Myths, Facts, Lies, and Humor About William James Sidis Part Three

Myths, Facts, Lies, and Humor About William James Sidis - Part Three

Cammille Flammarion - Flat Earth

(PD) Cammille Flammarion - Flat Earth

Larry Neal Gowdy

Copyright ©2008-2021 — updated February 11, 2021

The following condensed topics are taken from my personal unedited notes, written under the working title of Myths, Facts, and Lies About Prodigies, and from a chapter that lists fifty popular online claims about William Sidis. Each topic's comments have purposefully omitted lengthy detailed information that will not be made public. The purpose of the following comments is to present concepts that question the popular belief that William James Sidis was the smartest man on earth.

11: At 6 he was fascinated with calendars.

"Without the inclusion of claim number ten, neither claim has much relevance. By combining the two claims, a better concept is created to show how fascination can lead to an above average skill."

12: At age 6 he had learned Gray's Anatomy and he could pass a student medical examination.

He "could?" Did he?... Just because a person memorizes words and pictures from a book, it does not... imply that the person understands what the words and pictures imply.

Boris commented in The Boy Prodigy of Harvard: "His interest in anatomy was suddenly aroused by his discovering a skeleton in our house, a relic of my student days. It was almost gruesome to see the enthusiasm with which he studied the bones, identifying each by close comparison with the plates in a text hook on anatomy. Within a very short time he knew so much about the structure of the body that he could pass a medical student's examination creditably at six years of age."

13: At 6 he was an atheist.

"If Sidis had learned Aristotelian logic, why had he not yet applied the knowledge and logic to verify his reportedly unfounded disbelief in theism? The two claims (numbers eight and thirteen) conflict with the other and require that the reader either carelessly accepts both as valid (which is logically absurd), or the reader can accept one while denying the other, or the reader can decline the validity of both claims. Actually, the latter choice is best since William appeared to not wholly be an atheist, and nor did he exhibit evidence of having understood Aristotelian logic to verify firsthand whether theism is true or false.

...Boris was a skeptical denier without known reason, and it is common for a child to mimic the behavior and beliefs of the parents'. Even if William did hold the belief in atheism at six years old, it in no manner implies that he held the same belief throughout life.

According to a newspaper report of William's trial over political parading and alleged violence...: "Here Sidis said that the kind of a God that he did not believe in was the "big boss of the Christians," adding that he believed in something that is in a way apart from a human being." Many people hold a concept of a God that is intelligent, omniscient, and the creator of Creation, but the concept is much wider than what a Biblical interpretation might allow. If the public were to stop and listen to what those like William might say, the public might discover that just because a person does not accept Biblical information as being the full description of God, it does not imply the person does not perceive the existence of [a universal intelligence]."

14: At 6 he entered elementary school.

"Prior to the current era of placing children into schools at about the age of four, most children in the USA began elementary school at the age of six. The claim has no relevance to prodigious talents whatsoever, and if the age did hold relevance, William would be interpreted as not being above average. The claim has no relevance except for it being a bit of data to form a historical chronology within William's life."

15: At 6 he was put up into the 3rd grade in 3 days from beginning elementary school, and he graduated elementary school in 7 months.

"Grade advancement is not allowed in many schools today. ...While it is not common for a child to be capable of doing high school level classes at six and seven years old, it is not overly rare, and relative to the claim's timeline, William's academic abilities in elementary school were... not the best known.

Sarah wrote in The Sidis Story: "Formal education was a game to William. He finished the entire eight-year course in five months. During this period, he attended classes a maximum of two hours a day. I arranged this schedule with the school authorities because I didn't want to waste his brain capacities with too much cramming;

William was somewhat disappointed at what he considered his "slow" progress in high school. He began to flout convention by entering at the age of eight. Continuing with his standard two hours a day, Billy managed to complete the four-year curriculum in a record six weeks. He spent another six weeks serving as an aid to the teachers. During this time, he was nick-named "Professor" by the students who used to ask him questions."

