William James Sidis, born in Boston in 1898 to Russian émigré Boris, a psychologist and his wife Sarah, a physician, showed astonishing intellectual qualities from an exceptionally early age. By the age of one he had learned to spell in English. He taught himself to type in French and German at four and by the age of six had added Russian, Hebrew Turkish and Armenian to his repertoire. At five he devised a system which could enable him to name the day of the week on which any date in history fell. Hot-housed by his pushy father, Sidis entered Harvard at eleven, and was soon lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to the University’s Maths Society. At twelve he suffered his first nervous breakdown, but recovered at his father’s sanatorium, and after returning to Harvard, graduated with first class honours in 1914, aged just sixteen. After a prepared talk at Harvard age 14 , when the audience applauded William turned from the podium and broke into hysterical giggles. Law School followed and by the age of twenty Sidis had become a professor of maths at Texas Rice Institute.
It was then that his troubles began . Looking back at his social gaucheness, hatred of crowds, physical awkwardness and obsessions, it seems very probable that Sidis suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. But decades before the condition was recognised his eccentricities and aloofness were put down to arrogance. His good looks didn’t help him and he was teased by his female students, especially when he pronounced publicly that he would never marry and intended to live the rest of his life in seclusion.
With Sidis, as with most freaks of nature, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Take his IQ. It has been assessed at above 250 ( Einstein’s is reckoned at around 168), whereas modern psychologists insist that IQs over 170 cannot be measured. I read somewhere that he could learn a new language in a day and it has been reported that he was familiar with 200 languages. This seems unlikely. The popular image of him as reclusive comptometer operator whose main hobby was collecting tram transfers—is a travesty of the truth. Only in recent years has the true extent of Sidis’s genius emerged. Far from wasting his life in menial jobs, nerdy hobbies, and idle speculation, Sidis was a prolific writer, who at his death aged just 46 of a cranial haemorrhage, left behind a catalogue of significant contributions to cosmology , applied maths, transport system theory, anthropology and linguistics—all of which suggest that he had a wider intellectual range than did Leonardo.
Some projects remained in manuscript form at his death, including a grammar and an artificial language (Vendergood), but Sidis published four substantial books, many newspaper articles, papers in journals and typewritten newsletters. And it seems there are even ‘ important ‘ collectors of Sidisiana, ‘ three in America and two in Europe , all quite bright and some quite young ‘, according to the American dealer Jay Dillon, an acknowledged specialist in the field.
But there are problems for any collector starting out. All but one of the four books are pseudonymous. For instance, his debut, Passaconaway in the White Mountains, a scholarly work on Native American history, appeared in 1916 under the pseudonym William Edward Beals Jr. Jay Dillon reports that this ‘ uncommon ‘ book went for $305 on E bay minus its jacket and he himself is asking a tentative $1,400 for a jacketed copy (‘practically unheard of ‘, says Dillon).
His second published book and his undoubted masterpiece, The Animate and the Inanimate, which is credited to ‘ William James Sidis ‘ was the first of the three works published by Dorrance, a leading ‘ vanity press ‘in Philadelphia. In this disquisition on cosmology, an abiding interest since childhood, he theorised about the existence of positive and negative sections of space and suggested that:
‘ what little radiant energy would be produced in the negative section of space would be pseudo-teleologically directed only towards stars which have enough activity to absorb it, and no radiant energy, or almost none, would actually leave the negative section of space…’
Sounds familiar ? Sidis was just 27 when he predicted the existence of what we now know as ‘ black holes’. According to Maggs, who sold a copy inscribed to Dr Percival Gerson not too long ago for £5,000 ( it would be nice to know if Stephen Hawking bought it ) only nine copies are known to exist. Dillon admits to having sold four copies since 2001.
In total contrast Sidis, a year later, brought out a more personal magnum opus. Notes on the Collection of Transfers, by ’Frank Folupa’ was a misnomer if there ever was one, since this is no dull Shire Guide type booklet of recycled hobbyist guff, but a work of Ph D quality and length in which not a single aspect of the subject is neglected. The style of the writing and the almost obsessive factual detail is characteristic of someone with AS. Most memorable is the description of how frozen transfers might be rescued from impacted ice and restored.
Sidis’ last published book was another considerable contribution to transportation systems research. In 1936 his Collisions in Street and Highway appeared under the name of Barry Mulligan . This was an accomplished, highly detailed analysis comprising 332 ‘ topics ‘which thanks to the author’s penetrating mind, are far from being dull reading. A copy with dust jacket of this scarce and sought after title would set you back at least $1,000.
|William Sidis, aged six.|
Although he was to publish no more books Sidis spent the rest of his life adding to his epic The Tribes and the States, a history of the relationship between the colonial States and the Native Americans, which lay unfinished at his early death. Since then it has been edited and published in paperback and copies are freely available online. [R.M. Healey]