There’s something strange going on at Harvard. An 11-year-old-boy is addressing the crowd — and he’s being taken very seriously. He speaks about complex math, and what he says wows folks many decades his senior. No, this is definitely no normal kid. But who is he? And given that he was smarter than Einstein, why don’t you know his name?
That boy was William Sidis — the son of a psychologist and a doctor. And for a while, it looked as if he would achieve true greatness.
By the time he was eight, reports claim, he could speak multiple languages, including one he’d made up. It was in mathematics that he really excelled, though. Sidis even made history through his remarkable talent.
Youngest Ivy-League student
At just 11 years old, Sidis became the youngest person ever to enroll at Harvard University. Not just any college, but arguably the most prestigious of them all — quite an achievement.
All the pieces were in place for the child prodigy to grow into an incredible adult. But somewhere along the line, something went very wrong.
Smarter than Einstein
Although solid facts are hard to come by, many believe that Sidis had an IQ far above that of Albert Einstein’s. Surely, then, he was destined for big things? But a quick glance through any history book will confirm the strange truth: this genius never reached his full potential.
And that has to make you ask: what happened?
Sidis had plenty of support, after all — at least when he was a child. Born in 1898 in New York, he was the son of parents who had both fled persecution.
His mother Sarah had escaped a series of religious purges in Russia during the 1880s, while his father Boris had run from politically motivated oppression to settle in the U.S. But despite — or perhaps because of — their turbulent backgrounds, the couple had big dreams for their young son.
Good news for parents
“They believed that you could make a genius,” Amy Wallace, who wrote a biography of Sidis, said to NPR in 2011. So, Boris and Sarah set out to make their son a prodigy.
And, apparently, even before Sidis was out of his crib, he was already on his way to mastering the English language. That had to be good news for his parents.
Key to development
Boris believed that the first few years of a child’s development were key. In his 1911 book Philistine and Genius, he wrote, “We can at that early period awaken a love of knowledge which will persist through life.” Now with a son of his own, he set out to test that theory.
But did the little boy prove it?
He wrote a textbook
Well, the early signs looked good. At the tender age of five, Sidis is said to have invented his own formula for calculating days of the week throughout history.
According to The New York Times, he also wrote a textbook covering anatomy. The American education system? That posed little challenge to the boy genius.
Sidis took roughly six months to complete a program of study that was supposed to last for seven years. And like his father, who was a polyglot, the young boy proved particularly skilled in linguistics.
By the time he was eight years old, he could allegedly speak a language for every year he had been alive. Truly incredible! It makes you wonder how we’ve never heard of him before...
Jack of all trades
Speaking to NPR, Wallace explained, “One thing that was very unusual about [Sidis] compared to other child prodigies [is that] very few prodigies have multiple abilities.” But the young boy appeared to buck this trend. He combined academic skill with a talent for poetry and political theory.
And there was only one place, Boris thought, that would appreciate his son’s genius.
When Sidis was just nine years old, his father attempted to enroll him at Harvard University. Sensibly, though, the institution refused to admit him, suggesting that he did not have the emotional maturity to cope with the challenge.
Had Boris taken that advice on board, this sad story might have ended a very different way.
He still holds the record
Instead, Boris waited just two years before sending his son back to Harvard. And this time, he was successful.
In 1909 Sidis became the youngest freshman the college had ever seen — a record he holds to this day. So why is his name not mentioned alongside other famous alumni?
Twice as smart?
After all, if reports are to be believed, Sidis had an astonishingly high IQ. According to some, it was as high as 300 — almost twice that of Albert Einstein.
In his 1946 book Psychology for the Millions, Abraham Sperling wrote of Sidis, “His [IQ] score was the highest that had ever been obtained.” Surely, then, Sidis should be as famous as Einstein?
If Sidis’ IQ score is accurate, he would have been smarter than both Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton, too. Reports from his early years at college certainly suggest he was on his way to becoming a great thinker.
And in 1910 — at the age of just 11 — he delivered a lecture to the Harvard Mathematical Club.
