One snowy January evening in 1919, 12-year-old William Sidis spoke on the theme of “Four Dimensional Bodies” at a Harvard lecture attended by over 75 professors, assistants, students, and specially invited guests. Many couldn’t follow the 12-year-old’s complicated discourse. Overwhelmed, MIT professor Daniel F. Comstock predicted that Sidis would become a great mathematician and a leader in that science in the future. The child-prodigy decided otherwise.
Nature or Nurture
Born in New York City to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants on April Fool’s Day, 1898, baby Sidis found himself in an educational laboratory set up by his brilliant parents Boris and Sarah who had immigrated from Russia some years before. His mother gave up a medical career to nurture her child full-time. Boris, a well known psychologist, thought his two-year-old son was living testimony to his revolutionary philosophy of teaching.
After all, within a year, the boy was writing English and French on a typewriter, by 18 months he was reading the New York Times, at five he composed a treatise on anatomy inspired by a skeleton he came across in the house, and by age eight he had reportedly taught himself eight languages (Latin, Greek, Russian, German, Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian) and invented a universal language he called Vendergood. Boris insisted that his son’s mental growth was not due to exceptional talent but because of a special education.
“You must begin a child’s education as soon as he displays any power to think,” he wrote. “Everybody knows how hard it is to learn a new language late in life. The same holds good of all our acquisitions. The earlier they are acquired the more truly they become part of us. At the same time keep alive within the child the quickening power of curiosity. Do not repress him. Answer his questions; give him the information he craves, seeing to it always that he understands your explanations.”
“I do not mean by this that the child should be deprived of play,” he added. “My boy plays, plays with his toys and plays with his books. And that is the key to the whole situation. Get the child so interested in study that study will truly be play. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. I have done it.”
Boris’s notion that people have huge reserves of unused intellect was largely derived from the teachings of his close colleague, American philosopher and psychologist Prof. William James.
“We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed…” James wrote. “There may be layer after layer of this experience. It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon.”
For the most part, Boris’s scientific colleagues disagreed with him and the chances are that they were right. The boy was brilliant not because of Boris’s education but simply because he was brilliant. Tests of the time seem to indicate that he had an IQ between 250 to 300 when 140 is considered genius.
His brilliance was obvious from early on. In an unpublished autobiography his mother wrote how he stumbled upon astronomy as a baby in his father’s arms.
“The first thing my April Fool’s boy wanted from the great outside world was the moon,” she wrote. “We stood at the window of the apartment together in the evening, with Billy in Boris’ arms, and admired the moon over Central Park. Billy chuckled and reached for it. The next night when he found that the moon was not in the same place, he seemed disturbed. Trips to the window became a nightly ritual, and he was always pleased when he could see the ‘moon.’ This led to Billy’s mastering higher mathematics and planetary revolutions by the time he was eleven, and if that seems to be a ridiculous statement I can only say, ‘Well, it did.’”
In general, young Sidis displayed huge curiosity about his surroundings and once his attention was aroused, he pursued a subject to its end.
“When he asked me something that I didn’t know, I would stop anything I was doing, and say, ‘Let’s look it up.’” his mother wrote.
“He would take down the child’s encyclopaedia I had bought him, and look it up together. After we had done this a few times, he asked me a question one day, and then triumphantly said, ‘But you will say, ‘Let’s look it up!’ and I can look it up myself!’ That is the last lesson I gave Billy.”
Sidis, one of the great brains of the 20th century, was unique not for his brilliance but for how he utilized it in later life. We know of many gedolim who were phenomenal in their early years. American wonder kids at that time included Joel Kupperman who did algebra and geometry problems mentally at five that few college professors could emulate, and Merill Kenneth Wolf who enrolled at Yale University at the age of twelve.
