Book Review by
Robert N. Seitz, Ph. D.
May 31, 2002
William Sidis is hailed by some as the smartest human being who ever lived. He’s not the most precocious. The most precocious individuals of whom I’m aware are “Adam Konantovich”, who spoke his first word at three months and was talking in grammatically correct sentences at six months, and Michael Kearney and Merrill Kenneth Wolf, who spoke their first words at four months, their first sentences at six months, and were reading before they were a year old. By contrast, Billy Sidis spoke his first word at eight months, and began to read at two. Still, “Billy Sidis” seems to have shown great creativity and enduring powers of mind on into adulthood. His sister, Helena, said of him that, as an adult, he could learn a new language in one day, and as an adult, he was a true polymath, a “Renaissance man”. Perhaps a part of the mystique that renders William Sidis such a thought-provoking figure is the tragic waste of his talents. He was pilloried by the press, and traumatized into working as a $25 a week adding machine operator until he died at 46 of a cerebral hemorrhage. However, he continued to pursue his own studies, and the fruits of these endeavors have fired the interests of a cadre of 21st-century admirers.
Amy Wallace’ book, “The Prodigy”, published in 1986 by E. P. Dutton, a division of New American Library, 2 Park Avenue, New York, NY10016, is a well-written and entrancing account of the life of William Sidis, including interviews with his younger sister, Helena, and many quotations from William and from other sources. This book is out of print, but a used copy may be purchased from Amazon.com.
Some erroneous myths have sprung up around William James Sidis, and ironically, are being propagated by giftedness experts.
Myth #1: Billy Sidis was pushed unmercifully by his father.
That doesn’t square with Amy Wallace’ Biography. Sarah Sidis’ watchwords for rendering your child a genius tell the story best. Her recommendations are,
It was Billy’s (domineering) mother who played with him on the floor,
and whom he later hated and avoided at all costs. Ms. Wallace faults Boris Sidis
for publishing articles and papers lime-lighting William as a testimonial to
Boris’ child-rearing theories, and for failing to shield Billy from critical
and copious press releases.
Myth # 2: Billy Sidis “Burned Out”
William Sidis was terribly traumatized by his exposure to the public and particularly, the press. The newspaper articles that were written about him were pastiches of “lies, damn lies, and statistics”.
“Like an autistic savant, he could calculate the date on which any day of the week had fallen within the past ten thousand years.” Hey! I can do that, too, and I’m sure as shooting not an autistic savant. For every century you reach back in time, you add one day to this year’s day of the week. To go back ten thousand years, you would add 100 days. 100 is divisible by 7 with 2 left over, so if you went back 10,000 years, you would add 2 days to this year’s date. (I’m neglecting the other calendrical corrections that have to be made to project so many years in the past or the future, but these are easily inserted. You’re always looking for the remainder after dividing by 7.)
Can Stimulating Environments Amplify Precocity?
One of the intriguing facts about William Sidis, as is the case with other “manufactured” prodigies such as Norbert Wiener and John Stuart Mill is that their fathers tried to make prodigies of them and succeeded(!), though at terrible personal cost to the children upon whom this was thrust..
It could be argued that during the germinal phase of childhood, when the brain is wiring itself up, a stimulating environment can boost the IQ. Some intervention studies, such as the Milwaukee Project, and the Abecedarian Project, have shown pallid results relative to the efforts that were expended upon them. On the other hand, when it goes on 24 hours a day, and when the child joyfully buys into the program, perhaps there could be more pronounced results. (And, of course, perhaps not.)
William’s Parents’ Backgrounds
William James Sidis was born on April Fool’s Day, 1898, to Sarah and
Boris and Sarah Sidis were Russian Jewish immigrants, 19-year-old Boris and two of his friends arriving in 1886, and 13-year-old Sarah and her father booking passage in 1887. In his hometown of Berdichev, Boris “knew several languages, was well versed in history, and composed poetry that was put to music by the townspeople of Berdichev*”. The intense, young Boris was characterized by a hatred for ignorance and tyranny, and a passion for learning and teaching. At the age of seventeen, he was imprisoned for defying a Czarist ukase against teaching the peasants to read, and was imprisoned for two years in a body-sized cell. Rather than consuming him, the fire tempered him. After he was released from prison, he and two other pobrecitos absconded to “America”.
Sarah Mandelbaum and her father, Bernard, fled Russia after the family was robbed and savagely beaten by a band of thugs.
Although the emigrants’ families had prospered in Russia, they were initially reduced at first to grinding poverty in America, but it wasn’t long before they had improved their lots in life. Within a few years, Boris, already reputed to be a genius, was making a living teaching English to fellow immigrants for a dollar a student a week. Sarah had a job as a seamstress in an expensive dress shop. They met in 1891, when Sarah became one of Boris’ English students. “She was awestruck by him. He seemed to her infinitely wise, learned, and kind.
“Under Boris’ tutelage, Sarah nurtured her dream of becoming a doctor. Medical school was the favorite ambition of European immigrants, and the schools’ tuition fees were payable in installments, bringing the dream within reach of a dedicated few. Still, in 1891, only a few dozen European immigrants had become doctors in New York, and none of them were women.*”
Boris encouraged Sarah to pursue her medical ambitions. Buoyed by Boris’ assessments of her ability, she passed the New York State Board examination for high school students with flying colors after studying for it only three weeks. Sarah, in turn, urged Boris to enroll at Harvard. Boris resisted, citing his contempt for academic red tape and the meaninglessness of formal degrees. But Sarah prevailed.
Once there, Boris fell in love with Harvard’s stimulating atmosphere. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in one year, in 1891 and his Master’s Degree in two years, in 1892! He also fell in love with Sarah, and the two of them married in 1892, the same year Sarah matriculated at Boston Medical School. Their tiny, two-room, attic apartment became a Sunday-afternoon center for the nascent field of psychology.
While Boris was in New York, Harvard requested that he submit as a Ph. D. dissertation the article upon which he was working. Boris refused. Harvard relented, asking him to come to Cambridge for his Ph. D. orals. Again, Boris refused. Finally, Harvard waived formal requirements for the Ph. D., and sent Boris his sheepskin through the mail!
The mountain had come to Mohammed.
William James said of it to Sarah, “They wouldn’t do this for me… If they call me a genius, what superlative have they reserved for your husband?*”
A stiff-necked idealist, Boris eschewed money, and more often than not, refused to charge his patients for his services. Both he and Sarah were extremely strong-willed.
Meanwhile, Sarah had become “one of a handful of women to graduate from medical school before the turn of the century*”. She was also pregnant with Billy.
One conclusion suggests itself: both Boris and Sarah were surpassingly brilliant. It seems unlikely that even undue diligence could propel someone through Harvard in one year, and earn him a Harvard Ph. D. without fulfilling formal requirements unless he were perceived to possess a prodigious intellect. (You wonder how Boris and Sarah would have compared with Billy on an IQ test. They weren’t as precocious as Billy, but then, they didn’t have themselves as parents.) Sarah was controlling to the point of being domineering.
Billy’s only social interactions were with adults, where he reveled in
being the cynosure of all eyes. He adored his father. (Boris was lenient with
Billy spoke his first word—“door”—at six months. At seven months, he pointed to the moon and said, “moo-n”. At six months, Boris and Sarah bought Billy a high chair, and from then on, he ate at the dinner table with his parents. It took Billy two months to learn to feed himself. Boris pointed out that if Billy had been spoon-fed, he wouldn’t have learned to do it for himself. Sarah sneaked the money she had saved for a winter coat, and spent it on blocks and educational toys for Billy. (It’s worth noting that she made a coat from fabric remnants and the lining of another coat, and that she didn’t let Boris know about it until years later. This says something about the husband-and-wife relationship between them, though I’m not sure what.) Billy soon learned to sound our syllables from the blocks. He soon learned to spell book titles with his blocks. He also learned to count with his blocks, up to 100. By the time he was 18 months, he was “reading” the New York Times (“Reading” might have meant that he could recognize words without necessarily knowing what they meant.) By the time he was two, he had begun to read in the usual sense of the word. At three, he learned to type, and wrote a letter to Macy’s ordering toys. He said of this,
“Now I am very old, like Daddy, because I can typewrite. Maybe I am a hundred or two hundred years old.”
Boris and Sarah were kind, affectionate, and permissive with Billy, and tried to develop his interests. Boris had no interest in exercise or in practical matters, delegating these to Sarah. Consequently, exercise, finance, and the manual arts weren’t ever a part of Billy’s life.
Interestingly, the Sidises were good friends with the Strauses, who owned Macy’s, at a time when they were poor as church mice.
Billy’s linguistic exploits began with Latin, when, at the age of three, he taught himself to read Caesar’s De Bello Gallico to surprise his father on Boris’ birthday. He had studied his mother’s old Latin primer, and had matched the English words with their Latin equivalents! A few months later, he discovered Greek and, after Boris taught him the Greek alphabet, Billy began reading Homer, followed over the next few years by Russian, French, German, and Hebrew, and later, Turkish and Armenian. (Of course, there are various degrees of mastery of a foreign language. Still, Homer and De Bello Gallico aren’t exactly bedtime stories.)
When Billy was five, a journalist wrote down his observations of the child prodigy.
“At a hotel in the mountains, it was the custom of the infant prodigy to read the menu with infinite care, looking about the room to see if all the dishes mentioned were represented on the tables and to anxiously inquire anxiously for those he did not see. Once he chanced to be brought in early for breakfast, namely, at 7:45, when upon consulting the menu, he found that breakfast was served from 8 to 9. He was seized by perfect panic when the waiter brought in the breakfast ahead of time; he required that it be taken back at once, and finally was borne shrieking from the room, calling out like an irate Hebrew prophet: ‘It is from 8 to 9. It has been written.’”
