Today, a disturbing story about nerds in knicker
pants. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
William James Sidis was born
in 1898 to Russian immigrants -- intellectual
refugees from the pogroms. Sidis's father, Boris,
was brilliant, and William James trained him in
psychology at Harvard. The boy's mother, Sarah,
gave up her own medical ambitions to forge
intellectual greatness in their young son.
Young Sidis could read at 18 months. He'd written
four books and was fluent in eight languages before
he was eight. He gave a Harvard seminar on the
fourth dimension at nine. He entered Harvard at
eleven. He may've been the most intelligent person
who ever lived.
He was the brightest of an amazing group of
prodigies at Harvard in 1909. The group included
Norbert Wiener, father of
cybernetics, and composer Roger Sessions. Wiener,
like Sidis, was the driven product of his parents'
aim to create a mental giant.
Those awkward children suffered their isolated
lives at a university that expected Eastern
finishing-school grace of its students. Sidis
graduated at 16 and went off to Rice University as
a math professor. Rice students ridiculed the
childish Sidis for eight months. He finally gave up
and went back to Harvard to study law.
Sidis took up the socialist cause and was jailed in
1918 during a communist anti-war rally. It was in
jail that he met the only woman he ever loved, an
Irish socialist named Martha Foley.
Meanwhile, the media hounded him. Sidis was
determined to find privacy. He disavowed his
knowledge of mathematics. The only work he'd take
was running calculating machines. He poured his
energies into his hobby -- collecting streetcar
And he wrote books -- some under his own name,
others under pseudonyms. 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
When he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944, he
was still carrying Martha Foley's picture. She'd
long since married someone else, but that didn't
matter. Sidis could only love with his head. All
his life he'd vigorously rejected sex, art, music,
or anything else that meant contact with the
unwelcoming world outside his mind. His biographer,
Amy Wallace, expresses her own anguish over that.
Let us hope that [future gifted] children will
grow up in a world that, instead of shunning them
as oddities, will welcome and nurture their
talents, ... and their vision.
William James Sidis was not the first nor last
child wounded by parents trying to create a trophy.
Others have lamented the creative productivity we
lost when Sidis dropped out of society. What I
grieve is all the joy that his well-honed mind
should've given him -- all the joy that Sidis was
never able to access.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wallace, A., .The Prodigy: A Biography of
William James Sidis, America's Greatest Child
Prodigy, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1986. (I am
grateful to Jeffery Scoggins at Detering Bookstore
for calling this remarkable and bittersweet book to
Sidis, W.J., The Animate and the
Inanimate, Boston: R.G. Badger, 1925. (This
exceedingly rare book may be found on line at:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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