The brightest and hottest stars burn out the fastest. It’s true in the cosmos. Seems to be true with people. When you think of genius, you think of people who have changed the world. Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, just to name a few – all geniuses, no doubt.
But there are some people whose genius is unmeasurable. People capable of almost godlike feats of intelligence. People whose IQ is literally off the chart. Super geniuses, if you will. Logic would hold that these are the people most likely to move society forward, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the brightest stars burn out before they get a chance to make their mark.
Such the case with William James Sidis. Possibly the smartest human being that ever lived.
When James Sidis was born in Boston, on April 1st 1898. Two prominent doctors, Boris and Sarah Sidis, who were impressive in their own right. Boris was a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States. After a wave of anti-Semitism swept through Russia, he landed in the United States.
He didn’t even know the language, but he taught himself English. Eventually got into medical school and became a prominent psychologist. His wife, Sarah also an immigrant. Became a doctor in a time when women were never considered doctors. Women wouldn’t even get the right to vote for 30 years.
It was sent to pass the entrance exam to medical school. She had to learn six weeks worth of math in three days and she pulled it off. Both of Williams’ parents believe that anything can be learned and given the proper technique. So when William was born, he became something of an experiment to them to see just how smart you could make a human being.
Boris being a psychologist, I’m sure it was a challenge he couldn’t, possibly resist. So they spent their life savings on lessons and books for the young William. Luckily for them he had inherited their natural brilliance and by the age of two he was reading the New York Times and writing letters in English and in French.
By age six, He was a polyglot with a mastery of English, French, German, Russian Hebrew, Latin, Turkish and Armenian. You know, like you do at age six. As his impressive abilities increased his parents turn him into a bit of a media celebrity. A child prodigy that made headlines and newspapers around the world.
By the age of eight he constructed his own language called Vendergood, Which he detailed in a book he wrote called “The Book of Vendorgood”, which also detailed the origins of Roman numerals in the base 12 number system.
In age nine he won admission into Harvard. What they thought that was too young and made him wait until he was 11 to enroll. There He proved to actually be smarter than most of the professors and gave lectures on fourth-dimensional bodies which drew hundreds of people.
He becomes something of a cultural phenomenon. At this point hounded by the news, media and the public alike. It was said that he had an IQ fifty to a hundred points higher than Einsteins, which would put him somewhere between 210 and 260. The average person is between 85 and 115.
When graduated from Harvard at age 16 and did a bit of teaching and mathematics for a while. And then he kind of dropped out of sight. It seemed all the attention he was receiving throughout his life had taken its toll on him. And he told a reporter quote:
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.
So perhaps the greatest mind of all time went into total seclusion. Until 1919, when he was arrested for holding a political demonstration.
In court he blamed society’s problems of religion and capitalism. Which won over the judge, because they gave him 18 months in prison. After leaving jail, William became something of a nomad. Moving from city to city, working menial jobs. Always changing his name to remain private. But that didn’t stop his intellectual pursuits.
He wrote literally dozens of books on subjects ranging from Cosmology, American history, anthropology, transportation systems and weirdly on street-car tickets, which he collected. He published books under a variety of different pseudonyms. Including one called “The Animate and the Inanimate”, in 1925 in which he postulated that there were regions of space where time goes in reverse and would not emit light.
But because of all the different names he used, we don’t really know exactly how many books he wrote. There could be dozens out there that he wrote that we don’t even know about. In 1930 he received a patent for a rotary perpetual calendar that took into account leap years.
And at age 42 he was reached out to by a reporter from the New York Times. To find out what had happened to this child prodigy from back in the day. And it wasn’t really on the up-and-up. She kind of seduced him and got him to talking about things he wasn’t comfortable talking about. It didn’t really paint him in a good light.
The story kind of made it sound like he went crazy. Which okay, maybe that wasn’t very hard to do. But William took offense to this, and he’s successfully sued the New York Times for libel. And then, sadly and unexpectedly, Died: two years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. So much potential, and yet he remains nothing more than just a historical footnote.
What went wrong? Was it too much pressure from his parents too much pressure from society, was he just weird? Could have been worse.
Imagine the pressure that somebody like that must be under. If you’re brought up being told that you’re one of the smartest people that ever lived. I mean, how do you live up to those expectations? I don’t know, I might have freaked out too. Regardless, people like William Sidis remind us of the unbelievable capacity of the human mind and the potential for us as a species.