Aversion for Fame
Sidis had a lightning educational career. At six, he began school. He passed through seven grades of school in six months followed by an interval of two years at home where he invented a new table of logarithms using 12 instead of 10 as a base. Then he spent three years at high school. At age nine, when his father attempted to enroll him at Harvard, the university said he was too “emotionally immature” for college life and he had to wait until 1909. Then, he became the youngest person to enroll at Harvard University at the age of 11. Before long, on a snowy January evening in 1919, he was giving a lecture on the theme of “Four Dimensional Bodies” attended by over 75 professors, assistants, students, and specially invited guests. Many couldn’t follow his complicated discourse. Sidis became national news.
But deep within, Sidis began developing a discord to his flashy, heroic existence. Formal academic studies and teaching math eventually left him cold. Asked by reporters at sixteen about his plans for the future, he told them, “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.”
Perhaps he learned to hate ambition from his father who had despised the rushed life of New York and moved to quieter Boston.
“Look,” his father said at the time, “the very name for success in this city is ‘getting ahead’. It is taken for granted that humans must be winners and losers. Why, if a man wants to walk through his life, exploring it thoroughly and enjoying the scenery on the way, he is made to reel guilty because he is not running fit to break his neck.” (from his wife’s autobiography)
As for his psychiatrist work, his wife recalled that no bills for professional services were ever sent to ministers, priests or rabbis, or to professors or students, and he was always adding individuals to the list of those who must not pay.
Young Sidis showed an aversion to getting ahead in the world while still a child. His mother recalled how a guest once gave him a quarter after he opened the door to his car. In reply to her question what he did with the money, the child gave the unusual reply: “I didn’t want to take it but I didn’t want to make him feel bad. So I took it, and after he drove off I threw it in the gutter.”
After Sidis left academic life he was almost forgotten except when he got himself jailed in 1919 for participating in a rowdy demonstration, and again in 1924 when a reporter found him working in a Wall Street office for $23 a week. Even then, his work was not humdrum. Expert in the use of comptometers (an old adding machine that was the equal of pocket calculators until the 70s) he could finish an eight hour work day in one hour. The press was not aware of this.
Sidis declared at the time that all he wanted was to earn just enough to live on at a profession that demanded minimum mental effort. He admitted that math no longer interested him. When a company handed him a pile of blueprints and statistics in the hope he would improve their system, he quit the next day.
“The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill,” he said. “All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won’t let me alone.”
Did His Brains Go Downhill?
Many thought his brains had gone downhill. Newspaper claimed that his “genius had burned out” or “that he was tired of thinking,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Sidis magnificent intellect was undiminished; he devoted it to his own ends. He researched a number of subjects and published books on them, mostly under assumed names. The first, Notes on the Collection of Transfers, by the non-existent Frank Faloupa, was a 300 page long scholarly treatise dealing with peridromophile, a word of his own invention meaning an enthusiast of streetcar transfers and similar forms of which he had collected over 1,600. Other books and articles discussed history, government, economics, social affairs, government, cosmology, and the customs of Indian tribes.
In July 1944, Sidis was found unconscious in a rooming house and died afterwards in hospital. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as his father before him in 1923. Papers branded Sidis as a failure, a pauper, an anti-social recluse.
“William James Sidis, child prodigy of 30 years ago who amazed Harvard professors with his original theories on the fourth dimension and non-Euclidian geometry, died yesterday at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, an obscure, penniless, $15 a week adding machine operator,” a paper wrote. “He was 46.”
Those who knew him were enraged at the papers’ negative attitude. A personal friend of his wrote to the Boston Traveler complaining that the assessment was false. Sidis simply wanted a quiet life.
“Sidis had plenty of loyal friends,” the letter insisted. “All of them found his ideas stimulating and his personality likeable… But William Sidis had one great cause—the right of an individual in this country to follow his chosen way of life. He had never been able to do this for himself, first because his father made him an example for psychological theories; then because the public, through newspaper articles, insisted that he was a ‘genius,’ abnormal and erratic.”
Sidis’s wanted to live as an average individual. Who knows what he might have accomplished for Torah had he been born in a different milieu.
Sources: Wikipedia; articles at http://www.sidis.net