Meet Mr. Comstock
That day, Sidis stood up in front of a large group of advanced students and professors. He was there to speak about the highly technical mathematical concept of four-dimensional bodies.
We’re as puzzled as you are! But not everyone was baffled by the complex topic. In the audience, you see, was a man who knew his stuff. He was Daniel Comstock — a physicist on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Predicting a bright future
According to Wallace’s 1986 biography, Comstock was so impressed by the boy’s lecture that he made a bold prophecy about his future. He said, “I predict that young Sidis will be a great astronomical mathematician.
He will evolve new theories and invent new ways of calculating astronomical phenomena. I believe he will be a great mathematician, the leader in that science in the future.” And Comstock knew what he was talking about. It’s weird, then, that he got it so wrong.
Harvard’s boy genius
That a child of 11 could receive such praise was big news, of course, and soon the press had caught wind of the story of Harvard’s boy genius. It was the start of a media obsession with Sidis that would continue on and off for the rest of his life.
But although Sidis quickly became the darling of the newspapers, he wasn’t so beloved by his fellow students.
Dressed in short pants
According to the history website American Heritage, the renowned architect Buckminster Fuller attended Harvard at the same time as Sidis. He said of the boy, “Most students considered him a freak.
He was 16 when I knew him, but his parents still sent him to school dressed like a boy of 12. In those days a boy automatically put on long trousers when he was 14, but Willy Sidis still wore Little Lord Fauntleroy short pants and high-buttoned shoes.” Clearly, Sidis struggled to fit in.
So what happened?
But despite this, Sidis’ fellow students still expected him to go on to do great things. So you’ve got to ask: why did these achievements never materialize? Well, there’s an early clue to the genius’ sad fate.
And it can be found in the bizarre speech he gave to reporters after graduating in 1914.
Committing to seclusion
“I want to live the perfect life,” Sidis is reported to have said. So far, so fitting for a guy of his dazzling intellect.
But then things got strange. He continued, “The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds.” Was this promising young man ready to drop out of society before his career had even begun?
Closing himself off
And the speech was not the only indicator that Sidis would be destined for an unusual life. By this point, reports claim, he had already sworn off women and marriage, claiming to dislike the entire idea.
Was this perhaps a hangup left over from the suspicion of his fellow students at Harvard? And would it help explain why he later disappeared?
Taking up a teaching position
After graduation, Sidis’ academic career took a number of unexpected turns. To pursue his doctorate in mathematics, he relocated to Rice University in Texas after allegedly receiving physical threats at Harvard.
There, still aged just 17, he took up a position teaching trigonometry and geometry to much older students. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not go well.
Yep, within a year Sidis had resigned from the job and returned to Harvard, where he abandoned his doctorate and enrolled at law school instead. But even though the young man excelled there — just as he had everywhere else — he ultimately dropped out in 1919.
Why, when things had looked so promising for the young genius, was he failing?
Run-ins with the law
By that point, Sidis was taking a route in life that was markedly different from the one that his father had mapped out. The same year he dropped out of law school, he was arrested for taking part in a socialist demonstration.
Allegedly, he had been caught shouting, “To hell with the American flag.” Yikes.
Because of Sidis’ earlier fame, his brush with the law was covered extensively by the press. And while he was on trial, his personal beliefs and ideas were laid bare.
Apparently, he claimed to be a pacifist and a socialist who supported the movement behind the Russian Revolution. In post-World War I America, this wasn’t exactly well-received.
Parole, under conditions
Once again, Boris stepped in to change the course of his son’s life. Initially sentenced to 18 months behind bars, Sidis was granted parole on the condition that he sought psychological help.
But he wasn’t sent to an institution. Instead, the boy’s father took him to his own facility in New Hampshire. If Boris had hoped to set his son back on a more traditional path, though, his attempt went horribly awry.
Released from custody
Apparently, Sidis later described his experience in his father’s sanatorium as “mental torture.” And when he was finally released in 1921, he seemed set on living a life free from the influence of his overbearing mom and dad..
Sidis began actively pursuing a life of obscurity, free from the media attention that had dogged his early life. Dropping out of academia entirely, he took a succession of unskilled jobs in an attempt to stay under the radar.
