William James Sidis . Biography
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William James Sidis (/ˈsaɪdɪs/; April 1, 1898 – July 17, 1944) was an American child prodigy with exceptional mathematical and linguistic skills. He is notable for his 1920 book The Animate and the Inanimate, in which he postulates the existence of dark matter, entropy and the origin of life in the context of thermodynamics. Sidis was raised in a particular manner by his father, psychologist Boris Sidis, who wished his son to be gifted. Sidis first became famous for his precocity and later for his eccentricity and withdrawal from public life. Eventually, he avoided mathematics altogether, writing on other subjects under a number of pseudonyms. He entered Harvard at age 11 and, as an adult, was claimed to have an extremely high IQ, and to be conversant in about 25 languages and dialects. Some of these claims have not been verifiable, but peers such as Norbert Wiener supported the assertion that his intelligence was very high.
- Parents and upbringing (1898–1908)
- Harvard University and college life (1909–1915)
- Teaching and further education (1915–1919)
- Politics and arrest (1919–1921)
- Later life (1921–1944)
- Publications and subjects of research
- Vendergood language
- In education discussions
Parents and upbringing (1898–1908)
William James Sidis was born to Jewish emigrants from Ukraine, on April 1, 1898, in New York City. His father, Boris Sidis, PhD, M.D., had emigrated in 1887 to escape political persecution. His mother, Sarah (Mandelbaum) Sidis, M.D., and her family had fled the pogroms in the late 1880s. Sarah attended Boston University and graduated from its School of Medicine in 1897.
William was named after his godfather, Boris’ friend and colleague, the American philosopher William James. Boris was a psychiatrist and published numerous books and articles, performing pioneering work in abnormal psychology. He was a polyglot, and his son William would become one at a young age.
Sidis’s parents believed in nurturing a precocious and fearless love of knowledge (but their methods of parenting were criticized in the media and retrospectively). Sidis could read The New York Times at 18 months. By age eight, he had reportedly taught himself eight languages (Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German, Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian) and invented another, which he called “Vendergood”.
Harvard University and college life (1909–1915)
Although the University had previously refused to let his father enroll him at age 9 because he was still a child, Sidis set a record in 1909 by becoming the youngest person to enroll at Harvard University. In early 1910, Sidis’ mastery of higher mathematics was such that he lectured the Harvard Mathematical Club on four-dimensional bodies. Notable child prodigy, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener, who also attended Harvard at the time and knew Sidis later stated in his book Ex-Prodigy: “The talk would have done credit to a first or second-year graduate student of any age…talk represented the triumph of the unaided efforts of a very brilliant child.” MIT Physics professor Daniel F. Comstock was full of praises. ‘His method of thinking is real intellect. He doesn’t cram his head with facts. He reasons. “Gauss is the only example in history, of all prodigies, whom Sidis resembles”. Further stating that Sidis would become the leading mathematician and a leader in that science in future. Sidis began taking a full-time course load in 1910 and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, on June 18, 1914, at age 16.
Shortly after graduation, he told reporters that he wanted to live the perfect life, which to him meant living in seclusion. He granted an interview to a reporter from the Boston Herald. The paper reported Sidis’s vows to remain celibate and never to marry, as he said women did not appeal to him. Later he developed a strong affection for a young woman named Martha Foley. He later enrolled at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
According to The Prodigy: a Biography of William James Sidis, he briefly served at the League of Nations before leaving because U.S. president Woodrow Wilson would not withdraw troops deployed during the Great War. He was outspoken about his pacifism.
Teaching and further education (1915–1919)
After a group of Harvard students threatened Sidis physically, his parents secured him a job at the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, Science, and Art (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas as a mathematics teaching assistant. He arrived at Rice in December 1915 at the age of 17. He was a graduate fellow working toward his doctorate.
Sidis taught three classes: Euclidean geometry, non-Euclidean geometry, and freshman math (he wrote a textbook for the Euclidean geometry course in Greek). After less than a year, frustrated with the department, his teaching requirements, and his treatment by students older than he was, Sidis left his post and returned to New England. When a friend later asked him why he had left, he replied, “I never knew why they gave me the job in the first place—I’m not much of a teacher. I didn’t leave—I was asked to go.” Sidis abandoned his pursuit of a graduate degree in mathematics and enrolled at the Harvard Law School in September 1916, but withdrew in good standing in his final year in March 1919.
Politics and arrest (1919–1921)
In 1919, shortly after his withdrawal from law school, Sidis was arrested for participating in a socialist May Day parade in Boston that turned violent. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison under the Sedition Act of 1918. Sidis’ arrest featured prominently in newspapers, as his early graduation from Harvard had garnered considerable local celebrity status. During the trial, Sidis stated that he had been a conscientious objector to the World War I draft, was a socialist, and did not believe in a god like the “big boss of the Christians,” but rather in something that is in a way apart from a human being. He later developed his own libertarian philosophy based on individual rights and “the American social continuity”. His father arranged with the district attorney to keep Sidis out of prison before his appeal came to trial; his parents, instead, held him in their sanatorium in New Hampshire for a year. They took him to California, where he spent another year. While at the sanatorium, his parents set about “reforming” him and threatened him with transfer to an insane asylum.
Later life (1921–1944)
After returning to the East Coast in 1921, Sidis was determined to live an independent and private life. He only took work running adding machines or other fairly menial tasks. He worked in New York City and became estranged from his parents. It took years before he was cleared legally to return to Massachusetts, and he was concerned about his risk of arrest for years. He obsessively collected streetcar transfers, wrote self-published periodicals, and taught small circles of interested friends his version of American history. In 1933, Sidis passed a Civil Service exam in New York, but scored a low ranking of 254. In a private letter, Sidis wrote that this was “not so encouraging”.