The journalist also wrote,
“His most notable trait was that he could not be turned aside from any purpose or diverted as other children are. He had very little interest in humanity, and the only way to see an exhibition of his unusual knowledge was to feign ignorance. He already, at five years old, knew something of English, Russian, French and German. If one asked him to count in German, one would be met by a stony gaze of abstraction, so detached, so distant, that it was truly humiliating. If however, one came to him in the spirit of thirst for knowledge, saying, “I suppose the Germans count just as we do,” he was lavish with instruction.
It was at this time that Billy became fascinated with streetcar transfers, a topic that was to engage his attention for the rest of his life.
Billy Formal Schooling Begins
When Billy reached the age of six, it was time to enroll in school. When asked if he knew how to read, Billy suggested a spot of Shakespeare; he carried a volume of the bard with him wherever he went. To the teacher’s bewilderment Billy delivered, with full expression, the first act of Julius Caesar.
It took Billy most of his first year in school to matriculate the first eight grades. “His nervous rapidity in accomplishing whatever he was set to do made him a much greater care for the instructors than the slowest dullards. Care had to be taken, too, not to feed his vanity with the wonder and admiration which the stupefied teachers often could not conceal at his performances. They seemed to have been wholly conscientious and even tender with the wonder child.” In the words of the Boston Herald:
“He told his teachers he’d just as soon leave school. He knew all they could teach him anyway. He said this without self-pride, as one states a simple truth—and it was the truth. He added that it was inconvenient for his mother to bring him to school each day, and take him home again, but that she had to do it because he was horribly afraid of dogs.”
At the age of eight, Billy “accomplished the spectacular feat of devising a new table of logarithms using a base of twelve instead of the normal ten---a favorite anecdote of the press in future years.” (What this requires is looking up the logarithm of twelve (1.07918) in a decimal-log table, dividing it into one to get its reciprocal (0.926628), and then multiplying all the numbers in a log table by 0.926628 to get the equivalent base-twelve logarithms… a lot of dogwork, but no math beyond multiplication.)
Another parlor trick practiced by the young Billy was “a game no adult was bright enough to match him in: he could calculate on what day of the week any given date would fall. Now at Mrs. Straus’ dinner parties, he was able to amaze the guests by telling them what day of the week they had been born on, simply by being told the date and the year.” [To perform this calculation, you subtract the year of their birth from the current year. For example, if this is Tuesday, September 14, 1904 (a leap year) and they were born on March 12, 1867, you would subtract 1867 from 1904 to get 37. Then you would divide this number by four (ignoring the fractional part of the dividend) to get the number of leap years—nine. You would add 9 to 37 to arrive at 46 for the equivalent number of years, each of which advanced the date by one day of the week. Next, you would divide 46 by 7 and this time, you would take the remainder, which is four. Now, you would move the day of the week back from Tuesday by four days, obtaining Friday for September 14, 1867. Finally, you would add the number of days above 28 in each month for the months March through August. For March, it would be three days. For April, it would be two, For May, it would be three. For June, it would be two. For July, it would be three, and for August, it would be three. These add up to 16 days. Dividing by seven and taking the remainder—two—gives the number of days we have to move back in the week to arrive at March 14, 1867. So March 14, 1867, would fall on a Wednesday, and March 12, 1867, would have been a Monday.] (No mention is made of how long he took, whether he used paper and pencil, whether he consulted a special calendar, or how often he was wrong on his first try.)
“Between the ages of six and eight, Billy wrote at least four books. Two of these, textbooks on anatomy and astronomy, are lost. The remaining two represent his feats in the fields of grammar, linguistics, and mathematics. They are written in textbook style, with all the childish charm of imitation schoolbooks.“
Of course, writing a book would be what Daddy did.
(I find it special that Billy would devise his own methods of doing things. In the first grade, The Boston Transcript wrote,
“Himself a grammarian in a way, William James Sidis could not abide the grammar-school grammar. At seven years of age, he had his original ideas of a grammar of three languages running abreast, already in part typewritten (he writes in no other way, and this bothers again in school, of course), and the grammar taught in schools was full of those exasperating sounds against which he covers up his ears. He despised it, and also the history which he had learned all about years before.”)
Billy’s most ambitious project during these years was the invention of a new language: “Vendergood”, for which he prepared a 40-page grammatical guide. Of it, Amy Wallace says,
“Reading it creates the same strange effect of Billy’s other books: This marvelous, sophisticated achievement is tinged throughout with a childish fascination with form and pomposity; the reader feels constantly bounced between the work of a genius and that of a little boy.”
In his seventh and eighth years, Billy passed the Harvard Medical School anatomy exam and the entrance exam for MIT.
Billy’s only social interactions were with adults, where he reveled in
being the cynosure of all eyes. He adored his father. (Boris was lenient with
Meets the Press
At the age of eight, Billy was enrolled in the Brookline High School, and the press descended upon him like a flock of vultures. He completed the curriculum in six weeks, serving as a teacher’s aid for another six weeks. Ms. Wallace says,
“For all this, he was still a little boy…. In fact, he was bubbling over with energy and so full of antics and pranks that he seriously disrupted the classroom. Commented H. Addington Bruce, “In some respects he is more childlike than the average youngster.” His uncurbed enthusiasm was not the only problem. The atheism that had so disturbed his grammar-school teachers was no less horrifying to the faculty of Brookline High. On one occasion, Headmaster Hitchcock began reading the Bible at a school assembly. Billy leaped out of his seat in front of a thousand students, pressed his hands over his ears, and exclaimed, “I don’t believe in that. I don’t want to hear that.”
“An orgy of inaccurate newsprint had followed Billy through his abbreviated high school career. …. Harper’s Weekly announced that “already the precocious boy’s eyes are failing, and he has to wear double-lens glasses. In other respects, his physical health is causing his father some anxiety.” The Harper’s piece was followed by rebuttals in the papers, chastising Harper’s sloppiness, pointing out that Billy did not wear glasses and was in fine health. After all, both his parents were doctors.”
For the next two years, Billy dropped off the public radar screen. Studying at home during this time, he learned trigonometry, geometry, and calculus. He was also reading Einstein and checking for possible errors. (This was between 1906 an 1908, when Einstein would have been little-known.) His sister, Helena, believed that he and Einstein corresponded.)
Boris tried to get Billy into Harvard when Billy was nine, but Harvard wouldn’t accept him until he was eleven, and then only as a “special student”.
Billy’s acceptance into Harvard was a press sensation. The media had a field day. Four other prodigies were accepted at the same time: Cedric Wing Houghton, who died before graduation; Roger Sessions, a musical prodigy; Adolph Berle, who would become Assistant Secretary of State under FDR, and Norbert Wiener, the future father of cybernetics. Still, of the five, Billy was the youngest and most amazing, and the one who garnered the most press attention. At eleven, Billy had mastered integral calculus and was preparing to study quaternions, “a pinnacle few ever attain”.
“Declaring Billy to be the most learned undergraduate ever to enter Harvard, the New York Times was the first paper to give voice to what was to become the press party line: ‘Sidis is a wonderfully successful result of a scientific forcing experiment, and as such furnishes one of the most interesting mental phenomena in history.’ Boris insisted that no ‘forcing’ took place: that, rather, his son had learned to master his reserve energy as any child could with dramatic results. The debate raged.”
“Daniel F. Comstock, professor of physics at MIT, had high words of praise for the prodigy. ‘His method of thinking is real intellect. It is not automatic. He does not cram his head with facts. He reasons. Karl Friedrich Gauss is the only example in history, of all prodigies, whom Sidis resembles. I predict the young Sidis will be a great astronomical mathematician. He’ll evolve new theories and invent new ways of calculating astronomical phenomena. I believe he will be a great mathematician, the leader in that science in the future.’”
The U. S. in 1900
It’s interesting to attune to the mindset of the turn-of-the-century era. The U. S. had until recently been a frontier nation, where men were expected to be macho and protective, and women were considered to be delicate and giddy. Most people still lived in isolation on the farm, and were naïve and provincial. Circuses and con artists still went from town to town. The country’s movers and shakers had grown up in an era of sweatshops and child labor. Governmental regulation was in its infancy, with cocaine freely available in “Coca Cola”, and “patent” codeine-bearing cough medicines available over-the-counter to little old ladies who wouldn’t be caught dead with “demon rum”. America was still immersed in its horrid experiment in white supremacy and “manifest destiny”. This was the era of yellow journalism, of William Randolph Hearst and the muckrakers. The supermarket-checkout tabloids of today were embodied then in the mainstream press. Psychological cruelty and meanness were more accepted then than they are today. People laughed at the barbed remark, the “perfect squelch”. Psychology was in its infancy, and IQ tests virtually didn’t exist. Of prodigies it was said, “Early to ripen, early to rot.” People who thought too hard were expected to suffer “nervous breakdowns”, like the little German boy in ‘Tom Sawyer” who memorized all the verses in the Bible and then went bananas. There were theories of compensation that said that if someone were very precocious, she/he would have to pay for it in other ways. It wasn’t until the Terman Longitudinal Study of Gifted Children in the 1920’s and 1930’s that these old wives’ tales were dispelled.
Amy Wallace says,
“The more he hungered for privacy, the more famous he became, and the more the reporters hounded him. His father seemed insensitive to his plight as he busily flaunted his theories and named Billy as an example of what could be done with any child. His mother, equally indifferent to her boy’s discomfort, did nothing to shield him from reporters. His only refuge was in learning.”
Comparing William Sidis With Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener was the Harvard prodigy most similar to Billy. Ms. Wallace says,
“…by the time little Norbert reached Harvard he was painfully maladjusted socially. Short and dumpy, clumsy and bespectacled, he wrote in Ex-Prodigy, his memoirs, ‘“I had no proper idea of personal cleanliness and personal neatness, and I myself never knew when I was to blurt out some unpardonable rudeness.’
“But if poor, tubby, myopic Norbert felt himself an outcast, even he had someone to look askance at: Billy Sidis. ‘Sidis’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘was too young to be a companion for me, and much too eccentric, although we were in one class together in postulate theory, and I respected the work he did…..He was considerably behind the children of his age in social development and social adaptability. I was certainly no model of the social graces, but it was clear to me that no other child of his age would have gone down Brattle Street wildly swinging a pigskin bag, without either order or cleanliness. He was an infant with a full share of the infractuosities of a grown-up Dr. Johnson.’”