And for a while at least, it worked.
But Sidis’ precocious talent had been so promising — and his story so interesting — that the world just would not leave him alone. In 1924 a reporter tracked the young man to Wall Street in New York City, where he was working as an adding machine operator.
He was making just $23 a week.
Separating from his parents
By this time, it seems, Sidis had distanced himself from the parents who had raised him in such a strange fashion. But although he craved anonymity, he could not forego academic life completely.
In 1925 he published The Animate and the Inanimate — a theory about the cosmos and how biological life came to exist.
Publishing under different names
Despite its bold concepts, this work was largely ignored at the time. In fact, it was only rediscovered decades after Sidis’ death.
Was this rejection the final straw that drove the genius even deeper into obscurity? Following this, you see, he began publishing his work under pseudonyms to hide his true identity.
A way to hide his work
Because of this, experts are unsure exactly how many texts Sidis wrote during his lifetime. But we do know of at least two works that have been attributed to his great mind.
One, titled The Tribes and the States, claims to offer an alternative history of Native Americans. The other is even stranger.
Lost Sidis texts
Published in the 1920s under the pseudonym Frank Folupa, Notes on the Collection of Transfers focuses on one of Sidis’ more unusual obsessions: streetcars. Essentially, the text is a compilation of trivia and facts accompanied by poems and childish jokes.
Hardly the sort of work you’d expect from a man once predicted to take the academic world by storm! But according to some, there are still a number of lost Sidis texts out there. Who knows what revelations they might contain?
A life of obscurity
While Sidis was alive, though, he continued to live in obscurity. Sometimes he would slip up and accidentally reveal his intelligence, but when that happened, he would simply move on before the spotlight could shine on him once more..
A possible explanation?
Then, in 1937 an article appeared in The New Yorker. Apparently, a reporter had managed to get close to Sidis, who had allegedly confessed, “The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill.” And when asked about his failure to live up to various predictions, he wryly replied, “It’s strange, but, you know, I was born on April Fool’s Day.”.
When the article came out, Sidis was unhappy with how he had been depicted — a sad, lonely man eking out a dull existence in Boston. That led him to sue the magazine for invasion of privacy.
According to Wallace, the wayward genius complained that the piece had caused him “grievous mental anguish [and] humiliation.”
Back at the center of attention
At the time, the court threw out the case, unable to protect an individual from the glare of the media spotlight. And yet again, Sidis found himself the center of attention — a place he never wanted to be.
But despite his attempts to prove that he was no longer the genius his father had created, he remained in the public eye.
Unexpected but expected
Eventually, in 1944 Sidis won his lawsuit against The New Yorker. By that time, he had returned to working menial jobs, including a position as a clerk at the State Department of Unemployment Compensation.
Then, in July of that year, he suffered a brain hemorrhage — the same tragic fate that had befallen his father two decades before.
Untimely and early
Sadly, Sidis did not recover and died in Boston at the age of just 46. For someone who had shown such promise, it was a rather ordinary end.
And even though the former boy-genius may have had the highest IQ of all time, his name is barely uttered today. Ironically, in death, he has found the anonymity for which he had spent most of his short life searching.
An obscure story
Nowadays, you’ll struggle to find someone who knows Sidis’ story. Einstein, on the other hand? Everyone recognizes his name — even if they don’t know why he’s so iconic.
But like Sidis, the famous physicist also caused trouble for his relatives. After Einstein’s death, his wealth didn’t go to his family. Instead, it went to a unique place. And that decision would turn out to have serious repercussions for some of his loved ones.
Starting in 1905, Einstein spent much of his life turning physics on its head. From the Theory of Relativity to perhaps the best-known equation ever written, E=mc2, his ideas and discoveries have shaped the modern world in incredible ways.
In fact, without him, the planet would be a very different place indeed.
Lost without Einstein
Take something upon which we all rely these days: Global Positioning System (G.P.S.) navigation. From Google Maps to sat navs, without Einstein we’d all be lost.
