Engines of Our Engenuity

No. 969:
WILLIAM JAMES SIDIS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 969.

Today, a disturbing story about nerds in knicker pants. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

William James Sidis was born in 1898 to Russian immigrants -- intellectual refugees from the pogroms. Sidis's father, Boris, was brilliant, and William James trained him in psychology at Harvard. The boy's mother, Sarah, gave up her own medical ambitions to forge intellectual greatness in their young son.

Young Sidis could read at 18 months. He'd written four books and was fluent in eight languages before he was eight. He gave a Harvard seminar on the fourth dimension at nine. He entered Harvard at eleven. He may've been the most intelligent person who ever lived.

He was the brightest of an amazing group of prodigies at Harvard in 1909. The group included Norbert Wiener, father of cybernetics, and composer Roger Sessions. Wiener, like Sidis, was the driven product of his parents' aim to create a mental giant.

Those awkward children suffered their isolated lives at a university that expected Eastern finishing-school grace of its students. Sidis graduated at 16 and went off to Rice University as a math professor. Rice students ridiculed the childish Sidis for eight months. He finally gave up and went back to Harvard to study law.

Sidis took up the socialist cause and was jailed in 1918 during a communist anti-war rally. It was in jail that he met the only woman he ever loved, an Irish socialist named Martha Foley.

Meanwhile, the media hounded him. Sidis was determined to find privacy. He disavowed his knowledge of mathematics. The only work he'd take was running calculating machines. He poured his energies into his hobby -- collecting streetcar transfers.

And he wrote books -- some under his own name, others under pseudonyms. In 1925 he published a remarkable book on cosmology in which he predicted black holes --14 years before Chandrasekhar did. But primarily he fled his childhood, and he fled his parents.

When he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944, he was still carrying Martha Foley's picture. She'd long since married someone else, but that didn't matter. Sidis could only love with his head. All his life he'd vigorously rejected sex, art, music, or anything else that meant contact with the unwelcoming world outside his mind. His biographer, Amy Wallace, expresses her own anguish over that. She says:

Let us hope that [future gifted] children will grow up in a world that, instead of shunning them as oddities, will welcome and nurture their talents, ... and their vision.

William James Sidis was not the first nor last child wounded by parents trying to create a trophy. Others have lamented the creative productivity we lost when Sidis dropped out of society. What I grieve is all the joy that his well-honed mind should've given him -- all the joy that Sidis was never able to access.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Wallace, A., .The Prodigy: A Biography of William James Sidis, America's Greatest Child Prodigy, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1986. (I am grateful to Jeffery Scoggins at Detering Bookstore for calling this remarkable and bittersweet book to my attention.)

Sidis, W.J., The Animate and the Inanimate, Boston: R.G. Badger, 1925. (This exceedingly rare book may be found on line at:
http://www.sidis.net/ANIM%20Preface.htm)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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