“Yet Norbert, himself a mathematical prodigy, had not failed to be impressed by Billy’s genius. Billy was continuing his special courses in the most advanced mathematics Harvard had to offer, subjects reserved for a handful of seniors. His professor in vector analysis was the only person at Harvard who knew more about the subject than Billy.
“At 8:15 p. m. on January 5, 1910, in Conant Hall at Harvard, William James Sidis delivered his famous two-hour lecture on “Four-Dimensional Bodies” to the Harvard Mathematical Club.
“Norbert Wiener remembered the event well, writing forty-three years later, ‘The talk would have done credit to a first- or second-year graduate student of any age, although all the material it presented was known elsewhere and was available in the literature….I am convinced that Sidis had no access to existing sources, and the talk represented the triumph of the unaided efforts of a very brilliant child.’”
“Altogether, ninety three men were present, including distinguished math professors from all over New England.”
Christian Heinecken, the “Terrible Tot of Lübeck”
Amy Wallace mentions the “Terrible Tot of Lübeck”, Christian Friedrich Heinecken (1721-1725), who was said to have known basic mathematics and the Bible at the age of one. At three, he was conversant with world history and geography and knew Latin and French. He died at age four.
She also mentions Gauss, “the Prince of Mathematicians”, and John Stuart Mill who, like Billy and Norbert Wiener, was force-fed by his father. “Like Sidis, Mill could be dogmatic, a logical arguing machine with no sense of the social graces. Like Sidis, he was unconcerned with his manners and appearance.
Comparing William with John Stuart Mill
“At first glance, the similarities between Mill and William Sidis may seem few: Boris was never the cruel taskmaster that James Mill was. But William, like John Mill, was to experience a crisis, and at nearly the same age; and William’s trauma, like Mill’s, would be resolved by a separation from the bondage of parental expectations. Is this merely the crisis of any adolescent? Perhaps. But John Stuart Mill and William Sidis were two of history’s most extraordinary youths. Their lives were extreme, overblown versions of what millions of ordinary adolescents have experienced. They were both products of well-intentioned parents who saw their children’s achievements as extensions of their own success, whose children were their achievements to an exceptional degree.
“For William, it was Sarah rather than Boris who increasingly began to take on the oppressive role. Who drove him further and further into the exercises of the mind and is manifold pleasures as an escape.
breakdown. The students whispered behind his back. These rumors were impossible
to correct---the newspapers fed them gleefully, since they provided them with
delicious copy rife with righteous choruses of I-told-you-so’s.”
Just after his the Math Club lecture, William came down with the flu. The media inferred that h had had a “nervous breakdown”
“ Indeed, no one had shielded William from the enormous publicity that attended his lecture. Reporters dogged his every step, pried into his personal life, pressured him to behave wondrously and perform marvels on commands. Now it was almost too late. The juggernaut of his fame was careening too wildly to be stopped.”
“William did not return to school for several months, and by the time he did, the damage was done. It was widely believed that he had had a ‘nervous breakdown’, and when he returned to Harvard, he was more of an anomaly than ever. From then on, any vacation William took was suspected to be evidence of
“In a class at Harvard where a formula was being explained, the boy became bored and began to entertain himself by balancing his hat upside down on his head. This so distracted the class that he was asked to refrain. Billy could not seem to understand that the ‘greatest intellect of the age’ should not balance his hat upside down on his head in class. He believed he had a right to do as he pleased, provided he didn’t hurt anyone else.
breakdown. The students whispered behind his back. These rumors were impossible
to correct---the newspapers fed them gleefully, since they provided them with
delicious copy rife with righteous choruses of I-told-you-so’s.”
Is Becoming a “One-of-a-Kind” Prodigy
“Over the next few years, the increasing breadth of his interests continued to set William apart from other prodigies—from politics to mathematics, languages to astronomy, streetcars to anatomy—it appeared that William was rapidly becoming a one-of-a-kind prodigy.
Billy was dreaming up the constitution for a rigidly totalitarian utopia that he dubbed “Hesperia”.
“Structurally, Billy’s paper utopia is reminiscent of the United States Constitution. Philosophically, it is a complete departure from the vision of the founding fathers. Billy’s best of all possible worlds emerges as rigidly totalitarian, though he never uses that term.”
“Marriage is forbidden, and polygamy is legal. People with venereal disease are exiled to Coventry, and forcibly sterilized. There would be no binding agreements between the sexes, no shared property, no nuclear family. Boys would not be subjected to bothersome mothers, as long as there were male guardians to replace them. In utopia, there is no Harvard University, where proud parents can send their brilliant children. And presumably, in utopia, there are no reporters.”
“Hesperia” is important because it shows the values of the eleven-year-old Billy.
In the meantime, Boris Sidis published a scathing indictment of instructional education, Philistine and Genius, using Billy as an illustration of his theories. “Sarah reflected forty years later: ’Boris pulled down upon his stout head, and upon Billy who was so very young, the anger that comes from hurt pride. Educators, psychologists, editorial writers, and newspaper readers were furious with him. And their fury was a factor in Billy’s life upon which we had not counted.’”
Sarah was becoming estranged from the rest of her family. Sarah was a human dynamo, tyrannizing her nephews (including Clifton Fadiman and Jack Goldwyn).. Boris was devoting and increasing fraction of his time to writing books while Sarah worked the clock around servicing the infrastructure. In 1910, Helena was born, and was virtually ignored. “A lot of Sarah’s steam blew off in Billy’s direction. She nagged and criticized him over trivialities, increasing the strain between them.”
When he was thirteen, William went to board at a Harvard dorm. “Very little is known about his experiences in the dorm, but they must have been hellish.”
Norbert Wiener on Harvard
Norbert Wiener wrote about Harvard,
“I had felt myself to be a misfit from the first. Harvard impressed me as being overwhelmingly right thinking. In such an atmosphere, a prodigy is likely to be regarded as an insolence toward the gods. My father’s publicly announced attitude toward my education had aroused hostility among his colleagues, which made my lot no easier. I had hoped to find intellectual life among my fellow students. . . . But in the Harvard order of things, a gentlemanly indifference, and intellectual imperturbability joined with the graces of society made the ideal Harvard man.”
How Much Worse for Billy!
“How much worse for Billy, in the brighter glare of publicity his father attracted—and how he differed from the ideal Harvard man. Disaster seemed certain. “
“To make matters worse for Billy, rumors of Billy’s nervous breakdown had continued to dog him. Now that his permanent home was in a sanitarium, the confusion grew greater.
“Thought to be subject to fits of insanity and recurrent nervous breakdowns, he was horribly ostracized. Not surprisingly, he became the butt of practical jokes. Radcliffe girls pretended to flirt with him, and the hapless genius would brag about it to his classmates. A few practical jokers even composed fake love letters proposing marriage; he never caught on to the gag.
Buckminster Fuller recalled, “Most students considered him a freak. . . . His family put him at a considerable disadvantage by dressing him in very short kids’ pants. …but no one imagined anything but the greatest success for him.”
“Derisive articles continued to appear in the press throughout Billy’s stay at Harvard. “ Of one of the more hurtful of these, Norbert Wiener wrote,
“’I had long been aware that my social development was far behind my intellectual progress, but I was mortified to find how much of a bore, boor, and nuisance Miss Dolbear’s article made me out to be. I had thought that I was well on my way to the solution of my problems. Miss Dolbear’s article made me feel like the player of Parcheesi whom an unfortunate cast of the dice has sent back to the beginning of the board.’
“…An attempt to seek a legal remedy would have subjected me to publicity far more dangerous and vicious than anything to which I had yet been exposed.”
“Humiliation followed the boy geniuses everywhere, dogged the steps of every intellectual triumph. Not the least of their problems was Harvard’s anti-Semitism, which was considerable. Many undergraduates favored the quotas limiting the number of Jews. As one student put it, ‘In harmony with their policy of getting all they can for as little as possible, Jews incidentally take a majority of the scholarships. They deprive many worthy men of other races a chance.’ Jews were considered too intelligent—they kept the level of scholarship too high, did too well on exams, and made the best grades. Jews were barred from membership in many of the prestigious Harvard clubs,, and were regarded with bitterness and envy. As caricatures of those despised Jewish traits—intellectual competence and academic achievement—the prodigies were doubly shunned.”
William Graduates from Harvard
In 1914, William graduated magna cum laud from Harvard at the age of 16. (Rumor had it that his mother was furious because it wasn’t summa cum laude.) The papers now proclaimed him, “the most remarkable youth in the world”. 16-year-old Billy declaimed, “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.” Then he did something that probably haunted him for the rest of his days: he granted a self-revealing interview to a reporter from the Boston Herald. In it, he disclosed that when he was fourteen, he had taken a vow of celibacy, and had struck a medal to commemorate it. Once a year, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, he returned to the oak in Cambridge where he had taken his vow. He displayed a photograph of the tree, which he carried in his pocket, together with his rulebook containing his 154 rules for living.
William Gives an Ill-Fated Press Interview
“The piece is bursting with fascinating Sidis trivia. The child marvel relaxes by holding a pillow against his cheek; he eats crackers and milk for breakfast, crackers and cheese for lunch, and crackers and milk for supper; he dislikes flowers and music; his favorite diversion is “trolling,” riding around on a trolley car. (Just for the record, when asked on what day Christmas would fall in the year 2011, Billy put his hands to his head, paced a moment, and gave the correct answer.) He was, in the reporter’s opinion, ‘an egoist.’”
