A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why did William Sidis, the world's (2nd) smartest human, achieve so little in life?

December 10, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Of course we all know you're the world's smartest human. However, I've heard about this guy, William James Sidis, who might have been the world's smartest person when he was alive. Harvard's youngest graduate, he was a lightning calculator and a linguistic genius, supposedly publishing papers anticipating the existence of black holes and other astronomical phenomena. On the other hand, he lived in obscurity, on the run from the law, and frankly most of his writings sound like gobbledygook to me, not that I'm any judge. For the world's smartest man, his name is conspicuously absent from my textbooks on science or philosophy. So, Cece baby, what's the straight dope? Was Sidis a misunderstood genius or a kook savant?

Cecil replies:

Yeah, like there's a difference. All we know is that Sidis, celebrated as a prodigy in his youth, produced virtually nothing of consequence as an adult. One of his major contributions to world literature was a book about streetcar transfers, which a biographer described as "the most boring book ever written." A few have professed to find deep meaning in this work and believe Sidis's many unpublished writings would yield great truths if only we lesser folk (well, you lesser folk) had the wit to understand them. But the more common explanation is that he was a gifted lad who was pushed too far too fast.

Sidis was born April 1, 1898, to Russian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. From the evidence, Boris and Sarah Sidis were brilliant but neurotic — always a dangerous combination in parents. Determined to raise their son as a genius, the Sidises read him Greek myths, taught him to spell using alphabet blocks, etc. They claimed Billy spoke his first word at six months and was reading the New York Times at a year and a half. To my mind this tells you more about the parents than the kid, and many say the Sidises viewed their son more as a living experiment than as a child.

Sidis was later estimated to have an IQ in the 250-300 range, and while that's conjectural (hell, foolish — on what basis could the scale be run up that high?), there's little doubt that he was a very smart guy. He learned languages easily and had a knack for such stunts as mentally computing the day of the week for any date in history. At age eight he attracted national notice for sailing through high school and passing the MIT entrance exam. At 11 he became the second youngest student ever to enroll at Harvard. A few months later he gave a talk at the Harvard mathematics club on "Four-Dimensional Bodies" that in the opinion of fellow prodigy Norbert Wiener would have been impressive coming from a graduate student.

Things got a little rockier after that.  Having graduated cum laude at age 16, Sidis entered Harvard Law School but dropped out before completing his degree. He took a job teaching mathematics at Rice University but was harassed by the students and quit after a short time. He flirted with leftist causes and was briefly in the news in 1919 after being arrested for his involvement in a socialist rally that turned into a riot.

After that, nothing. Estranged from his parents, Sidis worked for the rest of his life as a bookkeeper or at other jobs incommensurate with his talents. He seldom socialized, for that matter seldom bathed, and spent his off hours working on manuscripts on obscure subjects. The only book he published under his own name was The Animate and the Inanimate (1925), a philosophical work that his admirers claim anticipated the theory of black holes. In 1923 the newspapers gleefully reported that he was working as a $23-a-week clerk in New York City. The press paid him no further notice until 1937, when the New Yorker ran a piece entitled "April Fool" that poked fun at his lowly station. Sidis sued and eventually received a small settlement. He died in 1944.

Why someone of Sidis's talents achieved so little has been the subject of some debate. Some say he demonstrates the folly of pushing young geniuses too soon; others blame his nutty parents. He was rescued from anonymity by Robert M. Pirsig, author of the cult classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who wrote about Sidis in his book Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. He's now solidly ensconced in the pantheon of beings Too Smart for Their Own Good. Lord knows I've been there myself.

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