And that’s because, through the Theory of Relativity, he discovered something incredible. Clocks orbiting the planet are 38,000 nanoseconds faster than those on Earth.
That might not sound like a huge amount of time, but if that difference wasn’t taken into account, you’d end up miles away from your destination. Einstein theorized that gravity can affect time, making it run faster or slower.
And he was right. And then there’s solar power: his discovery of the photoelectric effect made that possible.
Paving the way
Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for first describing the phenomenon that led to solar power. The photoelectric effect describes how light can be converted into energy under the right conditions.
This very idea underpins solar panel technology. Of course, his contribution to the modern world doesn’t end there.
Opening the door to advancements
The Nobel Prize winner also came up with the equation E=mc2. Simply put, this explains that energy, E, and mass, M, are two sides of the same coin.
In fact, under certain conditions, one can become the other. And mass’s multiplication by c2, or the speed of light squared, reveals how much energy is contained in an object. This revelation is the basis for some of the most profound scientific advances in the modern world.
Helping scientists now
Indeed, the equation helped scientists understand atomic energy, leading to nuclear power, along with the atomic bomb. It also explains some of what happens in and around black holes, is used in positron emission tomography (P.E.T.) and computerized tomography (C.T.) scans and is even the basis for radiocarbon dating, which enables archaeologists to accurately age ancient objects.
But Einstein’s achievements still haven’t come to an end.
In addition to the technology that Einstein’s discoveries spawned, his work also opened up new fields of scientific research. Those previously unknown areas include high-energy particle physics, the best example of which is the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.
This hi-tech bit of kit fires particles into one another at incredibly high speeds. And it does this in an attempt to understand the beginning of the universe. Clearly, the man was a physics genius. And a rich one at that.
At the time of Einstein’s death in 1955, he left an estate reportedly worth over $1,000,000, which equates to about ten times as much today. Indeed, during his lifetime, the physicist was one of the wealthiest academics around.
But that wasn’t always the way. The German-born scientist, while always a successful academic, couldn’t find his desired employment at one time.
After leaving university in 1900, Einstein struggled to find the teaching work for which he’d trained. Instead, he took a job in the Swiss Patent Office around 1901.
There, to start with he earned just under 4,000 Swiss francs per year (roughly $4,000; worth about $120,000 today) for his full-time efforts. It was while working as a clerk that the physicist published some of his most famous work, including E=mc2. And at that point, academia beckoned.
Starting to rake it in
Over the next few years, Einstein taught physics in Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Germany. Those positions saw his earnings rise to 9,000 Swiss francs by 1910.
His move to America’s Princeton University, though, resulted in a salary of $10,000. By today’s standards, that’s a whopping $300,000. Add in speaking engagements and articles and the physician was probably making enough money to take care of his family for generations. But, it seems, the genius’ personal life was, at best, complicated.
Einstein met his first wife, Mileva Maric, while they were both students at university. The couple married in 1903 and their sons, Hans Albert and Eduard, followed in 1904 and 1910 respectively.
But it appears that their marriage wasn’t a happy one. Work took precedence over family for the physicist, who once described his wife as “an employee whom I cannot fire.” And this led to some very odd living arrangements.
The couple’s marriage broke down to such an extent that the physicist did something quite unusual. He had his wife agree to some very strict rules, setting the boundaries of their relationship.
And it makes for very uncomfortable reading. Mileva had to “renounce all personal relations” with her husband, including sitting in the same room. And the conditions just got worse from there.
In addition to sitting alone, Mileva would have to “stop talking” should he “request it.” She’d also have to “leave [the] bedroom or study” when so told. And this was in addition to the clean house, laundry, and three meals a day he expected.
Unsurprisingly, their marriage didn’t survive the contract. And, it seems, Einstein’s relationship with his sons wasn’t much better.
A distant father
Einstein’s youngest son, Eduard, suffered with mental health issues most of his life. When he died in a psychiatric unit, he reportedly hadn’t seen his father in 30 years.
And Hans Albert didn’t fare much better. While the physicist’s work-related absenteeism improved as the boys became adults, the eldest son once said of his dad, “The only project he ever gave up on was me.”