[Reviewer’s Aside: Christmas Day, 2011 will fall on a Sunday. How do I
know? Well, Christmas Day, 2002, will fall on a Wednesday. (Christmas Day, 2001,
fell on a Tuesday. 2002 isn’t a leap year, so a given date will advance by one
day of the week this year, to Wednesday.) 2011 is 9 years from now, and there
will be 2 leap years (2004 and 2008) in between. That will advance the day of
the week by 11 days, which is equivalent to saying that it will advance the day
of the week by 4 days. Four days from Wednesday is Sunday.
After reading about William Sidis’ uncanny childhood ability to tell his parents’ guests on what day of the week their dates of birth fell, I began to ponder how he might have done it, and discovered that it’s a lot easier than you might suppose. For example, Christmas Day, 1911, would have fallen upon… stand by now, while the amazing Swami Bob performs a marvelous feat of mental magic (drum roll, please)… click, click . . . whirr . . . hum-m-m . . . a Monday. How did I do it? Well, 100 years would move back the day of the week upon which Christmas fell by 100 days plus 25 days for the 25 leap years in 100 years. Dividing 125 by 7, I get 17, with 6 left over. The 6 left over is all that counts. The day of the week would be moved back by 6 days, or in other words, forward one day to Monday.
I mention this because I think that it’s important to demystify some of the mental legerdemain that seems to be transcendental to what it really is—the ability to carry out arithmetic in one’s head.
Of course, I’m a little older than 6-year-old Billy Sidis.
To give another “demystification example”, I can multiply any pair of two-digit numbers in my head in about 5 seconds. How do I do it? Well, it depends upon the numbers. If it were something like 27 times 47, I would observe that these numbers can be regarded as 37 + 10 times 37 – 10. and that’s equal to 37 squared – 100. 37 squared is 35 squared plus 4 times 35 plus 4. I know 35 squared by heart (= 1225). Adding 140 to it would give me 1365, and adding 4 to that would yield 1,369. Subtracting 100 from 1,369 would yield the correct answer:1,269.
As another example, to multiply 73 by 31, I would probably observe that 73 times 30 is 2190. Then if I added 73 to that, I would get 2263.
(I’ve worked out these techniques intuitively, although I’m sure familiarity with algebra helped.)]
Vows Eternal Celibacy
The crucial part about William’s interview was his list of rules for living, and his intention never to consort with a woman. As witness to his steadfast purpose, he declared that he had already declined six proposals of marriage since he made his vow and will heartlessly refuse all that are forthcoming in the future. He proceeded to expound on various radical attitudes toward home, family and life.
The New York Times picked up on the Boston Herald article and had a field day with it. The innermost thoughts of a teenager had been revealed to the world, and had been received with “gleeful gibes.” In an editorial entitled “This Plan is Full of Promise, the Times quoted a writer from the Chicago Journal who opined that young Sidis was an ”intolerable prig” and needed to be seduced by a beautiful, worldly woman. “. . . . she could teach him to sit up, roll over, fetch, carry and jump through a hoop . . . . It wouldn’t take more than three weeks, and any woman can spare that much time in a good cause.”
The New York Times went on to say what a promising treatment this seemed for anybody suffering as this wonder youth was said to be. And f he isn’t—and is half as wise as his advertisers claim—he will just smile broadly with the rest of us at the recipe suggested by the Chicago expert.”
William probably wasn’t capable of smiling broadly at himself.
William Goes to Texas
After graduation, William entered the Harvard graduate school, but one
day, a gang of Harvard rowdies cornered him after class and threatened to beat
That ended William’s graduate program at Harvard.
His parents arranged to secure an appointment for William in the mathematics department at the newly founded Rice University in Houston, Texas. Officially, William was a Graduate Fellow working toward his doctorate, and serving as a teaching assistant. William was to teach three courses: freshman math, and Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. He wrote his own textbook for the class in Euclidean geometry—in Greek.
It was arranged that William would stay in the Bachelor House with Griffith Evans, from Harvard, and two other professors: A. L. Hughes, a Welsh physicist, and Julian Huxley, the grandson of Thomas Huxley. In the meantime, William “had become quite slovenly in the last year or two, and he was so weird socially that next to no one befriended him”.
“Classes proved impossible. In the words of Blakely Smith, a Rice alumnus: ‘I took freshman trig from Sidis, but we never studied math because at the beginning of every class two or three boys would tease him about girls and his hands would start to shake. He would put his hands over his face or hold his arms out in front of him and his hands and arms would tremble violently.’ I think he had a crush on Camille Waggaman, a real blonde beauty, but didn’t have the brains to do anything about it.” (Ms. Wallace mentions that William wouldn’t have had a chance with Camille Waggaman.)
“Like the Radcliffe girls, Rice coeds took up the game of mad crushes on their ungainly math professor.”
Note: It would take a lot to make someone’s hands shake like that, or to
reduce someone to covering his face in front of a class of students he were
It’s also interesting to note that Rice had coeds in 1915, and that they may have taken math.
“He stayed mostly to himself, but occasionally tried to mingle with the rest of us. He had only one suit of clothes, the sort of heavy, rough woolens worn by most Englishmen. Most of us felt sorry for him. He was absent-minded, not a man about town. Dr. Evans had to make him shave and bathe, and his hair needed cutting.”
Another pivotal development was that William entered into radical political organizing while at Rice, trying to organize a branch of the American Socialist Party.
“When the men of Bachelor House entertained, the presence of young Sidis was an excruciating embarrassment. It was bad enough that he aired his radical politics—worse still, he had no social instincts. A student who attended one these awkward evenings recalled, “He behaved like a child—he ate his dinner and dessert quickly, then left.”
“One faculty wife who occasionally visited ‘the bach’ declared, ‘Sidis’s behavior was very much to be criticized, and he didn’t make a great many friends . . . He was very spoiled, a tragic person.’
“’When the faculty were invited to my parents’ house, Sidis would sometimes take a knife and divide the cake on the tea table in half and eat the whole half. I son’t know if that was in his constitution or not!’”
Julian Huxley wrote, “He was brilliant at mathematics, but in all other subjects he was childishly ignorant; he spent his time mooning about and prattling to the Tsanoff’s infant daughter. He was also untidy and rather dirty.”
The emotional trauma seemed to deepen William’s intellectual interests. “The more human beings proved to be disappointing, the greater the pull of the mind.”
He kept a diary that he encrypted so that no one could see what he had said.
After eight months, he was asked to leave Rice.
William Returns to His Roots
No solace was waiting for him back in Boston. The news organs made capital of his misadventures in Texas. They quoted non-existent, misogynistic statements he supposedly made to his friends. One author concluded that brilliance and mental health could never go hand in hand. When the stories reached Texas, they generated hostile remarks and columns flaying William for what he had allegedly said about Texas and Texans.
William enrolled in Harvard Law School after he returned. By now, he had learned to keep printable remarks to himself, and for a while, he enjoyed some peace and solitude. During his period, he made ever greater intellectual leaps. His sister writes that he could learn a new language in a day. According to her, “Billy knew all the languages in the world, while my father only knew twenty-seven. I wonder if there were any Billy didn’t know??
Helena Sidis, Twelve Years Younger Than William
William generated several dictionaries of of American slang or
William’s Ouija Board Phase
William became interested during this period in Ouija boards. William, of course, could make the Oujia pointer sing and dance. When the spirits of the Ouija board declared themselves to be citizens of the planet Venus, William and 7-year-old Helena began to take careful notes.
“Soon, the Venusians were communicating with William in their own language, which he ably decoded. Helena recalls the language being a blend of the multitude of tongues William had mastered, akin to Esperanto or to his own Vendergood. In his usual methodical manner, William concocted a full grammar in Venusian. He posed questions about Venusian civilization and recorded the answers (decoded) in a little book in tiny handwriting.”
When his notebook was full, he spun the material into his first science fiction novel, now lost. The science fiction novel is primarily about the nature of the Venusians, and the organization and character of their society. The Venusians looked like us but wore very little clothing, probably because Venus is presumed to be hotter than the Earth. Not surprisingly, The Venusian polity resembles “Hesperia”.
In the meantime, William became enmeshed in radically liberal politics. On April 6, 1917, following the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat, the United States entered Word War I on the side of the “Allies”. The Socialist party voted to reaffirm its antiwar stance, and virtually all U. S. intellectuals deserted en masse. But not William. There was rampant mob violence. “Religious pacifists were jailed and tortured.”
William on Sun Spots
In 1918, William, now twenty, wrote an article published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, in which he postulates that sunspots cause the sun to emit less radiation, leading to colder weather on Earth. Billy writes,
“’Sun-spots are rifts in the surface of the sun, exposing a lower layer. This lower layer gives less light and heat than the surface, and therefore, the more spots there are on the sun, the less heat the sun will give, and the cooler will be the climate . . . . The last sun-spot minimum was in 1911, Thus, it appears that revolts and revolutions take place in warm countries near the minimum of sun-spots; in each case, when the weather is such as to tend to poor crops.
“’A government not based on the will of the people must, in the nature of things, rule by fear, by keeping the people in constant subjection; and the people will be kept in subjection as long as they can be made to fear. The tendency of such oppression is to exasperate the people and excite them to deperate measures, especially if the oppression affects their means of livelihood. But if circumstances suddenly become such that many lives, or the health of many people are seriously threatened as by extreme cold, famine, etc., this superadds the instinct for self-preservation, and the fear is entirely counteracted. The power of the government to keep the people in subjection is weakened, and the rebellious tendencies come to the foreground, resulting in open revolt. This will happen especially if there is a poor crop; and this probably takes place every eleven years, in accordance with the sun=spot variations.
“’This rule would apply only to the date of the beginning of a revolt; therefore all revolts included in my list were dated from the time of outbreak, and not of the culmination.’
“The list, yet another example of William’s awesome scholarship, traces thirty-three revolts and their respective minimum or maximum of sunspots, providing impressive evidence to support his case.”
Leans to the Left
William claimed exemption from conscription as a conscientious objector, and it was only the speedy termination of the war that kept him from going to prison.
