William James Sidis

I did a series on Billy Sidis 6-7 years ago which might please this group. I am posting the first essay, and linking to the others, partly because the comments under some of them were also interesting. In particular the argument with the person who insisted that my takedown of the “1867 Harvard Entrance Exam,” that circulates on the internet from time to time, was invalid brought in some rousing discussion. Please comment on any of those here rather than there, as only I will see your ideas otherwise.

I think the story of Billy Sidis, the purported prodigy with the highest IQ (250-300) ever known, is mostly fraudulent.

I first read about William James Sidis in the pages of Gift of Fire in the late 80’s. GoF was the journal of the Prometheus Society, a discussion group for those with measured IQ over 164. Amy Wallace’s book on Sidis, The Prodigy, had just come out, and Grady Towers took the opportunity to bring us up to speed on the early 20th C brilliant but eccentric child. That essay, “The Outsiders,” is perhaps the best known of the articles to come out of the High-IQ societies. Its primary topic is the increasing difficulty of adjustment individuals experience the further from norm they are. Terman’s studies in the 40’s of gifted individuals showed that those above 140 IQ were better adapted than average. Grady looked harder at the data and decided that those from 140-150 were better adjusted than average, but beyond that things steadily worsened. The greater frequency of those from 140-150 masked the data of the few from say, 170-180.

It was perhaps inevitable that Grady would gravitate to the subject of Sidis. Grady qualified for the next society up, the Mega Society, for those with one-in-a-million IQ, cutoff 176. He had been a prodigy himself, almost completing a PhD in Anthropology at age 20, but by the time I knew him (via journal and correspondence), he was usually homeless, working odd jobs across the Southwest, writing on borrowed typewriters and sending mathematical proofs – usually number theory – to whoever would have them. He was murdered horribly in 2000 while working as a security guard. I liked corresponding with him.

I ran across a stray mention of William James Sidis while reading about the Pennacook Indians. (He had believed their tribal decision-making methods had deeply influenced the New England Founding Fathers, and hence the Constitution. Pure bunkum, to be discussed below.) I remembered the story, but not the name, and I thought I recalled that it was Gift of Fire, and Grady, where I had learned of Sidis. As I tried to get to the bottom of the story of the prodigy, I wondered if G Towers had uncovered some little-known source and had inside information on the boy who went to Harvard at 11, but spent much of his adult life collecting and classifying streetcar transfers and being rescued by his parents.

Alas, not so. Grady’s info was pretty clearly drawn from Wallace’s biography of Sidis. I have read only scraps of that, but she clearly has taken what Sidis and his family have claimed about him at face value. She wants to believe the tragic narrative of prodigy who just couldn’t adjust, nor the world adjust to him. There was a time when I preferred that narrative, too. I fancied myself a prodigy, and could cherry-pick data to prove to you that it was true. But it wasn’t. I was a very smart, creative child who was also arrogant and self-centered. No more than that. But the desire to be one of those – one of those special children who would show up occasionally in magazines, or on “I’ve Got A Secret,” or in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” – is very sweet. It provides a ready excuse for anyone not liking you, or you not fitting in. If you are that smart, then of course it is the school that has failed, not you, when you screw up.

Sidis’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, she a physician, he one of the first psychiatrists, though a bit out of the mainstream. Certainly the type of people who you’d expect might have a prodigy. They seemed to have expected it as well. Boris Sidis had educational theories about how to raise children to be geniuses. How convenient to have one, eh?

The articles about Billy, including in Wikipedia, generally acknowledge that some claims about him were misunderstood, or even bogus. Yet they generally credit his prodigy status as essentially true. I did run across another doubter at a site called The Logics. I don’t know anything about the writer (though I am certainly well-disposed to him right off the bat), so there’s no implied endorsement of the site, which seems pretty extensive. I will give my reasons for doubting the claims about Sidis sometime this week, but the sneak preview should be obvious. There are numerous stories, many of which are quite plausible, about William James Sidis. The hard evidence behind them seems elusive. He was clearly quite intelligent. But the evidence that he was a genius…?

Baseball history fans may have had the story of Moe Berg occur to them while reading all this.  A lot more examination has been done on him, but I may have some fun with that later as well.

William James Sidis – The Doubt
Prodigy – Sidis Part III
About That Harvard Exam
But What If It’s True?

15 thoughts on “William James Sidis”

  1. I have never been very impressed by people who join Mensa and boast about their own intelligence,

    The one real prodigy I know of was James Clerk Maxwell, who described phenomena that have survived as major insights into Physics.

    His formal schooling began unsuccessfully under the guidance of a 16 year old hired tutor. Little is known about the young man hired to instruct Maxwell, except that he treated the younger boy harshly, chiding him for being slow and wayward.[23] The tutor was dismissed in November 1841 and, after considerable thought, Maxwell was sent to the prestigious Edinburgh Academy.[24] He lodged during term times at the house of his aunt Isabella. During this time his passion for drawing was encouraged by his older cousin Jemima.[25]

    The 10 year old Maxwell, having been raised in isolation on his father’s countryside estate, did not fit in well at school.

