12 December 2010

The most intelligent man in the world

The works of William Sidis (1898 – 1944 )

William James Sidis, born in Boston in 1898 to Russian émigré Boris, a psychologist and his wife Sarah, a physician, showed astonishing intellectual qualities from an exceptionally early age. By the age of one he had learned to spell in English. He taught himself to type in French and German at four and by the age of six had added Russian, Hebrew Turkish and Armenian to his repertoire. At five he devised a system which could enable him to name the day of the week on which any date in history fell. Hot-housed by his pushy father, Sidis entered Harvard at eleven, and was soon lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to the University’s Maths Society. At twelve he suffered his first nervous breakdown, but recovered at his father’s sanatorium, and after returning to Harvard, graduated with first class honours in 1914, aged just sixteen. Law School followed and by the age of twenty Sidis had become a professor of maths at Texas Rice Institute.

It was then that his troubles began . Looking back at his social gaucheness, hatred of crowds, physical awkwardness and obsessions, it seems very probable that Sidis suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. But decades before the condition was recognised his eccentricities and aloofness were put down to arrogance. His good looks didn’t help him and he was teased by his female students, especially when he pronounced publicly that he would never marry and intended to live the rest of his life in seclusion.

With Sidis, as with most freaks of nature, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Take his IQ. It has been assessed at above 250 ( Einstein’s is reckoned at around 168), whereas modern psychologists insist that IQs over 170 cannot be measured. I read somewhere that he could learn a new language in a day and it has been reported that he was familiar with 200 languages. This seems unlikely. The popular image of him as reclusive comptometer operator whose main hobby was collecting tram transfers—is a travesty of the truth. Only in recent years has the true extent of Sidis’s genius emerged. Far from wasting his life in menial jobs, nerdy hobbies, and idle speculation, Sidis was a prolific writer, who at his death aged just 46 of a cranial haemorrhage, left behind a catalogue of significant contributions to cosmology , applied maths, transport system theory, anthropology and linguistics—all of which suggest that he had a wider intellectual range than did Leonardo.

Some projects remained in manuscript form at his death, including a grammar and an artificial language (Vendergood), but Sidis published four substantial books, many newspaper articles, papers in journals and typewritten newsletters. And it seems there are even ‘ important ‘ collectors of Sidisiana, ‘ three in America and two in Europe , all quite bright and some quite young ‘, according to the American dealer Jay Dillon, an acknowledged specialist in the field.

But there are problems for any collector starting out. All but one of the four books are pseudonymous. For instance, his debut, Passaconaway in the White Mountains, a scholarly work on Native American history, appeared in 1916 under the pseudonym William Edward Beals Jr. Jay Dillon reports that this ‘ uncommon ‘ book went for $305 on E bay minus its jacket and he himself is asking a tentative $1,400 for a jacketed copy (‘practically unheard of ‘, says Dillon).

His second published book and his undoubted masterpiece, The Animate and the Inanimate, which is credited to ‘ William James Sidis ‘ was the first of the three works published by Dorrance, a leading ‘ vanity press ‘in Philadelphia. In this disquisition on cosmology, an abiding interest since childhood, he theorised about the existence of positive and negative sections of space and suggested that:
‘ what little radiant energy would be produced in the negative section of space would be pseudo-teleologically directed only towards stars which have enough activity to absorb it, and no radiant energy, or almost none, would actually leave the negative section of space…’

Sounds familiar ? Sidis was just 27 when he predicted the existence of what we now know as ‘ black holes’. According to Maggs, who sold a copy inscribed to Dr Percival Gerson not too long ago for £5,000 ( it would be nice to know if Stephen Hawking bought it ) only nine copies are known to exist. Dillon admits to having sold four copies since 2001.

In total contrast Sidis, a year later, brought out a more personal magnum opus. Notes on the Collection of Transfers, by ’Frank Folupa’ was a misnomer if there ever was one, since this is no dull Shire Guide type booklet of recycled hobbyist guff, but a work of Ph D quality and length in which not a single aspect of the subject is neglected. The style of the writing and the almost obsessive factual detail is characteristic of someone with AS. Most memorable is the description of how frozen transfers might be rescued from impacted ice and restored.

Sidis’ last published book was another considerable contribution to transportation systems research. In 1936 his Collisions in Street and Highway appeared under the name of Barry Mulligan . This was an accomplished, highly detailed analysis comprising 332 ‘ topics ‘which thanks to the author’s penetrating mind, are far from being dull reading. A copy with dust jacket of this scarce and sought after title would set you back at least $1,000.

Although he was to publish no more books Sidis spent the rest of his life adding to his epic The Tribes and the States, a history of the relationship between the colonial States and the Native Americans, which lay unfinished at his early death. Since then it has been edited and published in paperback and copies are easily available online for around $20.


[Thanks Robin for adding this info to the world. The explorer and writer Richard Burton is said to have learned 25 languages and forty dialects, but Sidis seems to have been in another league. That's William, above, as a boy. Competence in many languages is not all that rare and does not always indicate genius but lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to a university society while still in short trousers is the clincher... There is a good book on Sidis by Amy Wallace called 'The Prodigy' (1986) Among other stories it recounts that after a prepared talk at Harvard age 14 , when the audience applauded William turned from the podium and broke into hysterical giggles. Am now actively looking out for stuff by this many named genius.]


Edwin Moore said...

Absolutely fascinating - this man is completely new to me, thanks Robin and Nigel.

Anonymous said...

First read the Sidis story on the personal blog of another rather smart fellow who was coming to terms with how society deals with the best among us. His name was Julian Assange.

Anonymous said...

I bought a copy of "The Animate and the Inanimate" about ten years ago at a library sale in Florida not knowing what it was, but that it looked interesting. Sold it privately about a month later, very pleased with myself.

Grimmalf said...

Fascinating man, where can I learn more about him?

John Leavitt said...

Let's hope for Project Gutenberg copies in 9 years.

HoopyFrood42 said...

He is mentioned in Robert M. Pirisg's book Lila, the follow up to Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

If you go here http://www.amazon.com/Lila-Inquiry-Morals-Robert-Pirsig/dp/0553299611 and then do a search for Sidis on the left it should bring up the passage.

HoopyFrood42 said...

Sorry, try this link

Hansi Wang said...

Robin: I'm a producer with NPR News, and I would like to schedule an interview with you about your post on William Sidis. Feel free to reach me at hwang@npr.org.

Anonymous said...


I recently purchased a copy of Passaconaway in the White Mountains and discovered in the front pages that it was a Christmas gift dated Dec 25 1916 from Charles E Beals wife Nellie to a local family. I am curious how William Sidis was connected in the first place as the author of this book. I cannot seem to track down this information anywhere. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Passaconaway said...

Sidis did not write Passaconaway in the White Mountains. Nellie was Charles. E. Beals Jr’s Mother. He wrote the book. The Beals’ had a cottage in Passaconaway, NH (just as it says in the book) . I know the family and I have an original manuscript of the book. I think it is plausible that the Sr. Beals (father) knew Sidis, since they lived in Boston during the same time and the Beals was a prominent preacher.

I think Sidis got connected with the book because there was a website that postulated that idea as fact. I think the author was confronted with multiple primary sources of information and that content was retracted.

But, very interestingly, I found an old newspaper artificle that discussed Passconaway in the White Mountains in the same paragraph as Sidis. When I read that, I wondered if Sidis MAY have collaborated on the book in some way, but there is NO way Beals Jr. did not write that book.