In 1918, Boris and Helena succumbed to the flu epidemic that would leave twenty-million people dead. They recovered, but Boris didn’t recover completely, and was advised by his physician to seek a warmer climate. Boris, Sarah and Helena moved to San Diego, leaving William behind. For some unknown reason, he quit Harvard Law School in his last semester. In spite of his totalitarian leanings in writing about Hesperia, William began to drift farther and farther to the left.
By 1919, the United States entered a period of anti-radical hysteria. The Bolsheviks wanted to overthrow the U. S. government by force, and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. . . an idea that didn’t sit well with the U. S. public. U. S. servicemen, home from the wars, were infuriated by leftist “apparatchiks” who sought to use U. S. freedoms to overthrow the government that was sheltering them. At the same time, wartime inflation had doubled prices in the U. S. Nascent labor unions demanded higher wages and collective bargaining, and characterized America’s businessmen as robber barons. “Rallied by Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, the War Department and the FBI devoted themselves to passionately to crushing the Bolshevik menace.
“Palmerized Americans, drenched in hysterical newspaper reports and struggling financially, succumbed to mass hysteria. When Boris Sidis labeled the American state of mind in these years a mental epidemic, a fear complex, he was quite correct.”
William Leads the Socialist May Day parade
In the midst of this brewing storm, twenty-one-year-old William Sidis,
carryng a red flag and wearing a red necktie, led five hundred Socialists
through the streets of Roxbury, waving red flags and shouting, “To hell with
the permit!” (They had been denied a permit for their May Day parade.)
The march degenerated into a melee. William was the first to be booked. He had been badly beaten up. But there was a little more to the story than met the eye. William was in love, There was 20-year-old Irish girl by the name of Martha Foley who had already established a reputation as a firebrand, and who had pierced the self-proclaimed anchorite, William, through the heart.
Martha’s bail was set at $1,000, and William’s at $5,000. On May 13th, their trial was held. Both William and Martha were meted out eighteen-month sentences. Neither of them actually ended up serving them, but William was once again in the news, this time in notoriety.
Boris and Sarah were disgraced, and aghast at their son’s misdemeanors. Boris told Sarah shortly after the Bolshevik revolution that, “Their slavery is going to be deeper than it ever was under the Tsar.” Boris and Sarah had been greeted with open arms when they arrived in San Diego, and were very grateful to the United States for the freedom and opportunity it offered both of them. Boris was more tolerant of William’s transgression than Sarah. After all, hadn’t he been a young firebrand in his day back in Tsarist Russia?
William’s Babylonian Captivity
Boris evidently pulled the appropriate strings to keep William out of jail, but William was not exactly a free man. “As Helena described it, ‘He was cleared sort of temporarily, but it took a number of years before they were able to clear him so he could even be in Massachusetts.’”
“ …William remained frightened of possible arrest for a good many years.”
“The ordeal that followed was a prison term nonetheless, in William’s opinion. His parents swooped down on Boston, scooped him up, and took him to Portsmouth, where they set about to reform their boy wonder.”
Twenty-five years later, William wrote,
“’Lest anyone acquire the impression that sending conscientious objectors to asylums is a new trick, it might be of interest to note that the trick was known in the last war.
“’A conscientious objector who was too young to be called on to register till late in 1918, and who thereby escaped any actual draft call up to the time of the Armistice, was hauled into court on a trumped-up charge in May, 1919. The evidence was appealed (such procedure is normal in Massachusetts district courts); but before the appeal could come to trial, he was kidnapped by his parents, by arrangement with the district attorney, and was taken to a sanatorium operated by them, He was kept there a full year--from October,1919, to October, 1920—and kept under various kinds of mental torture, consisting of being scolded and nagged at (everything that did or did not happen was grounds for a tongue-lasing protracted over many hours) for an average of six to eight hours a day; sometimes this scolding was administered while he was loaded with sleeping medicine, or after being waked up out of a sound sleep. And the threat of being transferred to regular insane asylum was held up in front of him constantly, with detailed descriptions of the tortures practiced there, as well as of the simple legal process by which he could be committed to such a place. He was unlawfully held in this sanatorium, but he could not escape while watch was being kept, for the criminal case was kept pending against him, and it was on the court records that he had jumped bail (being kidnapped, he could not appear for trial, or even know that trial had been called).
“’In October, 1920, he was taken to California, to prevent his communicating somehow with friends in his home city sixty miles away. He made his escape from there in September, 1921, by which time he appeared to be scared of his own shadow. The attempt to get him back to his old tortures was never given up, the parents resorting, from time to time, to various efforts to track him back to the old tortures was never given up, the parents resorting from time to time, to various efforts to track him down and to persuade his friends to turn him over for “protection”, especially when any misfortune is know to have come his way. A particular effort to bring him under control of relatives was made about a year ago, but was highly unsuccessful.
“Since in most states, any two physicians can commit a man, without giving him a chance to defend himself, into a sanatorium or asylum, where he can be held incommunicado indefinitely, the danger of railroading of that sort is still very much alive. In any case where the prosecution is able to command the services of two doctors, the victims would then dimply disappear without leaving any traces.’”
I’ve reproduced this in full because it’s the stuff of which nightmares are made. Boris was William’s role model. Having his own parents try to control him and terrify him in this way must have been terribly traumatic.
William Explores the California Countryside, and the World of the Common Folk
While William was “incarcerated” in California,
“He often borrowed the family car or boardied a bus and toured the small towns that dotted the California coast. Sarah reminisced about his travels: “Helena always turned to nature, but it was the man-made world that Billy loved. He told me with a glow of the pleasure that he got in going into strange towns, and eating at little holes-in-the-wall with all the people who drive the trucks and push the typewriters that make the world go. Thus Billy, who had grown up among people who were above all intellectual, who made their mark on their time, fell in love with the type of person who leaves no record in this world except in the memories of those who loved them.”
William Publishes” The Animate and the Inanimate”
In 1925, the publisher of most of Boris Sidis’ books, brought out William’s “The Animate and the Inanimate”. It failed to receive a single review. Fifty-four years later, it was brought to the attention of one of William’s former Harvard classmates: Buckminster Fuller. Fuller wrote, “Imagine my excitement and joy on being handed this Xerox of Sidis’s 1925 book, in which he clearly predicts the black hole. In fact, I find his whole book to be a fine cosmological piece . . Norbert Wiener used to talk to me about him . . . and Norbert was grieved that Sidis did not go on to fulfill his seemingly great promise of brilliance . . . I hope you will become as excited as I am at this discovery that Sidis did go on after college to do the most magnificent thinking and writing. I find him focusing on many of the same subjects that fascinate me, and coming to about the same conclusions as those I have published in Synergetics, and will be publishing in Synergetics, Volume II.”
"William suggested that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not a law at all, but a probability. The fact that the Second Law of Thermodynamics seems always to hold true is more or less coincidence in our corner of the universe. Also, entropy is reversed in other corners of the universe--elsewhere, chaos is proceeding to order. And if the Second Law of Thermodynamics appears to dominate local events, then probability suggests that there must be reversals of it all around us that we haven't yet recognized.
" ...Sidis theorized that inanimate (dead) objects follow the Second Law of Thermodynamics, while animate (living) things reverse the law, and draw on a "reserve fund" of energy to mold the universe to their will. Life provided the reversal of entropy that Sidis's theory required. William's theory remains highly speculative; there is no reason to believe that a reverse universe exists. Also, biological processes are
no longer the mystery they were at the time of his writing. But while working on this problem, Sidis came up with other conclusions that are interesting to this day.
"Cosmogeny is the study of the origins of the universe; the most popularly known -theory today is called the "Big Bang" theory. In The Animate and the Inanimate, William proposed a "Great Collision" theory, wherein two large, inert bodies, containing all the matter in the universe between them, collided; this collision provided the energy that started the universe in motion.
"As our sun hurtles through space to an eventual frozen death, it gives off energy. Somewhere in the universe there are suns that take in energy, and death becomes life. This other kind of sun Sidis dubbed a "black body," since it would be taking in all light energy, and therefore be totally invisible. This exactly describes a black hole. Should the Second Law of Thermodynamics eventually reverse itself in this "blackbody," it would then start giving off energy and become a sun. In this way, the universe would be in a perpetual state of ebb and flow, all energy being conserved.
"Scientists allover the world are still working on a problem known as "Fermi's paradox," proposed by Enrico Fermi. If the universe is infinite, Fermi postulated, then everything possible must occur somewhere sometime; therefore, there must exist a planet where the inhabitants speak English. Why haven't we met them? Why haven't we met anyone out there? Young Sidis also said, "The theory of the reversibility of the universe supposes that life exists under all sorts of circumstances, even on such hot bodies as the sun." Like Fermi's paradox, Sidis's reversibility theory also requires that life must exist in every corner of the universe, in order to provide the necessary reversals of the law of entropy.
"The theory is challenging, fascinating, and controversial on its own merits today. It was far more so in 1925; and it must be remembered that it sprang from the mind of a boy in his early twenties, who devoted only a portion of his scholarship to this book, because he was dedicated to such a vast variety of other intellectual pursuits at the same time. Had he dedicated his life entirely to cosmogeny, who knows what extraordinary body of work he might have produced?
William never commented concerning the total lack of interest in “the
Annimate and the Inanimate”, but he never wrote about mathematics, physics or
cosmology again, and he never again published a book under his own name.
William’s One True Love, Martha Foley
He and his parents came to a final parting of the ways over his loss of an office job. Since he feared arrest if he returned to Boston, he headed for New York and Martha Foley, living at first with his aunt, Bessie Fadiman. Amy Wallace writes,
“Also, he followed his aunt around the house, complaining bitterly about his parents. One of his bitterest refrains, she remembered, stemmed from his early childhood. William lamented that his parents had not taught him the rudiments of grooming, and to his great embarrassment, he had found himself years behind other children in the simplest matters, such as tying shoelaces or getting dressed properly. At the age of twenty-three, these humiliations still rankled (but not enough, evidently, for him to change his now casual approach to these matters.)”
