300's.

damn interesting article! Thank you so much for hosting one the best spots on the web..


Austin Long
Posted 10 August 2014 at 12:12 am

I think that Sidis's main problem was that he was more interested in economics, politics and social issues than he was mathematics and science. His beliefs were really radical for his time (libertarian, leftist, anti-war, pro-democratic beliefs) and it got him arrested once and according to him his parents were constantly trying to reform him and sent him to a sanatorium.

There is a man at the moment called Noam Chomsky who is brilliant at linguistics and many other academic subjects but he mostly just wants to do social and political work. The only difference between Chomsky and Sidis in this regard is that Chomsky's beliefs aren't considered radical today so people actually listen to him. Also Chomsky didn't die abruptly and has had more time to live and share his knowledge.


Jim King
Posted 26 August 2014 at 01:16 pm

1c3d0g said: "Joee: and you have...50? Thought so.

Hmm...IINM isn't 158 or higher the barrier that someone is officially recognized as a "genius"? Nevertheless, very interesting story. 40+ languages! Damn! And I have trouble learning a fifth... :-/"

Ah, the old humblebrag.


Dave Nielsen
Posted 26 August 2014 at 04:35 pm

A ~300 IQ simply means a remarkably high intelligence. I don't think anyone takes it to mean anything more than that."

Of course, 300 was just a wild guess by one man, and even if true doesn't mean much. Einstein's IQ (estimated, and after his death, so basically also meaningless) was thought to be "only" 160 but his contributions were obviously enormous. But, then, like other great geniuses he combined high intelligence with creativity - you've got to have both. There's little evidence Sidis had the latter too.


william j sidis
Posted 09 November 2014 at 04:54 pm

How do lesser minds dare criticize his "lack of contribution" to society? He might have in turn criticized a society too materialistic and dull to understand his subtle contributions - did he not baffle Harvard audiences at an early age? Or perhaps he would have been stymied by the absurdity of a human being contributing anything, being barely larger or longer lived than a gnat in the grand scheme of things. Or baffled by the idea of an imaginary "society" that can somehow use such "contributions", realizing that a real, lasting, meaningful, balanced civilization is something that may develop in the future, but certainly has not come into existence yet.

Perhaps he was so much separate from the lesser lemmings that they did not have the capacity to benefit from his superior intellect. Though, especially in our computer age, the value of memorizing languages or theorems can be seen for what it is - mere data.

Personally I tend to believe that the intelligence of all humans is more or less equal, its what you do with it that counts. The brain is just a bunch of cells, if you exercise those cells learning languages or working math problems, you are going to get a different result than if you spend your time alternating between pounding a hammer and drinking lots of alcohol. But starting intellect is about the same. Just as most humans start life with four limbs, two eyes, etc, and are usually between 5 and 6 feet tall as adults, so most humans start with more or less the same brain, on average. Here's the kicker: Who can judge what is a valuable use of time, and what is a waste? True story: One guy in Ohio invented both leaded gasoline and CFC's. The idiots of the press and many supposedly less idiotic persons lauded him as a genius during his lifetime, it was only later discovered that these inventions were very, very bad things.

Perhaps Sedis' greatest contribution was that he withdrew from society, got a boring, repetitive job, and did not use his intellect to conjure up some technological demon from hell that would make the hydrogen bomb look like a water balloon.

Maybe when you reach the nth dimensional spacetime destination of perfect intelligence, you discover that the hermit's cave is the best place to be.

wjs


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