The Rise and Fall of William James Sidis: From the Smartest Man Alive to a Social Reject

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Tech genius Elon Musk is believed by some to have an IQ of around 150, which is close to the estimated IQ of great scientists like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, who were thought to have IQ of around 160. However, Einstein, Musk, and Hawking stand nowhere near William James Sidis, a less-known individual who some estimate may have had an IQ of between 210 to 250.  

The intelligence quotient (IQ) is a controversial but widely used means to assess the intelligence of any person. It can be measured using any one of several tests designed to measure reasoning and problem-solving skills. The tests are generally revised every few years in order to maintain 100 as the average score. 

Now you may be wondering if Sidis was so intelligent, why isn't he a household name, like Einstein or Hawking? Why have most people never heard of him? The answer to this question lies in the rather unusual life that he led. 

The unheard life of William James Sidis 

 From the Smartest Man Alive to a Social RejectWilliam James Sidis. Source: The Sidis Archive/Wikimedia Commons

Born in New York on April 1, 1898, to Russian immigrants, Sidis could easily read the newspaper when he was only 18 months old. His parents were also no ordinary people, mother Sarah Mandelbaum Sidis was a medical doctor who received her education from BUSM (Boston University School of Medicine) and his father Boris Sidis was a renowned psychologist who himself made remarkable contributions in the field of Psychopathology.

In Sidis’ biography, The Prodigy, author Amy Wallace reveals that his parents were extremely pushy, as they desperately wanted him to seek knowledge and nothing else. His mother spent huge sums of money on books, maps, and other materials to encourage his learning behavior. While Boris Sidis desired to give his son the perfect tools to shape his reasoning and thinking abilities. He even used to conduct debates with William Sidis on psychology and various other advanced subjects from an early age. However, Sidis wasn’t happy to get such special treatment from his parents. 

By the time Sidis turned eight, he could speak eight languages, including Greek, English, and Russian. Later, he also created a language of his own that he called 'Vendergood'. When Sidis was only nine years old, he was accepted at Harvard University but under the condition that he has to wait until he was 11 years of age to be officially enrolled in the college. So, for the next two years, Sidis studied mathematics at Tufts University, where he reportedly spent his time correcting mistakes in textbooks and combing Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

Though no scorecards or test reports concerning his intelligence exist today, considering Sidis' age and academic brilliance, his IQ score is estimated by some to be somewhere between 50 and 100 points greater than that of Einstein or Hawking. 

In 1909, the 11-year old William Sidis became the youngest person to attend Harvard. He was considered the brightest of a group of prodigies at Harvard in 1909 which included Norbert Wiener, considered the father of cybernetics, and composer Roger Sessions. That same year, Sidis delivered a presentation on four-dimensional bodies to the Harvard Mathematics Club. His understanding of the complex subject garnered the attention of various experts.   

Listening to Sidis, American Physicist Daniel F. Comstock, who was a professor at MIT at that time, said “I predict that young Sidis will be a great astronomical mathematician, the leader in that science in the future". 

How did intelligence become a curse for Sidis? 

 From the Smartest Man Alive to a Social RejectSource: meo/pexels

Unfortunately, Comstock’s predictions didn’t turn out to be true. Throwing light on the years Sidis spent at Harvard, his biography reveals that Sidis struggled to live a normal life. He was often teased and mocked by other students at Harvard and he also felt disturbed by the unwanted media coverage. 

According to Amy Wallace “He had been made a laughing stock at Harvard, all he wanted was to be away from academia and be a regular working man". After graduating from Harvard University at the age of 16, Sidis also admitted to one of the reporters chasing him, “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.” 

After graduating from Harvard at the age of 16, Sidis went to Rice University to work as an assistant mathematics professor. He taught undergraduate students for a year and also wrote a book on Euclidean geometry. 

However, soon Sidis got fed up with his department and the disrespectful behavior of some students towards him, so he left Rice University and went back to Harvard to study law. Sidis studied law for almost three years but then he dropped out of college in 1919 for unknown reasons.  

He took up socialist causes and that same year, he was arrested for participating in a communist-led anti-war rally. Since he had a celebrity-like status in the media, his arrest made headlines in several newspapers at that time. Sidis defended himself at trial and was sentenced to 18 months jail — six months for rioting and a year for assaulting an officer. However, later his parents managed to have him held at his father's sanatorium, and work at MIT, instead of prison.

In 1921, he was released from his father's institution and spent the remainder of his life leading an independent existence out of the public eye. He disavowed his knowledge of mathematics and took work as a bookkeeper, often using an alias, and changing jobs and cities every time someone recognized him. 

And he wrote books — some under his own name, others under a variety of pseudonyms. He wrote a 1,200-page history of the United States and a book on streetcar transfer tickets. In 1925 he published a remarkable book on cosmology in which he predicted black holes — 14 years before Chandrasekhar did. But primarily he fled his childhood, and he fled his parents.

He kept on changing his jobs and name because he didn’t want to be identified as the “child prodigy William Sidis” anymore. He spent his time writing books, collecting streetcar transfer tickets, and even doing some unskilled jobs that can be considered very lowly for a person with gifted intelligence like him.

In 1925, Sidis wrote The Animate and the Inanimate, a book that discussed his thoughts on cosmology and the potential reversibility of the second law of thermodynamics. Ten years later in 1935, he published another book titled Tribes and the States (under the false name John W. Shattuck) that covered various aspects of Native American history. He also invented a type of perpetual calendar that was specially designed to look for leap years.

Sidis managed to live without notoriety until 1937 when an article published in The New Yorker on what had become of the "boy genius" brought him back into the limelight. Unhappy with the contents of the article, William Sidis accused The New Yorker magazine of libel and of violating his privacy and filed a lawsuit against the publication. He won the libel case in 1944 but died of a brain hemorrhage the same year.

Intelligence is just one of the many aspects of being a human. The journey of William Sidis also shows that human life has so many different elements that intelligence alone can not always guarantee a fulfilling life. 

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