William took a job as an interpreter with an agency handling Soviet business in America.
“The light of William’s life was Martha Foley, whom he saw often. He confided the details of their meetings to [Julius] Eichel, who wrote about the trysting twenty years later. ‘Sidis sought out his new flame and carried on a romance on Central Park benches. He was very naïve when he would tell this story of his lovemaking. The first time he had her to himself in Central Park, he kissed her with a great deal of ardor. ‘Why, you kiss like an experienced lover,’ she said. ‘Where did you get that experience?’ And he naively answered, as he later told us, ‘Why, can’t you believe it comes as naturally to me as to any other man?’”
“An elated William secured a photograph of Martha, which he flourished at every opportunity. Cousin Clifton Fadiman saw it, as did numerous other acquaintances. ‘He would suddenly take it out, her picture. We might be talking about the price of egg and all of a sudden, he would say, ‘Did I ever show you this?’ And it was Martha.’”
Norbert Wiener’s Story
“After receiving his M.A. from Harvard, Norbert went in an entirely different direction from William's, and it is worthwhile to compare the paths the two geniuses followed. Norbert himself had suffered a painful crisis after his graduation from Tufts College at fourteen. He was physically exhausted and deeply pained by "one of the greatest realizations the infant prodigy must make: He is not wanted by the community." Not only was he, like William, a social misfit at Harvard, but a Jew whose mother, though Jewish, was anti- Semitic and concealed his Jewishness from him. Norbert was stunned by the revelation of his true race and crushed by the unexpected
anti-Semitism he encountered at Harvard. Under these strains, his studies suffered.
"Norbert studied biology at Harvard, but was not gifted in the field and was uncertain whether or not to continue. In his memoirs he wrote bitterly, " As usual, the decision was made by my father. He decided that such success as I had made as an undergraduate at Tufts in philosophy indicated the true bent of my career. I was to become a philosopher. ...This deprivation of the right to judge for myself and to stand the consequences of my own decision stood me in ill stead for many years to come. It delayed my social and moral maturity , and represents a handicap I have only partly discarded in middle age."
"Norbert didn't have the courage to rebel against his father, though he resented his father's decision bitterly. Unlike William, he never made a statement of this urge to rebel, but instead bit the bullet and entered into the study of philosophy, eventually managing to specialize in an area that he loved, that of mathematical logic.
"William's rebellion, then, was a healthier statement of individual- ity than Norbert's obedience. On the other hand, Norbert enjoyed certain advantages in his emotional relationship with his father that William did not. As mentioned earlier, when a cruel article was published during Norbert's stay at Harvard, naming the college's four prodigies as social and emotional failures, Leo Wiener leapt to a passionate defense of his son, wrote letters of complaint to the magazine in question, and considered taking legal action. While the letters of complaint yielded nothing in the way of a retraction or an apology, that was not the point. Leo Wiener had acted on behalf of his son in a way that it never occurred to Boris to do. Boris constantly defended William in theory, and defended his own method of education-but he never saw the value in taking a stand against an abusive or humiliating article, except in order to correct educational theory .He did not give his son the sense of personal protection that Norbert, however much his father bullied him, seemed to enjoy.
"More important, Leo Wiener only occasionally paraded the proof of his theories' success-Norbert-to the newspapers. Boris, of course, advertised his boldly, blind to the harm it was doing to his son. Writer Kathleen Montour, in a 1977 article in American Psychologist, compared William and Norbert, and held to the common opinion that Boris Sidis was a villain who had made a tragedy of his son's life. Even with these strong views, she conceded the crucial role of the yellow journalism that haunted William: "Certainly, those who took pleasure in holding [William's] misadventures against him were as much to blame for his outcome as his father. For all that Norbert Wiener and William Sidis had in common, Wiener never had to deal with such unrelenting ridicule."
"Norbert also cherished the frequent hikes and camping trips he took with his father. Boris and William had no equivalent amusement. Their intellectual discussions of mathematics, religion, and politics were deeply satisfying and stimulating, but father and son were never free of the feeling that Sarah hovered somewhere nearby, about to give orders putting them to work while bitterly resenting being left out of their discussions.
"After completing his graduate studies at Harvard, Norbert spent six unhappy years. At Cambridge University he studied under Bertrand Russell, who found him pompous and told a colleague, "He thinks himself God Almighty ." Poor Norbert was wildly insecure, and afraid he would be thought "a fool"-in his efforts to impress, he succeeded only in appearing as an arrogant, if brilliant, boor. Like William, he lacked the social graces, writing later, "I had no proper idea of personal cleanliness and personal neatness, and I myself never knew when I was to blurt out some unpardonable rudeness." The great difference between the two prodigies was this: Norbert never stopped worrying about whether he was tactless and out of step socially, while William had never learned to care.
"Returning to the United States at the age of twenty-one, Norbert lectured at Harvard for a time. At his father's urging he became a math teacher at the University of Maine, where he was miserable. A series of unsatisfactory jobs followed. Norbert did not find any happiness until 1919, when he took a post teaching math at MIT.
"Clearly, Norbert's observation still held true: Just because the boys were prodigies did not mean they had anything else in common.
At the time that William Sidis took up a double life as his solution to the pains of his existence, Norbert settled into a respectable job at MIT. Leaving philosophy behind, he slowly began what would become a brilliant career in mathematics and science.
"Equally important, Norbert began to court the woman who would become his wife, Margaret Engemann, a language professor. Norbert had had one previous girlfriend, of whom his family did not approve, and they humiliated him mercilessly until the couple broke up. "Family ridicule," he wrote sadly, "was a weapon against which I had no defenses." The fact that his family approved of Margaret and pressured him intensely to marry her disturbed both the young lovers, and made them unduly cautious. " A courtship that might end in marriage," he wrote, "could only be my own and could not represent a decision imposed on me by parental authority ." Furthermore, Norbert believed, his parents saw Margaret as someone who would "serve as a ready instrument for holding me in line," and "they supposed that my marriage with Margaret would mean an indefinite prolongation of my family captivity ." Happily, none of this was so, and theirs was a true love match. But there were other problems-the beginning of their honeymoon was spent at a depressing, musty New York hotel that had been the headquarters of the American Mathematical Society; and during their European honeymoon they were joined by Norbert's parents. Just when the couple most needed to be alone, Norbert faced the sorry realization that "I had become too emotionally dependent on my parents to ignore their summons."
"In his autobiography, Norbert wrote frankly of this problem in his marriage, stating that it was many years before he overcame his parents' domination, and that their "policy of glossing over my emotional difficulties" made his struggle for independence all the more difficult. This problem, in a nutshell, is common to many prodigies, and like other prodigies, Norbert credited his marriage with defrosting him emotionally. He wrote, "I wish no reader to draw the conclusion
that my emotional life has been restricted to my scientific career, or that I could live with any satisfaction without the loyalty, affection, and continued support of my lifelong companion. ...I cannot express how my life has been strengthened and stabilized by the love and
understanding of my partner."
Martha Foley's Story
"Had Martha Foley returned William's passion as Margaret did Norbert's, perhaps the two prodigies would have had more in common
in the long run. The same year that Norbert married, Martha definitely cast her lot with a man whom she had met in San Francisco, a troubled young writer named Whit Burnett. Unlike William, Whit had no interest in Martha's great passions-politics, socialism, and feminism
-but he shared her other love, writing.
"Martha returned to New York and set up housekeeping with Whit. He got a job at The New York Times, she at the Daily Mirror. According to friends, William treated this development as if it didn't exist. Martha still saw him socially, but without Whit, and William did not attempt to prevail over Martha-he simply avoided discussion of the interloper and carried on as before, but without the kisses. In 1927, Martha and Whit moved to Paris. William did not see Martha again for five years. As before, William bore his unrequited love cheerfully, continuing to talk about Martha and show the photograph that he carried for the rest of his life.
"In the life of a prodigy, perhaps more than in the average life, a marriage or a requited love is the greatest single factor that can heal the old childhood wounds. William and Norbert's response to their childhood and teenage rejections and humiliations was to retreat into the painless world of ideas, where successes and satisfactions abounded. A successful love affair could be the key to reentry into the world of
feeling, bridging the gap between the cerebral and the emotional lives. This was dramatically true in the case of that other great prodigy, John Stuart Mill.
John Stuart Mills' Story
"John Stuart Mill's father was a more ferocious version of Leo Wiener. Intensely critical and cold, James Mill lavished continual
attention on his prodigy son, but never affection. Like Norbert, John did not rebel overtly against his oppressive father. Instead, his inner
pressures led to a kind of nervous breakdown at the age of twenty..Outwardly, he went through the motions of his busy intellectual
schedule; inwardly he was morose and empty. He had lost the ability to feel-neither poetry , nor music, nor even his favorite books, in-
spired any real emotion in him. He had lost his former zeal for the altruism his father had taught him, and no longer felt excitement at
the thought of reforming mankind and bettering the lot of millions of Hindus. If he did not learn to feel in a year's time, John decided,
he would commit suicide.
"To his despair, he discovered that his mood did not crack under rigid self-analysis, the only tool his father had given him. Sadder still, he could not think of a single person to confide in. His father was the last person he would consider approaching-not only was John afraid of his, but he was also, paradoxically, afraid of making James Mill feel like a failure.
"After suffering this depression for some six months, John's first breakthrough came when he was moved to tears while reading a sentimental book. A passion for Wordsworth ' s poetry followed, and a hunger for all things emotional. He recovered, and resumed his furious work pace. While he never declared any outright opposition to his father, he realized that he needed emotion to supplement his father's brand of arid, dour rationality. At the age of twenty-four, John met an intellectual, sympathetic, married woman, Harriet Taylor, and they began an emotional, though not a sexual, affair. When her husband died twenty years later, the lovers were finally married. Though less perfectly satisfying than Norbert Wiener's marriage, John Mill's unconventional love affair did much to synthesize his feelings and his intellect. Furthermore, the liaison was such an assault upon Victorian mores that it served as a satisfactory , if indirect, rebellion against James Mill, who heartily disapproved of his son's coveting another man's property.