"William's year in primary school was interrupted by an attack of typhoid fever, yet the record from the school register of his advance runs: First grade - Only a day or two. Second Grade - A few days. Third Grade - Three months. Fourth Grade - One week. Fifth grade - Fifteen weeks. Sixth and Seventh Grades - Five and a half weeks.

The Boston Transcript continued:

Equal in all to about one-half year of schooling." (The Prodigy, page 36.)

Sarah's comments are far more informative and useful than claim number fifteen's, ...her 'eight years' of education does not agree with the Boston Transcript seven years. No known timeline report of William's primary education agrees, so no speculation will be made beyond the concept that, including time off for the typhoid fever, William likely finished public education within two to three years.

...circumstances of William's era allowed children to advance, and that the class curriculums had to have been much slimmer than today's curriculums simply due to it not being possible for a child today to do four years' of homework and take four years' of exams within six weeks while only attending school two hours a day.

The important things to associate with the current claim are that it does not clarify what school subjects were taken, what types of exams were given, nor what was required to graduate elementary and high schools during William's era. It is too easy for the reader to mistake the claim to imply William's early education was as quantitative as today's. Also, relative to other prodigies' talents, especially those restricted to academic achievements, William was not the smartest person on earth, and the general hype about William's talents has been greatly exaggerated. Too, the public has predominately weighed William's life relative to his academic record as it is interpreted by today's standards, and the interpretation is invalid."

16: At 6 he hated math in elementary school, but at close to 8 years old he learned to love math.

"Why did he hate math? Why did he regain an enjoyment of math? Correct logic needs information of why, not a mere what. Information that only provides the what without providing the why is the behavior of memorization, and never will memorization be an act of rational thought. The claim achieves nothing but to further inflict damaging unknowns to the reader's intellect.

Boredom is a thing that all healthy people experience after they have done a thing longer than what the people find interesting. Mathematics can be fun, but mathematics is too limited of a topic for some people to retain an interest in. Jared Manly (James Thurber), a newspaper reporter, wrote of William at thirty nine years old: (April Fool) ""The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill." he said, "All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won't let me alone." It came out that one time he was offered a job with the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company. It seems that the officials fondly believed the young wizard would somehow be able to solve all their technical problems. When he showed up for work, he was presented with a pile of blueprints, charts, and papers filled with statistics. One of the officials found him an hour later weeping in the midst of it all. Sidis told the man he couldn't bear responsibility, or intricate thought, or computation ― except on an adding machine. He took his hat and went away."

Whether William actually could not endure intricate thought or not is unknown. He might have told the officials such a story so as to not reveal other reasons (perhaps profound boredom), and so it is not logical to conclude the reporter's few words are accurate representations of the truth.

The feeling ill is indicative of a person who was compelled (self-compelled by circumstances or compelled by someone else) to continue beyond the limits of boredom or distaste, to the point of the individual literally hating the thing. Once a person has been pushed too far and stressed beyond his personal limits, the individual may never find enjoyment in the subject again. The intellectual potential does not disappear, but rather only the will to use the intellectual potential disappears. Applied intelligence requires ability, interest, and effort. Losing but one ingredient results in the loss of all.

It is society that incorrectly believes a prodigy must for whatever reason always find interest in the things that society finds interesting, but for the prodigy himself, once he has mastered one topic it might become a personal choice to search for new topics to conquer. Whether the choice to find interest in new topics is due to boredom, stress, or simply for new experiences, the choice is the prodigy's alone, and society has no right to pass judgment either way. ...The idea of a person only having one interest and occupation in life seems terribly dull and unimaginative to me. William's varying interests appear to me to be the result of a maturing mind that is still as active as before but in a different direction, and I applaud William's self-determination to have lived a life that he alone chose.

Until a person discovers the actual reason for William's love/hate relationship with mathematics, claim number sixteen is of no value."

17: At 7 he passed the anatomy exam for Harvard Medical School.

"Was the exam difficult? William had reportedly already read Gray's Anatomy, and anyone with a good memory ought to be able to pass a basic entrance exam that required knowledge of Gray's Anatomy. Good memories are common among many people, and the person who has a good memory and has an interest in anatomy should easily pass a basic entrance exam.