In 1944, Sidis won a settlement from The New Yorker for an article published in 1937. He had alleged it contained many false statements. Under the title “Where Are They Now?”, James Thurber pseudonymously described Sidis’s life as lonely, in a “hall bedroom in Boston’s shabby South End”. Lower courts had dismissed Sidis as a public figure with no right to challenge personal publicity. He lost an appeal of an invasion of privacy lawsuit at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1940 over the same article. Judge Charles Edward Clark expressed sympathy for Sidis—who claimed that the publication had exposed him to “public scorn, ridicule, and contempt” and caused him “grievous mental anguish [and] humiliation”—but found that the court was not disposed to “afford to all the intimate details of private life an absolute immunity from the prying of the press”.
Sidis died in 1944 from a cerebral hemorrhage in Boston at the age of 46. His father had died from the same malady in 1923 at age 56.
Publications and subjects of research
From writings on cosmology, to writings on American Indian history, to Notes on the Collection of Transfers, and several purported lost texts on anthropology, philology, and transportation systems, Sidis covered a broad range of subjects. Some of his ideas concerned cosmological reversibility and “social continuity”.
In The Animate and the Inanimate (1925), Sidis predicted the existence of regions of space where the second law of thermodynamics operated in reverse to the temporal direction that we experience in our local area. Everything outside of what we would today call a galaxy would be such a region. Sidis claimed that the matter in this region would not generate light. Sidis’s The Tribes and the States (ca. 1935) employs the pseudonym “John W. Shattuck”, purporting to give a 100,000-year history of the Settlement of the Americas, from prehistoric times to 1828. In this text, he suggests that “there were red men at one time in Europe as well as in America”.
Sidis was also a “peridromophile”, a term he coined for people fascinated with transportation research and streetcar systems. He wrote a treatise on streetcar transfers under the pseudonym of “Frank Folupa” that identified means of increasing public transport usage.
In 1930, Sidis received a patent for a rotary perpetual calendar that took into account leap years.
Sidis created a constructed language called Vendergood in his second book, the Book of Vendergood, which he wrote at the age of 8. The language was mostly based on Latin and Greek, but also drew on German and French and other Romance languages. It distinguished between eight moods: indicative, potential, imperative absolute, subjunctive, imperative, infinitive, optative, and Sidis’s own strongeable. One of its chapters is titled “Imperfect and Future Indicative Active”. Other parts explain the origin of Roman numerals. It uses base 12 instead of base 10.
After his death, Helena Sidis claimed that her brother had an IQ reported in Abraham Sperling’s 1946 book Psychology for the Millions as “the very highest that had ever been obtained”, but later authors found that some of his biographers, such as Amy Wallace, exaggerated how high his IQ actually was and exactly what Sperling had claimed. Sperling actually wrote:
Helena Sidis told me that a few years before his death, her brother Bill took an intelligence test with a psychologist. His score was the very highest that had ever been obtained. In terms of IQ, the psychologist related that the figure would be between 250 and 300. Late in life William Sidis took general intelligence tests for Civil Service positions in New York and Boston. His phenomenal ratings are matter of record.
It has been acknowledged that Helena and William’s mother Sarah had developed a reputation of exaggerated claims about the Sidis family. Helena had also falsely claimed that the Civil Service exam William took in 1933 was an IQ test and that his ranking was an IQ score of 254. It is speculated that the number “254” was actually William’s placement on the list after he passed the Civil Service exam, as he stated in a letter sent to his family. Helena also claimed that “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.” This claim was not backed by any other source outside the Sidis family, and Sarah Sidis also made an improbable claim in her 1950 book The Sidis Story that William could learn a language in just one day. Boris Sidis had once dismissed tests of intelligence as “silly, pedantic, absurd, and grossly misleading”. Regardless of the exaggerations, Sidis is judged by other high IQ peers such as MIT Physics professor Daniel Frost Comstock and notable American mathematician Norbert Weiner to have had real ability.
Sidis’ life and work, particularly his ideas about Native Americans, are extensively discussed in Robert M. Pirsig’s book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991). Sidis is also discussed in Ex-Prodigy, an autobiography by mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), who was a prodigy himself and a contemporary of Sidis at Harvard.
A Danish author Morten Brask wrote a fictional novel based on Sidis’ life; The Perfect Life of William Sidis was published in Denmark in 2011. Another novel based on his biography was published by the German author Klaus Cäsar Zehrer in 2017.
In education discussions
The debate about Sidis’ manner of upbringing occurred within a larger discourse about the best way to educate children. Newspapers criticized Boris Sidis’ child-rearing methods. Most educators of the day believed that schools should expose children to common experiences to create good citizens. Most psychologists thought intelligence was hereditary, a position that precluded early childhood education at home.
The difficulties Sidis encountered in dealing with the social structure of a collegiate setting may have shaped opinion against allowing such children to rapidly advance through higher education in his day. Research indicates that a challenging curriculum can relieve social and emotional difficulties commonly experienced by gifted children. Embracing these findings, several colleges now have procedures for early entrance. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development has developed a guidebook on the topic.
Sidis was portrayed derisively in the press of the day. The New York Times, for example, described him as “a wonderfully successful result of a scientific forcing experiment”.His mother later maintained that newspaper accounts of her son bore little resemblance to him.
Read also: William James Sidis IQ: 250-300