"Leo Wiener and James Mill were both unlike Boris Sidis in that they were verbally abusive of their sons, harshly criticizing the boys when they failed to conform properly. However, there is a crucial similarity that runs through the upbringing of the three-all of the boys reached young manhood with a feeling of helplessness and inability in regard to handling the practicalities of life, and all knew their parents were to blame.
"John Mill's mother left her son's training so wholly to her husband that the boy never learned to take care of himself in trivial, domestic ways. James Mill regarded his son's ineptitudes with scorn. Wrote John bitterly, "The education which my father gave me, was in itself much more fitted for training me to know than do. ...There was anything but insensibiliry or tolerance on his part towards such shortcomings: but, while he saved me from the demoralizing effects of school life, he made no effort to provide me with any ;sufficient substitute for its practicalizing influences. Whatever qualities he himself, probably, had acquired without difficult or special training, he seems to have supposed that I ought to acquire as easily. ..he seems to have expected effects without causes."
Of the Three Prodigies, William May Have Been the Happiest
"What shades, here, of William Sidis's not being taught to tie his shoelaces! The mistake of these parents of prodigies, then, was to assume that their children, with their marvelous brains, would absorb the commonsense details of life as easily as they would their Latin declensions, and with less need of instruction. Of these three prodigies, William, though by far the most outcast by society , and appearing to be the greatest failure, was at this stage in life finding the greatest happiness. He had hit upon a strategy--the
double life--which served him well, and he was both productive and satisfied with his daily existence. If he had found a reciprocal love as had Norbert Wiener and John Mill, he too would have had the advantage of a richer emotional life. But more important, he had rebelled against his parents for all he was worth, and reaped enormous benefits from it. He had no morose depressions or restless years spent following his parents' plan--he was his own man, however odd, however eccentric, however unorthodox.
One of the eccentricities for which William is most notoious is his preoccupation with maps, and streetcar transfers. His second and last publication, in 1926, was entitled, “Notes on the Collection of Transfers”, which he published using some of his inheritance money. Amy Wallace says of this book,
“This work is arguably the most boring book ever written, and as any bibliophile knows. The competition is fierce. It unquestionably placed him among the foremost ranks of literary eccentrics. Before Sidis arrived upon the scene, there had been a volume entitled Nothing, by Methelá which contained 200 blank pages.” In 1634, Charles Butler bestowed upon the world The Feminin Monarchi, a history of bees written phonetic spelling. In 1802, Timothy Dexter’s A Pickle for the Knowing Ones made the scene, composed of a single sentence, with all the punctuation on the last page in case you were inclined to re-insert it into the book. And in 1939 came Gadsby, by Ernest Vincent Wright, which was a fifty-thousand-word novel written without the use of the latter “e”.
The word peridromophile comes from “peri” (“around”), dromos (“running”), and philos (“love”), as in “loves to around”, e. g., on streetcars.
In 1926, William began the publication of a monthly magazine entitled “The Peridromophile” in which included the following examples of levity and mirth.
"Excuse me, does this train stop at Reading?"
"Yes; get off one station before I do."
"Oh, thank you.."
This transfer has expired, madam.
LADY: I don't blame it a bit. This streetcar is so poorly ventilated.
on the Boston streetcar during the 6 P.M. rush hour:
"We are in a jam. Heaven preserve us!"
man was seen walking a car track-an old, abandoned line
"Hey, what are you doing there?"
"I’m a detective.
"What are you looking for?"
"The president of the streetcar company."
"Well, you don't expect to find him here, do you?"
"No, but I'm on his track, anyhow."
William Sees Martha Foley for the Last Time
"After Helena graduated in 1929, and before the crash, she and her mother had taken a trip to Europe. Helena, at her brother's request, looked up Martha Foley at the Paris Herald Tribune office, met her, and liked her enormously. Martha and Whit Burnett were married in 1931, and had a son in November. That same year, they also gave birth to the first issue of Story magazine, which was devoted to publishing the short stories of both established and struggling young talents: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and Willa Cather, among others.
"In 1932 Whit and Martha returned to America, bringing Story with them and launching its soon-to-be illustrious American career. They were on their way to popularity, if not fame, and a few years later
were well known enough to appear in Current Biography, which described Martha as "a little woman who wears tailored suits and horn-rimmed spectacles and looks like a pleasant young housewife."
"Martha had lost none of her charm for William, and although her marriage to Whit was difficult--"-according to Martha, he was often arrogant and petulant, and they fought-she was not tempted to reconsider William as anything more than a former friend. According to Julius Eichel, they saw each other only once more: "When she
returned from Europe with the baby, he wrote asking permission to visit her. He discounted the husband altogether-was not interested in meeting him. Actually, he considered him an interloper who had best be forgotten. He had Martha Poley all to himself at that meeting; he was permitted to fondle the baby, and he had to take leave for- ever. ...I know that Sidis was deeply disappointed at the cold reception and forever sad at the parting. Sidis admitted that her love might have achieved wonders with him, for whereas he might be stubborn with others, there is nothing he would not have done to please her. He carried her photograph with him from 1920 until the day he died, and was always anxious to be asked about it, and would flourish it in the face of any newcomer to arouse a curiosity which he was fast to satisfy on demand. That was the only lady he ever loved,
and would admit it, just as readily as he would admit that she did not
"There was nothing 'he would not have done to please her.' Even, he told Eichel and other friends, break the vow of celibacy he had 'taken at the age of fifteen. Recalled Eichel, "To direct questioning, :Sidis admitted to me that he had no desire for any sex experience. Intellectually, it was distasteful, and he could not think of submitting
to that experience unless Martha Poley would demand it. He would do anything to be near her,' Helena affirms this: 'We talked a lot about Martha. I'm very sure he was celibate. A relationship, for him, wouldn't be dependent on sex-he would want people who were as intellectually minded as he was. He did tell me that he never got
married because our parents fought so much'.
"'He reminisced about some of the girls at the Rice Institute. ...And according to his friend, Marcos Spinelli, he used to do plenty of flirting with the girls in his office, and they smiled back--when Billy told me stories about it, he'd get a twinkle in his eye and he'd laugh. He had a way of going around that Constitution of his.'
"William paid regular visits to the Spinellis' apartment in Jersey City. Said Grace, "I never met any of William's friends. The only name I remember is Martha Foley. Marcos used to tease him about his platonic affair with Martha, and he loved it. Marcos would say, 'Come n, come on, show me the picture,' and they'd chuckle. And they'd go through this little routine every time.'
"In 1980, Martha Foley's posthumous memoir, The Story of STORY Magazine, was published. William received only a single mention, and parenthetical at that. After explaining that her mother had dedicated a volume of verse to her--the first of many such dedications to Martha--she wrote: '(The second was a volume on higher mathematics, by William James Sidis, the-famous and tragic prodigy who was the first boy ever to pay court to me. [The first part of this sentence is incorrect-The Animate and the Inanimate was not dedicated to anyone; perhaps Martha was given an inscribed copy, and she remembered incorrectly some forty years later.] Ready to enter Harvard at the age of nine, he was held back until eleven, became a university professor at fifteen, pioneered discoveries in the fourth dimension, became the focus of international attention, and had his life
blasted by notoriety. )'"
Cousins’ Impressions of William
“William continued to drop in on the Fadimans, usually for a meal. His visits made the teenaged Clifton uncomfortable. ‘He would come to our house without any announcement—it never occurred to him to use the phone. Because we were his aunt and uncle and cousins, we couldn’t throw him out.. ‘Home,’ as Mr. Frost’s line has it, ‘is where they have to take you in.’ But he was a damn nuisance. His conversation was never submitted to the ordinary conventional rules. It was explosive. His voice would get very loud when he complained of his mother and father. He certainly never asked for any pity, but he often screwed himself into a state of excitement. In many ways, his eccentricities were the consequences of his not having the conventional censor that we all have.
“’I don’t think he had anything like a regular job. He lived in third-rate little lodgings. He ate at the Automat. He was simply not an attractive man. He was quite large, about six feet tall, overweight, slovenly, with a mild skin disease. He was never ragged, but he didn’t seem to change his clothes. Even we, who weren’t dressed very well, felt somehow that this was somebody from the street—that’s what my mother used to say. And she’d try to clean him up and give him food. He was an enormous eater. When he came to our house, it was straight antique Jewish hospitality. And he would eat anything that was put before him, no matter how often it was presented.’
“Clifton’s brother, William, also commented on his cousin’s clothing. ‘He was dressed not oddly, but shabbily. His clothes were ill-fitting and unpressed. Shoes were always scuffed and dirty. And he didn’t bathe very often. He always wore a vest, summer or winter, which is curious. He wore a tie. He was quite formal, in a bizarre way.’
“But more puzzling to the Fadiman brothers than William’s appearance was his attitude toward academic or intellectual matter. When Clifton ventured to discuss mathematics with his illustrious cousin, William turned on them furiously, saying, ‘I don’t ever want to talk about that kind of thing!” According to Clifton, he referred contemptuously to “the intellect and the world of ideas, particularly mathematics. He didn’t say it was nonsense, but he would not talk about it. We would ask him what he was doing and he would toss it off. My impression was that he didn’t know what the hell was going on in the intellectual world; that he abjured everything that his father respected, everything about the academic, intellectual life. We thought he was merely passing his time in some second-rate lodging house doing nothing. And he read pulp science fiction novels. I read them. Too—they were great. But you wouldn’t think this great intellectual would like that sort of thing.’
“According to William Fadiman, ‘He abhorred being referred to as ‘the genius.’ If someone found out about him in the beginning of a relationship, he would get very choleric. He would get rid of and be furious at that person. He never swore, but he indicated as clearly as a man could that he was angry; that that was nobody’s business but his own.’”
