Originally published December 2011. This one is part of the Billy Sidis series, and not the first one. This is Part II. It is, however, far and away the most-visited. I don't understand why. This post was notable for an argument in the comments.
There have been a number of folks who maintained that William Sidis (1898-1944) was the most intelligent person who ever lived. I spent an entire series on that, and eventually concluded that he was very intelligent, but not in the category of the very best ever. Wikipedia and other websites do not give as complete information as I do here, so if you are interested in Sidis, this is probably your best stop. In the posts and comments, we also discuss many issues about IQ, accomplishment, genius, what is intelligence, and changes in education. It could keep you busy for a while, but I think it is entertaining as well as profitable. I provide links to the rest of the series at the bottom of this essay.
There are solid bits of evidence that might support the claim that William Sidis was a child prodigy, but each has its own weakness as well. He did enter Harvard at age 11 – but his father, a psychiatrist and professor, had been pressing for this for years. Harvard had taken on a few other prodigies, including Buckminster Fuller and Norbert Weiner, and Boris Sidis pressured them into it. Billy did indeed give a lecture on four-dimensional bodies to the mathematics society at age 11, and Weiner, who was present, states it would have done credit to a first year graduate student. But it was not new information, as has often been claimed and was reported then. It was available elsewhere – Weiner simply doubted that William Sidis had access to it, and gave him credit for thinking it out himself. Yet it was not impossible that such material came his way, especially with a father determined to show the world his son was a genius (and his methods thus correct).
Boris Sidis made claims throughout his son’s childhood for his genius – that he read the NY Times at 18 months; taught himself Greek and Latin from 3-5 years old; mastered other tongues before age 8. William did indeed know English, French, Greek, and Latin at age 8 – but we do not know how well. It was claimed he had taught himself Turkish and Armenian. Which of his schoolteachers, pray, could evaluate that? Even if called out on it if someone pulled a passing Turk out to test him, Sidis could claim that he read the language, not spoke it, and the handwriting of natives in a language tends not to look like the printed matter, so he could dodge there as well. Among the Amerind languages he used to pad his total, some were extinct, existing only in a few manuscripts. I suppose he might maintain he knew them as well as anyone did, but my suspicions are running high at this point. Boris stated that William wrote a book on anatomy at age 5. No one seems to have ever seen even a portion of such a manuscript. William did graduate cum laude from Harvard. But entrance and even excelling then were not the accomplishment they would be now. It was fun to reread again, even for me, and the comments are exceptional throughout.
Here’s a bit about Boris’s career. He ran a sanitarium in Portsmouth NH at what had been the Frank Jones Mansion. The link will give you a flavor. In addition to educational theories, he specialized in hypnosis, dreams, and dissociation, and opposed Freud.
It is hard to be fair to Sidis from this distance. His book The Tribes and The States, about the 100,000-year history of American Indians, is insanely wrong. He gets their genetics, languages, and government badly wrong. But I am not certain what knowledge was available to him in the early 20th C. Though his theories did not turn out to be true, he may have had ideas worth exploring – no worse than the theories of other experts – based on what was known. I suspect not. He also believed in Atlantis, which figures prominently in his discussion, and reads into the known historical record with great certainty things that even then would have been highly speculative. He insists that “farthest Thule,” where Phoenicians and others raided for slaves was Newfoundland. There is simply no evidence this is so.
I have asked James of “I Don’t Know But…” (sidebar) to evaluate his treatise on reversible universes, and parts of our universe where the Second Law of Thermodynamics runs in reverse, The Animate and the Inanimate. It seems like a 70’s physics undergrad on weed, frankly. But then, most physics beyond Einstein’s Special Relativity sounds like that to me anyway, so I’m no judge. Perhaps it’s brilliant.
His later writing on freedoms and rights seems to be mere rambling. His sister claimed that Billy could speak all the languages in the world, others more modestly put his total at fifty, and Boris’s at 27. How do we know this? Who could tell? This sister, Helena, is also the source for his IQ being in the range of 250-300 – that he had tested on a civil service exam at 254 later in life. Actually, he had finished 254th in the country that year, according to another report. A creditable accomplishment, but not genius by any stretch.
The discussion from the first part about whether someone gets the adjective intelligent without some body of accomplishment is interesting, and I will not neglect it. The idea that Sidis was HFA/Asperger-y also deserves some consideration and may explain his thinking at least as well as the genius/fraud continuum. Yet I am hesitant to go there, as dishonest puffery does not tend to be associated with the Autism spectrum. It’s not unknown, but being offended by minor deviations from the truth is more common.
And Another One Bites The Dust - Part One
Prodigy (Sidis Part Three)
About That 1869 Harvard Entrance Exam (Part 3A)
Smart, Wealthy, Athletic - What It Means To Be Intelligent. A Digression On IQ.
But If It's True...