    His first scientific paper was delivered by his tutor as he was too young.

    He wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 14. In it he described a mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of twine, and the properties of ellipses, Cartesian ovals, and related curves with more than two foci. His work “Oval Curves” was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by James Forbes, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh,[11][30] because Maxwell was deemed too young to present the work himself.[31] The work was not entirely original, since René Descartes had also examined the properties of such multifocal ellipses in the 17th century, but he had simplified their construction.

    I went to college on scholarship but struggled for a while as I was too immature. I have thought back that I would have done better to go into the Marines as two high school friends did. I hope my younger son does the same with his son.

    Colleges are hostile to boys now and more maturity is even more important.

  2. more rare than some think, but not too hard to think of: Terry Tao, Anthony Gatto, Bobby Fischer, Lee Chang-ho…

  3. The stories that Mozart was a child prodigy are mostly myths. His father did most of the composing, and the early compositions weren’t good.

    Here’s a talk from Gladwell from about a decade ago on the subject


    Skip to 9 minutes to avoid the long winded intro. At about 20 – 22 minutes he gets into the heart of the matter, the Genius Revisted study of Hunter College prodigies. Highly gifted children are good at mimicry. At some point they have to make the leap to creativity, the “prodigy midlife crisis,” and this is the big speed bump most can’t make it past.

    I’m not a huge fan of Gladwell. His 10,000 hour rule has been somewhat debunked. It’s only valid for pursuits with rigid rules and structures, and it’s not applicable to dynamic and variable fields such as entrepreneurship. I also don’t quite agree with the conclusions drawn in the last 5 minutes of this video.

    Gladwell seems to think that having gifted programs offends the self-esteem of less gifted students. I’m not too worried about offending them, and I think a struggle against adversity is what many kids lack these days. He’s right that our fixation on prodigies does have something to do with our need to identify patterns and make predictions. However, it may also have something to do with our penchant for worshiping youth as a wellspring of some lost ideals. If insights or breakthroughs can come from children then they must be more pure or real or something.

  4. I would nominate John Von Neumann myself. I used to include Tao, but while his intelligence is enormous, it is strange by most standards. He was relieved to no longer have to take non-mathematical courses at school. When asked to write an essay on “What is going on at your house?” for an English class, he was only able to list the objects in the home.

    There are distinctions between intelligence, cleverness, information, wisdom, etc. When IQ is mentioned, the popular tendency is to think that the speaker is referring to all of these at once, and the spirit rightfully rebels against that. When it is treated narrowly, as a measure of candlepower isolated from other qualities such as effort, perspective, or a hundred other qualities, it is a useful measure. It has better predictive value than other attributes. The SAT is essentially an IQ test and has better predictive value for college success, especially in the hard sciences, than grades, recommendations, awards, or interviews.

    Some of this is discussed in the links.

    BTW, most geniuses are autodidacts. Not all, but plenty.

  5. I would also include Feynmann. I would love to have had him as a Physics prof at CalTech but I did not have the money for tuition and had to take a scholarship to a lesser college.

    Feynmann was working on The Manhattan Project at 17.

  6. Mike,

    My brother was at CalTech from 1965-1971. BS Physics and MS Solid State Physics.
    In 1971 when he graduated and went to work for Intel, I helped him move* to Santa Clara.
    As a reward, he gave me a set of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics.

    *All I did was drive his ’63 vette north for him, he drove the rental truck. I got
    there first ;)

  7. “he gave me a set of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics.”

    I have a set and the audio recordings.

    I had my dorm room set and the scholarship I was counting on didn’t come through. I was too dumb then to call or write and ask if they had other sources for tuition. They might have had but I’ll never know.

    So I went to USC on scholarship but it had a weak Engineering school. Good football team.

    I also went though medical school on scholarship but worked as an engineer for a couple of years in between.

    I would have been too early for Feynmann but could have gone back to see him.

  8. I think that raw intelligence, divorced from wisdom and practically, is not that valuable or interesting.

    Sure, I value a lot of what I’ve heard from Kratman, esr, and the late Denbeste. Among others. That’s not just the high intelligence, but also the observation, the data collection, the analysis, and the constant testing and sanity checking.

    A much rarer degree of high intelligence is boring combined with dysfunctional insanity or with dishonesty. An intelligent cheat can hide fraud so well that it is very difficult to find anything of trustworthy value.

    I used to be more interested in genius and rare intelligence.

    I still think a broad deep knowledge base is interesting. That is something that is limited by time. And success developing it is a child does not always predict success developing it as an adult.

    Autodidact may be necessary, but I suspect it is not sufficient. You need autodidact qualities to learn stuff that no one has prepared a lesson plan for. But for some things lessons others have prepared are good enough, may be faster than self teaching, and early on you haven’t developed the organization for self teaching.

    When I was young, I thought I was smart, and thought I was ahead of my age group. Key piece of evidence was the times when I would hear something from adults, repeat it back with the obvious next step, and be told that this was new to them. If this was intelligence, it was intelligence with creativity. That sort of result could also be pure creativity or pure insanity.

Comments are closed.