“His courtship of Martha had not progressed beyond the kissing stage Although they remained close friends, she let it be known that she was not interested in anything more. Apparently, this disturbed William not at all, and he spoke about her to friends with the same enthusiasm as before. Perhaps he held out hopes for the future, or perhaps he was secretly relived at the limits she had set.”
William had said to others that he would do anything for Martha—even to the extent of sex if she wished it, although that was not what he wanted.
In 1923, William’s father died. William refused to attend the funeral, although he made tit to the reading of Boris’ will.
In 1924, at the age of 14, Helena entered Smith College, having placed third out of a hundred or more students on the entrance exams.
After his trip to Portsmouth for the reading of the will, William returned to New York to become a comptometer operator, often running one comptometer with his right hand, and another comptometer with his left hand, using his elbow to hit the space bar.
Press Catches Up With William
At this point, the press caught up with him again, with two stories about the “burnt-out” prodigy. Amy Wallace says,
“It was not that the prodigy had realized, as the reporter thought, “that all is vanity.” It was rather that he had had enough of callous reporters and an insatiable public, who seemed to believe that he owed them a debt just because he was a genius—who felt that he was obliged to perform marvels with the regularity of a trained seal, and that if he did not, he ought to be criticized, pilloried, and humiliated. But a mind is not public property. William Sidis had only one debt—the same debt every man has to himself—to achieve his own happiness and fulfillment, using his mind to the best of his ability. To achieve this happiness, William chose an extraordinary path: to lie about his genius, that he might remove it from the public arena; to pretend he was ordinary; to maintain his privacy; and to follow his star alone, publishing under pen names and teaching small groups of students who would not betray him.”
Wiener on Child Prodigies
“In 1957, Norbert Wiener wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “Analysis of the Child Prodigy.” It was the era of the highly popular television* stars the Quiz Kids, and the question of the popular treatment of brilliant children was strongly on the minds of millions of viewers.
* - Reviewer’s Note: Actually, the Quiz Kids’ heyday was on radio from 1940 into1949 in the Chicago area.
Wiener, speaking from the other side—as one who had been a child
prodigy himself—disapproved of the television show.
“He continued sagely,
“’One thing is necessarily true of the precocious child, in so far as he is not intrinsically one-sided and a freak. He is brought up against the contradictions of the world outside him at a time when he has not begun to develop the hard shell of the adult. He finds soon enough that the copybook maxims of life are in many cases an oversimplification or a deliberate falsification of what he sees in the world about him.
“This hurts him deeply at a time when his defenses are not yet developed. He is thus more bare of protection than the average child or the adult and can be badly hurt. Without an understanding and sympathetic environment he can easily come to grief. It is the duty of his parents and counselors, if they really wish to give him a chance to come into his own, to shelter him during this difficult stage when he is neither the one thing nor the other.
“’This is the time in which exploitation by the press or the radio may do him great harm, as may also the fact that he is growing up in a society which loves conformity and has little sympathy for inner achievement. It will not do merely to protect him from the realities of life nor to make believe that society really wants his sort of person, but he must be given a fair chance to develop a reasonable thick skin against the pressures which will certainly be made on him and a confidence that somewhere in the world he has his own function which he may reasonably hope to fulfill.’
"What was wrong with William James Sidis? Said Ann Feinzig, "I don't know what happened to Bill. People who loved him, like my father, were always fighting someone who had no knowledge of Bill, to defend him. But it isn't quite true that nothing happened to him. If no one knew anything about Bill Sidis at all and he walked into a room he would be eccentric at least. And if he still really had all his childhood abilities, and I don't doubt that he did, then something terrible happened to him emotionally ."
"The answer to the question can be found by first discarding the swamp of myths and lies that surrounds the memory of America's greatest prodigy. Author Abraham Sperling, director of New York City's Aptitude Testing Institute, became deeply interested in Sidis in the period immediately following his death. Sperling had been testing intelligence quotients since the 1930s, and was startled to see the obituaries that proclaimed Sidis a burnout. Said Sperling, "My knowledge told me that this was completely erroneous. I learned, much to my satisfaction, that there's no evidence that his intellect had burned out. This business of a nervous breakdown was nonsense. "In recent years, I have tested more than five thousand people.
"'Of all the mentally superior individuals that I have seen, nobody begins to approach the intellect and perspicacity of William Sidis. According to my computations, he easily had an IQ between 250 and 300. [Albert Einstein's IQ was 200, and John Stuart Mill's was estimated to be 190. ] I have never heard of the existence of anybody with such an IQ. I would honestly say that he was the most prodigious intellect of our entire generation. And he did not burn out.'
"No, the intellect did not burn out, but its owner took it underground. The double life of William James Sidis was based on a mixture of righteousness and fear. The portion of fear is highly ironic, and terribly sad, for above all else, in books, lectures, and interviews, Boris and Sarah Sidis inveighed against fear, against the tragedy of a frightened child. They failed to see that their own son was, indeed, afraid. And had the adult William been emotionally capable of applying even a portion of his intelligence to the study of his own psychology, how different his life might have been!
"Where, precisely, did his parents fail him? Though the mythmakers have held Boris and Sarah's child-rearing methods at fault, there is in fact nothing to fault in them. Upon the closest inspection, they are similar to the basic, sensible techniques popularized by the brilliant educator Maria Montessori. William James Sidis was not pushed, he was taught to reason. He did not merely conquer forty languages, or one hundred--he had the mental technology to grasp any language, no matter how difficult, in a day. His was not a genius of mere retentive ability-it was that of a magnificent reasoning machine. Boris and Sarah did not create his high IQ through training-their genes provided the better part of it-but their training nurtured and encouraged in a superb manner the rare plant they had borne.
"Their failure lay in the painful emotional environment created by the degeneration of their marriage, the criticizing domination Sarah Sidis exercised as William approached adolescence, and the fact that although she advised other parents against it, Sarah did show William off. The other factor that damaged William, perhaps the most important one of all, was his parents' inability to shield him from the merciless envy of the public and its vicious desire to resent and cripple greatness and reduce it to normalcy and mediocrity. While it is not easy to explain to a child, however brilliant he may be, that he will be hated for the very reason that he is brilliant, the job must be done, and it must be done well. The child must be taught, in no uncertain terms, that his own standards, carefully reasoned out, are the only standards he must live by, and that he must courageously disregard all public standards. This was not an instruction that William Sidis received clearly. Rather than teach William how and why to ignore his cruel detractors, Boris and Sarah concentrated all their attention on reforming the educators of the world. Not a poor mission, but hardly worthwhile at the expense of their son's self-confidence. Boris, blind to the urgency of this matter, made several grave mistakes. He advised William how to manipulate reporters, rather than shielding him from them as much as possible; and he permitted himself to publish a book, Philistine and Genius, that drew enormous attention to a child with an already insufficient coat of protective armor.
"In 1957, Norbert Wiener wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine entitled 'Analysis of the Child Prodigy'. It was the era of the highly popular television stars the Quiz Kids, and the question of the proper treatment of brilliant children was strongly on the minds of millions of viewers. Wiener, speaking from the other side -as one who had been a child prodigy himself-disapproved of the television show. He urged Americans to emulate European education, where 'there is much less pressure on the bright youngster to keep in lockstep with the average and below-average student, who is the darling of our American educational system.' In Europe, he wrote, brilliant children were encouraged to blossom early and inconspicuously, well out of the public eye.
“He continued sagely:
"'One thing is necessarily true of the precocious child, in so far as he is
not intrinsically one-sided and a freak. He is brought up against the
contradictions of the world outside him at a time when he has not begun to
develop the hard shell of the adult. He finds soon enough that the copybook
maxims of life are in many cases an oversimplification or a deliberate
falsification of what he sees in the world about him.
"'This hurts him deeply at a time when his defenses are not yet developed. He thus is more bare of protection either than the average child or than the adult and can be badly hurt. Without an understanding and sympathetic environment he can easily come to grief. It is the duty of his parents and counselors, if they really wish to give him a chance to come into his own, to shelter him during this difficult stage when he is neither the one thing nor the other.
"'This is the time in which exploitation by the press or the radio may do him great harm, as may also the fact that he is growing up in a society which loves conformity and has little sympathy for inner achievement. It will not do merely to protect him from the realities of life nor to make believe that society really wants his sort of person, but he must be given a fair chance to develop a reasonable thick skin against the pressures which will certainly be made on him and a confidence that somewhere in the world he has his own function which he may reasonably hope to fulfill.'
“It has been suggested by many writers and commentators that William
James Sidis, in not living up to any of the goals predicted for him in his
youth, betrayed society. This is not so—Sidis owed no debt to humanity. Nor
did society betray Sidis. But its many members who inspired the retreat of an
intellect of Sidis’s magnitude unwittingly worked against society’s best
interests. Sidis may have found his won path to happiness but at what cost to
the world? How many Einsteins and Galileos has the world lost by treating
prodigies as unwelcome freaks in their youth? What mountains might William James
Sidis have moved, had he not been stunned into hiding by the public’s mockery
of his eccentricities and achievements?
"Let us hope that in the future all gifted, exceptional children will grow up in a world that instead of shunning them as oddities, will welcome and nurture their talents, their achievements, and their vision."
A cult seems to have developed around the memory of William Sidis.
My personal belief, after reviewing this book and William Sidis’ written works, is that he was one of the smartest individuals on record but not necessarily the smartest. William Sidis, from my perspective, has become a legend, like Paul Bunyun or George Washington and the cherry tree. There are children who began to talk and to read at a younger age than “Billy”. Like Billy, the young Gauss was reading by the age of two, and was able to carry out extensive mental calculations “before he was three years old”. Eric Temple Bell says of Gauss:
"In all the history of mathematics, there is nothing even
approaching the precocity of Gauss as a child.”
That’s, perhaps, a little strong. Understandably, we’re amazed at the capabilities of the very most precocious children, and it’s easy to see how someone can be carried away with their exploits. But if one child is capable of extraordinary feats, then sooner or later, there will be other children who can match or exceed them. It’s in this spirit that I approach Billy Sidis.