William James Sidis: The Smartest Person Ever?

The following essay is about William James Sidis, whom Robert Persig (Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) discusses in his novel, Lila. Sidis's one great passion in life was collecting street car transfers.

The account comes from a web page I saved to my hard drive. Before uploading it, I checked it and found it dead, but still want to give credit, so here is the obsolete URL--http://members.aol.com/popvoid/TOC.html. Jim Morton, the essayist, uses Peridromophilia as a term for Sidis's love of street car transfers.

Peridromophilia Unbound:William James Sidis
By Jim Morton

The great geniuses of mankind are often said to be "born ahead of their time." William James Sidis, on the other hand, seems to have been born out of his time completely; on the wrong world, in the wrong dimension. Perhaps someday the world will understand "Willie" Sidis's strange genius, but that day is far off indeed.

Sidis was born in 1898. His father, Boris Sidis, taught psychology at Harvard and was considered one of the foremost psychologists of his day. The boy was named after William James, a leading psychologist and brother to author Henry James. Boris argued that traditional approaches to child-rearing obstructed the learning process. The elder Sidis was determined not to make the same mistake with his son.

He started by stringing words together with alphabet blocks above the child's crib. He eschewed the usual "googley-goo" baby-talk that adults lapse into around infants, speaking instead to the child in the same way he would speak to an adult. If the boy showed any interest in a subject, Boris encouraged his curiosity and study.

The effect of all this on the boy Sidis was astounding. By the time he was two, Willie was reading literature meant for adults; by age four he was typing letters in French and English; at age five he wrote a treatise on anatomy and dazzled everyone with a mathematical expertise few adults could match.

William Sidis graduated from Brookline High School when he was eight years old. When he applied at Harvard, the entrance board suggested he take a few off to let his personality catch up with his intellect. Willie spent the time between high school and college reading books in French, German, Latin, Greek, Russian, Turkish and Armenian.

The boy entered Harvard at age eleven, becoming the youngest student ever to attend the school. Later that year he gave a speech in front of the Harvard Mathematical Society 0n the subject of "Four-Dimensional Bodies." After the speech, Professor Daniel Comstock of MIT told reporters that the boy would someday be the greatest mathematician of the century. From that moment on, William Sidis's world was never the same. Reporters followed his every move. He was a celebrity. His classmates treated him indifferently. The boy kept to himself, walking to his classes alone.

Suddenly Sidis realized his intellect was not admired; it was stared at. He wasn't merely intelligent; he was a freak. Within a year, the boy suffered a nervous breakdown. The boy was taken to his father's Psychotherapeutic Institute and treated. A few months later, Willie was back at Harvard, studying as diligently as ever.

He graduated cum laude at the age of sixteen. In 1918, he began teaching mathematics at Rice University in Texas. The annoyance of constant media attention finally took its toll. Quitting his teaching post, the young man moved back to Boston and, after a notorious arrest at a socialist march, disappeared from sight.

In 1924, a reporter found him in New York City, working in a Wall Street office for menial pay. Sidis told the reporter that he was not the boy-wonder he once was. He wanted anonymity and a menial job that made no demands on him. Soon afterwards, he dropped out of sight again.

As an adult, Sidis had one great passion. A passion that has intrigued psychologists and writers for years. Sidis spent hours every day in search of street car transfers. He would chase them through windy lots, chisel them from icy sidewalks and rescue them from rainy gutters. During his lifetime, he collected over two thousand of them, all different.

In 1926, he published a book on the subject of his hobby. The book, Notes on the Collection of Transfers, is, to say the least, esoteric. Sidis filled it with page after page of detailed information on how the transfers are interpreted, how to use them to their best advantage and the techniques used by the devoted "peridromophile" (his term for a someone who collects street car transfers) to find abandoned transfers. For those with merely a passing interest in the subject, he provided a chapter of bad street car jokes. Sidis used the pseudonym, "Frank Folupa" to throw the press off the track, but it did not work. The book was quickly ascribed to him and once again, Sidis had to flee from the curious eyes of the press. Losing himself in the crowded streets of New York City.

Sidis managed to stay out of view for many years after that. Until 1937, when a writer working for New Yorker magazine found him in a run down rooming house in South Boston. Sidis told the reporter that he was no longer the mathematical genius he once was. "The very sight of a mathematical formula," he claimed, "makes me physically ill." When the New Yorker article appeared, Sidis sued for invasion of privacy. Acting as his own attorney, Sidis offered to take an I.Q. test to prove just how normal he was. The suit was thrown out of court.

Again the world forgot about him, until 1944, when, at the age of 46, William James Sidis died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Several articles and a book have been written about Sidis. All of them point to Boris Sidis as the misguided mastermind behind Willie's fall. Boris Sidis, the writers argue, by depriving the boy of a "normal" childhood, turned him into a freak, incapable of ever fitting comfortably into society.

It's a neat argument. It follows the accepted pattern of parental folklore. It sounds logical, but it's all wrong. In the first place, contrary to popular belief, Boris Sidis was not a slave driver coaxing his son to "learn, learn learn!" Rather, he used positive reinforcement to encourage his son's exploration of subjects that interested him. The knowledge the boy gained was based not on his father's iron will, but on the boy's own curiosity. Boris Sidis was one of the leading psychologists of his day, he knew the dangers of indoctrination and parental aggression.

In the second place, Sidis had little difficulty fitting into society. He found jobs easily and always worked hard. If he moved from one job to another, it was because of the press; or because someone at this job recognized him. Whenever he was recognized, his employers quickly sought to take advantage of mathematician in their midst, but Sidis no longer wanted to be that mathematician. If he used his talent at math, he wanted no strings attached. At one establishment, his knowledge of mathematics led him to completely rework their statistical tables. The bosses were impressed and tried to get him to use his talent for their advantage. Sidis soon quit.

"All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won't leave me alone."

Sidis was only a failure in terms of goals assigned to him by others. If he did not become "the greatest mathematician of the century," as Professor Comstock predicted, the failure lies in Comstock's skill as a prognosticator, not in Sidis's refusal to live up to the prediction. One thing is certain: Sidis's knowledge of street car transfers is unexcelled. He was, and is, the greatest peridromophile in history. For this, we salute him.

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