The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, April 28, 2008

Was Sidis a child prodigy failure?

William James Sidis was an American child prodigy. He lived from April 1st (unfortunate date, I would have thought) 1898 to July 17th 1944. Thus, his life was of modest length and we should remember that when we assess his achievements. He was famed for his precocity and later for his withdrawal from society. His greatest gifts were in mathematical and linguistic pursuits. Some say he knew up to 200 languages by the time of his death; others estimate it to have been 40 or so. Either way, few linguists in history have come close to such a tally. His IQ was estimated to have been between 250 and 300, one of the highest in human history. Yet, the headline of his obituary in Time magazine, in 1944 was: "Prodigious Failure". What could have led such an organ to write such a shocking headline, upon a man's death?

Part of the problem was the way the press, of the time, liked to tear down people who stood out. They were not friendly to Sidis and did all that they could to diminish him. When he had an apparent nervous breakdown at about 20, they reacted not with sympathy, but ridicule. They jumped on him when he was jailed for a year and a half for being involved in a protest (what a wonderfully free country the USA was, at the time). Basically, they hounded him throughout his adult life. His reaction was to retreat from public life and try to live as quietly as possible, away from the venom of the journalists.

They mocked him when he wrote a book on vehicle transfers and tried to portray him as a failure. They gave the impression that it was the only book that he had written - and this became the public view of him. Yet, what was the truth? Well, William James Sidis, was busy writing and publishing works under pseudonyms throughout the quiet life he led doing menial jobs, such as operating calculating machines. There is a similarity in this to other geniuses. Einstein worked in a patent office: that is no great job for a great mind - but it did give him time to think. Perhaps Sidis similarly sought a job that would give him time to think.

Since his death, quite a few publications have been found to date: five books, four pamphlets, 13 articles, four periodicals (36 issues), 89 weekly magazine columns and one invention. There are also reports of other books: one on anthropology, another on philology, and works on transportation systems, all of which are presently lost. His most important works are "The animate and the inanimate" (1925) a work on cosmology, and "The Tribes and the States" (ca. 1935), a 100,000 year history of the red indian. In research for this latter book, he learnt the language of the wampum (written Native American history) and used the wampum as sources for much of what he wrote. Another book on Native Americans was Passaconaway, In the White Mountains, written when he was 18. He also wrote a book that included plans for a super city, under a pseudonym, which also advocated one-way street systems to avoid crashes. "Collisions in street and highway transportation."

He died at the age of 46 of a cerebral haemorrhage, like his father, Boris Sidis, had done, before him (at 56). His whole life was denounced as a failure by the press.

Take an impartial look at his output. Can it be said that a man who writes books on several different areas; who learns 40 to 200 languages - and uses that linguistic knowledge in his research, can be said to be a failure? It seems strange, to me, that he should be labelled so. His achievements were worthy - but the reaction to them was not. His written output was certainly a respectable quantity for a life of his length. It is, in fact, a puzzle, that he should have been treated so. It is almost as if the media of the day wanted to diminish him, to prove him wrong, to do him down - even at the cost of the truth. Apparently, his mother once remarked that she did not recognize her son, in his descriptions in the press - they bore no relation to the reality of his intellectual brilliance, at all.

What we see here, in fact, is not the failure of a prodigy, but the failure of the media and society to accept him. Sidis found himself unwanted - and so he retreated from the world. Yet, that didn't stop him thinking, privately, scribbling away and publishing anonymously. He probably didn't want to publish under his own name because, whenever he did so, he was jumped on by the press.

What would have happened had William James Sidis been welcomed by the society of his day? Doubtless he would have opened up and flourished and probably would have contributed much more than he did. Yet, even without that hypothetical circumstance, his output is decent, given his short life and there is no way an honest person, without an agenda, could possibly criticize him for it. In total he was supposed to have written at least a dozen books, most of them now lost. A dozen books in 46 years is actually quite a high output considering that they were non-fiction.

William James Sidis is a tale not of failure - but of what happens when the media turns against a person of great gift: they retreat from the world and their achievements become private ones, not public. Sidis achieved quite a lot - it is just that no-one of his day knew about it.

Rest in peace William James Sidis, child prodigy and productive, creative adult.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and four months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and nine months, and Tiarnan, twenty-six months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind, niño, gênio criança, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:18 PM 


Blogger virginiagunawan said...

Thanks for bringing it up! I'm really sad if someone brings Sidis up as an example of 'A Prodigy Failure'. How rude.

I read a couple of articles of him last year and, quoting what you say :

"Take an impartial look at his output. Can it be said that a man who writes books on several different areas; who learns 40 to 200 languages - and uses that linguistic knowledge in his research, can be said to be a failure?",
is exactly the point.

What do they expect anyway? Being a prodigy doesn't mean that he's compulsory to create something to obtain the Nobel or anything. It is sad how societies put burden on the prodigies and urge them to create something and at the same time don't really care about them.

I didn't know that he was using pseudonyms on his writings. Did the people in his time scare him that much? Poor prodigy..

By the way, do you know where I can read any of his writings? :)

Rest in Peace, William James Sidis.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Virginia,

I agree that a prodigy should be free to live the life they choose, even if that is not the one society expects or, in fact, as is often the case, DEMANDS.

One of his achievements was the prediction of the existence of black holes. Yet, he is not credited with that discovery. This, to me, seems like evidence of bias against him, since the discovery was credited to a later other.

I am unsure where you can find his writings. Try Kindle/Amazon, or Guttenberg...there might be a free copy of his works available online somewhere.

It is good to note your interest in Sidis.

Best wishes.

7:46 PM  

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