Mileva, though, may well have disagreed with that sentiment. Her divorce from Einstein in 1919 wasn’t just down to that list of marriage rules.
The physicist, in fact, was in love with another woman. And in an extra twist to the family dynamic, Elsa Lowenthal also happened to be his cousin. But the familial relationship with his future second wife was more complicated than that.
Lowenthal was, in fact, both Einstein’s first and second cousin. How is that possible? Well, it seems they were directly related on his mother’s side, and slightly less related than that on his father’s.
That confusing situation continued until 1936, when she died from kidney and heart heart complications shortly after the couple’s emigration to America.
Across the country, meanwhile, another Einstein had made his home. Hans Albert had recently taken a position as an engineering professor in California.
As a result, he’d moved his family – wife Frieda, son Bernard and adopted daughter Evelyn – to the west coast from Chicago. The little girl had been born to a teenage mom in 1941, and put up for adoption.
Becoming a granddad
Hans Albert and Frieda adopted Evelyn when she was just eight days old. In that moment, she became Einstein’s first granddaughter.
During her early years, she saw the physicist rarely, but later recalled addressing him as “grampa.” He died when she was a teenager. But her grandfather’s legacy would follow her for the rest of her life.
After suffering internal bleeding resulting from a burst aortic aneurysm, Einstein died in April 1955. True to form, he reportedly carried on working regardless, stating his wish to die “elegantly.” Following his demise, it seems that familial relationships continued to be odd.
But before we get into exactly why, let’s have a look at Evelyn’s life.
Finding the truth
As we mentioned earlier, Evelyn was adopted as a baby. Aware of that situation, she often wondered if she was, in fact, actually biologically an Einstein after all.
Rumors that she was the product of a fling between the physicist and a dancer (presumably adopted by Hans Albert and Frieda to cover up the illegitimate birth) flew around the family. But even though she had no proof, she always wondered. She once told an interviewer, “I thought if I broached this subject with people, they would think I was crazy.”
Multilingual and with a masters degree from the University of California in medieval literature, it’s clear that Evelyn inherited some of the family smarts. Her famous name, though, was as much of a curse as a blessing.
Talking to author Michael Paterniti in 2000, she recalled some of the difficulty it caused. “It’s not so easy being an Einstein. When I was in school at Berkeley in the ’60s, I could never tell if men wanted to be with me because of me or my name. To say, you know, ‘I had an Einstein.’”
A sad turn of events
Evelyn eventually married respected anthropologist Grover Krantz, who’s now best remembered for his attempts to prove the existence of Bigfoot. After 13 years, though, the marriage fell apart, the subsequent divorce leaving her destitute.
She went back to live with her father for a short while, but found herself homeless when he died a few months later. Spending a period on the streets before getting back on her feet, she then held a series of varied jobs.
Living in poverty
Indeed, Evelyn had stints as a boat caretaker, a dog catcher, a police officer, and a bank teller. She even spent a while working as a cult deprogrammer, helping people adjust to life on the outside.
She eventually found a home, sharing a place with three other women. But why was Einstein’s only grandchild having to live in such conditions, given his wealth?
Her grandfather’s money
Following Einstein’s death, his estate wasn’t willed to a family member. In fact, it went to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.
Of his entire fortune, the physicist’s granddaughter received just $5,000 back when she was a little girl. As a result, his relatives have seen little income from his earnings post-death. But why do such a thing in the first place?
Einstein had, in fact, helped to found the university and bequeathed not only money, but also his entire archive of 75,000 papers to the institution. The endowment was meant to support scholarships and research there.
But since then, vast amounts of money have been generated through lucrative licensing agreements.
Still making money
Products such as Baby Einstein, T-shirts, posters and everything in between have carried the physicist’s name and likeness. So lucrative is the German-born scientist that he’s among the highest-earning dead celebrities.
According to Forbes magazine, he joined the likes of Michael Jackson and Elvis in the top ten in 2010.
Not for the family
In fact, Einstein’s estate earns more than $10,000,000 a year, thanks in large part to those aforementioned products. That’s a sum which, we can all agree, would pay for a lot of research.