"Billy racked up two more precocious feats in his seventh and eighth years: He passed the Harvard School anatomy exam and the entrance examination for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Clearly, he was ready for high school." (The Prodigy page 44.)

William did not actually enter into Harvard Medical School at that time, nor MIT (or at least there is no known record of such). Just exactly how and where and under what conditions William allegedly passed the entrance exams is unknown. Did William take the exams at the universities or did Boris bring the tests home, or what? Universities were very much easier to gain entrance a hundred years ago, and as today, the normal level of qualification is that of a high school education, which William of course easily had."

18: At age 8 he was better in mathematics than his 'genius' psychologist father.

Better in what type of mathematics? Better in complexity or speed? Specific information is required before a rational conclusion can be formed about the claim. Was William merely able to balance a checkbook faster than Boris, or was William working trigonometry? Without specific information, along with the exact equations that were solved, the claim has no useful value.

Where is the evidence that his father was a genius? Boris Sidis was a psychologist, and perhaps ahead of his backward era in some regards, but his actions were not indicative of genius in my personal opinion. Boris wrote numerous articles and little books, and he helped to develop a few ideas in psychology, but the work ...and the conclusions of his experiments held grievous errors. With Boris having inflicted academia upon an infant, an infant whose first word was "door," and with Boris' cruel experiments on animals, there is no known evidence of Boris Sidis having exhibited a genius intellect.

It would be useful for everyone interested in William's life to read Boris' writings, including The Psychology of Suggestion, and The Nature and Cause of the Galvanic Phenomenon. The articles portray a man who is...

From Boris' 1919 version of Philistine and Genius, the knowledge-base and logics structuring are as bad or worse than William's... to pull the wool over readers' eyes in Unconscious Intelligence. Almost every sentence Boris wrote in the article's opening portion was nonsense...

The many records indicate that William was born into an environment starved of heart and mind, and it stands to reason that William would have had a terrible mountain to climb to escape the destructive influences he suffered from family and society. In many respects, it appears that William was never able to free himself from the negativity and pointed intellectual abnormalities of Boris and the public, and never would he be if he had a good memory because memories of negative events are never forgotten."

19: Photographic memory of all he had read.

"Was a bad memory expected? It is not overly uncommon for a healthy intelligent child to have a photographic memory, and there is nothing extraordinary about the claim.

"Like Sidis, many prodigies had photographic memories. Antonio da Marco Magliabechi, born in Italy in 1633, read with extraordinary speed and recall. Once, after reading a manuscript, the boy wrote it out in its entirety without missing a comma. When he was asked for a certain rare volume, Antonio replied, "There is but one copy in the world; and that is in the Grand Signor's library in Constantinople, where it is the seventh book on the second shelf on the right hand as you go in."" There is no known verifiable evidence that the quote of Magliabechi is authentic, but the general theme does paint an authentic picture.

Since my own interests were in... observing..., I feel a closer relationship with Magliabechi's recollections. Of the rare few books that sparked my interest, there was a full recollection of the books' wording, page numbers, font type, text formatting, page size, paper type, weight, aroma, authors' mental patterns, expression of emotions, expression of knowledge, etcetera, and of the numerous other sensorial perceptions were the location of the book, where I sat while reading, what my own mood was, ambient temperatures, etcetera, and of all the perceptions, each was known and cognizant to within a fraction of an inch/degree relative to the numerous other objects in the environment. My interest was never in the perception of words, but rather in the perception of what is sensorially perceivable, and my memory of objects and events remained very well detailed. The general public does not have a useful concept of what detailed memory entails, and thus it is understandable why the general public might only think that memorization of words from books signifies a photographic memory.

William is reported to have had a good recollection for much of what he read, but he did not have a good memory of his own life events, and therefore in my view his memory was not remarkable. William commented in Passaconaway in the White Mountains: "... great blue herons... They rushed by with a great beating of wings, their pipe-stem legs folded against their bodies and their feet sticking far out behind. The wings of these birds seemed to be as broad as any eagle's I had ever seen, and I shall not venture a guess at their length." I personally, in my own anthropocentric judgment, am disappointed with the too-common inability for some individuals to have the ability to closely estimate distances and times. I can understand a person making an estimate that is a full foot off, but it is troubling for an individual to not even make an attempt. If a person cannot provide a close estimate of a distance, then the person has not given conscious attention to any distances, and thus the individual has no conscious ability to relate one element of Reality to another.

How well an individual describes his topic of interest will also describe the individual's degree of expertise. In the sport of target shooting, serious shooters measure their shots to thousandths of an inch, using MOA (minute of angle...) as the most generalized measurement, where a competent shooter with a quality firearm usually feels his accuracy is reasonably fair if he can maintain a five shot group within 1/8th MOA at two hundred yards (about a .250" group). A typical shooter, when asked what their firearm's accuracy is, often replies "good," the individuals not having given attention to the actual results (and the individuals' level of skill is usually at about a six to ten MOA range). All healthy individuals who apply serious attention to their interests will have closely inspected their skills and thus know of the results with measured detail.

Writings of William's verify that he did not have a photographic memory of all he read, and though he may have temporarily remembered the words of books he was most interested in, the claim is fully false that William remembered all he had read.

From Unconscious Intelligence: "This shows that I must have seen that book the preceding afternoon, but I certainly did not notice it. I must have seen it subconsciously, and my "unconscious intelligence" remembered it at least till two o'clock in the morning, when the dream occurred. The appearance of the book in the dream shows moreover that the memory was not only of the fact of having seen the book, but that it was also of the way the book looked: even the indistinct lettering in the dream was probably due to the fact that I had passed the store from a distance."

The typical person sensorially perceives at the subconscious level, and while there is nothing wrong per se with unconscious perception, the lack of conscious awareness of one's perceptions results in little or no conscious memory. ...that which an individual is most interested in will be the thing that the person devotes the most conscious thoughts to and will remember the best of all memories. William had a good memory for the thing he had the most interest in, reading, but his over all memory was not far above average.

Perhaps the best known method of comparing conscious sensorial perception to common unconscious perceptions is within the stories of Zen. A Nan-in story (a Japanese master; 1868-1912): "Zen students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him, Nan-in remarked: "I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs." Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in's pupil, and studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen." The 'every minute' conscious sensorial perception that some individuals were born with is a very difficult thing for other individuals to accomplish. The conscious sensorial perceptions that I speak of are similar to those spoken of in Zen, but with a much greater degree of observation and analysis of each perception's relativity to all others.

As has been repeatedly verified, over ninety nine percent of the time the typical individual is not consciously aware of their actions nor of their sensorial perceptions. William may have had a good memory for the words he read, but he did not have a fluid conscious observation sufficient to create memories of what ought to have been obvious. What the general public defines as a photographic memory, is not necessarily what a prodigy or Zen master deems to be... useful memory.

An accomplished sensorially-aware individual has a photographic memory not only of what was read, but also of body movements, sensory perceptions, and every thought, somewhat similar to a good chess player's memories of tournament games. Millions of people likely have memories as good or better than William's, and the claim by itself is not sufficient to support the 'smartest man on earth' belief."

20: At 8 he passed the MIT entrance exam.

The exam was supposed to be difficult? What was his grade? Did he have to retake the exam? I have not seen the actual MIT exam to evaluate its level of difficulty, but the typical entrance exams to a college (not all colleges require entrance exams) are not more difficult than what an average intellect person with a will to enroll can pass. The claim does not include sufficient information to warrant undue significance beyond how William did average achievements a few years earlier than the socially structured average of his era.

According to The Prodigy, the high school physics teacher, John Packard, gave William the MIT test after three months of special attention, and William scored 100 in physics and mathematics. If the report is valid, then William's talents were sincere, but he did not pass an actual entrance exam with the design of gaining admittance into MIT. The claim can mislead the uncareful reader into assuming that William might have taken the exam at MIT and gained entrance into MIT."

Though a claim may be valid, if the claim is not accompanied with clarification and evidence, then the claim remains suspect.