None of it, however, reaches the family. And that’s why Evelyn was forced to live solely on her wits. Given her grandfather’s wishes, surely that situation is perfectly legitimate?
A small snag
Well, it turns out there’s one small alleged snag with the whole endowment set-up. According to Evelyn, the university only has the rights to Einstein’s literary legacy.
In 2011 she expounded her point of view to The New York Post newspaper. “I never made any issue of the fact that they were willed the literary estate,” she said. But that wasn’t the problem.
Asking for a small sum
Evelyn then went on, “But what does a bobblehead have to do with a literary estate?” She was, of course, making reference to the many non-academic products bearing her family name. That same year, now in her 70s, she was involved in a fight with the university over that exact thing.
Needing, but unable, to afford a home in an assisted living facility in her dotage, she wanted a small amount of the Einstein profits to help pay for it.
The fight ended
Einstein’s granddaughter told CNN in 2011, “It’s hard for me to believe they would treat the family the way they have, which is abysmally.” It was, however, a fight Evelyn would not win. But not because she gave up.
Suffering from diabetes along with heart and lung disease, she passed away in April 2011. And although that fight was brought to an unexpected end, she’d been far more successful in the past.
A prized possession
As Einstein’s relative, it seems Evelyn had in her possession an unpublished manuscript, although she didn’t find it until the 1980s. Written by her mother, the work appeared to be something of a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
And its pages contained references to something that hadn’t been seen by the public before.
Getting in Einstein’s head
The manuscript contained excerpts from previously unseen letters from Einstein’s private correspondence. And this included love-letters describing his unhappy marriage to Mileva.
The unpublished work led to the discovery of a cache of thousands of pages of the physicist’s handwritten messages. The information within them painted an intimate picture of his personal life.
A tragic truth
The cache also included incredibly sweet love-letters to his first wife. But the intimate messages didn’t end there.
They also proved that the couple had a daughter before they were married. It appears that the little girl, Lieserl, contracted scarlet fever as a toddler, and, after 1904, was never mentioned again by her father.
The letters, some of which are written on the reverse of important scientific notes, also reveal something else about Einstein. It seems that he had a very strained relationship with his mother, who disapproved of his marriage to Mileva.
Clearly, the handwritten documents were an important find, and it was all thanks to Evelyn.
The cache of 500 documents eventually went up for auction in the 1990s, selling for a whopping $900,000. But despite having found the manuscript that led to their discovery, Evelyn didn’t see a penny of the sale’s proceeds.
So, Einstein’s granddaughter decided to fight for her share.
Evelyn, along with other members of the extended Einstein family, decided to sue for a share of the proceeds from the sale of the documents. After all, without her, the letters may well have remained hidden forever.
The case, though, ended with little fanfare. Settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, this was a fight she very much won.
Following Evelyn’s death in 2011, many media outlets paid tribute to Einstein’s granddaughter. Her friend, lawyer Allen P.
Wilkinson, told The New York Times newspaper, “She thought Albert was not just a great scientist. To her, he was grampa.” He also revealed that she had been working on a memoir before she died. Sadly it appears unfinished. The family, though, might be glad of that.
Always feeling on the outside of the family, Evelyn once told an interviewer that her existence embarrassed the Einsteins. And she had her own theory as to why.
The reason for that mortification, she said, was “my homeliness, my being fat, my being in a wheelchair, and my having an opinion.” But her explanation didn’t end there.
Evelyn went on, “And my being more intelligent than any of them!” That Einsteinian inner confidence, then, definitely ran in her blood. And while she never quite got the inheritance that she claimed she deserved, she did once get close to owning her very own piece of Einstein history.
And as we’ve come to expect, it’s an odd tale.
His actual brain
After the physicist’s death, the pathologist who performed the autopsy removed his brain. Not just from Einstein, either, but from the building.
He then drove cross-country with it, hoping a neuroscientist could discover the source of the Nobel Prize-winner’s genius. The physician offered Evelyn a piece of her grandfather’s gray matter, which she accepted. Perhaps fittingly, she never received it. It now resides in Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Science.