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Early to Ripe, Early to Rot
May 27, 2011 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Why did William James Sidis - the reclusive boy genius fluent in Latin at 2, accepted to MIT at 8, conceptual physicist at 11 - spend so much time thinking about public transit transfers?

Written under the name Frank Folupa, Notes on the Collection of Transfers (full text) describes in detail colors, dating systems, routes and all other imaginable elements of transfers; the book was called by one biographer "the most boring work in the English language." Is Sidis the prototypical genius burnout? Was he lovesick? Hounded by the press? Are gifted children permanently maladjusted to society? After living only 46 years, did the "genius absorbed by trifles" live a failed life?

Inspired by the top linked episode of The Memory Palace, a startlingly beautiful audio storytelling series on history. The Sidis Archives has a ton of Sidis' other written works. Two previous threads on MeFi.
posted by Apropos of Something (24 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Much love for the Memory Palace. The only thing wrong with it ever is that it doesn't update enough.
posted by immlass at 7:24 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not to throw diagnoses around, but this sounds like a pretty clear-cut case of Asperger syndrome.
posted by schmod at 7:27 AM on May 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have a real love/hate relationship with stories like this.

But at least I have a new book on my summer reading list!
posted by Xoebe at 7:28 AM on May 27, 2011


Seconding Schmod--Asperger was my immediate reaction.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:37 AM on May 27, 2011


He was probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but I'd say that a big part of his problem was that, like many gifted people of his era and earlier, he was treated like a sideshow freak. He didn't literally get hired out to a carnival sideshow in the manner of autistic savants (or, in the charming parlance of the time, "idiot savants"), but his parents would still trot him out for dinner parties as the entertainment and pushed him to get into Harvard as a child, even though he had problems socializing. When he graduated--at sixteen--he said that he wanted to basically become a celibate hermit; his parents responded by packing him off to Rice University in Houston. That poor kid.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:56 AM on May 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


"He didn't literally get hired out to a carnival sideshow in the manner of autistic savants (or, in the charming parlance of the time, "idiot savants"), but his parents would still trot him out for dinner parties as the entertainment"

Part and parcel of Asperger's syndrome is a tendency to experience high anxiety when put on the spot like that, and not show any outward sign of it.
posted by ocschwar at 8:23 AM on May 27, 2011


Samuel Rosenberg wrote a book "The Come As You Are Masquerade Party" (subtitled 'Confessions of a Trivialist') that dedicates a chapter to Sidis and his "Notes On The Collection Of Transfers" that outlines his take on Sidis. You can read a review of the chapter here. (The rest of Rosenberg's book is also quite interesting)
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:28 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know, as a transportation planner, I find his boring book pretty interesting and not indicative of rot in the least.
posted by millipede at 8:33 AM on May 27, 2011 [14 favorites]


I'm agreeing with millipede's point — from the vantage point of 2011, that book might seem pretty boring, but it was published 85 years ago pretty much at the height of public transportation usage in the United States (on a per-capita basis). So this book, in its time, may have been no less useful than one published today today on, say, the history or technology of packet-switching on the internet — a mighty boring topic to non-geeks like me. In itself, Sidis's book is certainly not evidence of any mental or neurological disorder, or social maladjustment.
posted by beagle at 8:49 AM on May 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


beagle: "In itself, Sidis's book is certainly not evidence of any mental or neurological disorder, or social maladjustment."

To clarify, I don't take a position one way or the other on what the book means. I just find Sidis' choice to reject studying "world-saving" disciplines in favor of studying esoterica interesting.
posted by Apropos of Something at 9:15 AM on May 27, 2011


I'm an urban planner by training and trade, and a friend of mine is a transportation planner. He loves his job, though many college classmates fount transit planning on the dull end of planning (and we had some lively discussions of planning details that would bore most people).

Still, I'm not sure even my friend would get into quite so much detail about the collection of transfers. That's some impressive attention to detail.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:18 AM on May 27, 2011


I just find Sidis' choice to reject studying "world-saving" disciplines in favor of studying esoterica interesting.

You are digging yourself in deeper. Public transportation unrelated to world-saving?
posted by DU at 9:22 AM on May 27, 2011


DU: "Public transportation unrelated to world-saving?"

Public transit is absolutely integral to world saving. The color of streetcar transfers much less so.

One of the stories in the Memory Palace episode is about one of Sidis' many jobs, as an accounting clerk for one of the larger east coast streetcar lines. Sidis applied psuedonymously so that he wouldn't run the risk of exposing his past to his superiors, while still offering him all the time in the world to study the intricacies of how to transfer between lines. Well, they found out anyway, on his first day on the job. In turn, they instantly offered him a promotion to president of the system. He quit the job, and went home deeply depressed.

Sidis' passion for transit could have translated into the design of more efficient systems, or research on alternative energy, to say nothing of his promise as a theoretical physicist. He didn't make that choice, out of a desire to remain as anonymous as he could. Since this was the 1910s, it's not totally ridiculous to posit the world might be a very different place if he did.
posted by Apropos of Something at 9:33 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought these two paragraphs from the tail end of the book explained a few of the ways that the study of transfers apply to bigger pursuits:
The geometrical interest enters the transfer-collecting process in many ways: in the envelope making, in the understanding of street and car routing, in the measurement of transfers, in the allotment of divisions and sub-divisions in the file code, and in the making of routing and distribution maps. One who is interested in arithmetical or statistical figuring can work it into transfer collection in connection with the calculation of car indexes, as well as figuring the possible number of combinations in different varieties of date codes, or in different combinations of print and color, or of fronts and backs. Such figuring also enters into the score kept of the number of transfers in the collection and checking it up the count of each envelope.

This sort of figuring leads to the question of the effect of different sorts of street arrangement (rectangular blocks, diagonal streets, haphazard crooked streets, etc.) on city traffic. Here the most effective arrangement for traffic purposes is that which gives, on average, the shortest distance between two points: and, surprising as this may seem, it is not straight streets that accomplish this most effectively. In a rectangular block city, the average percentage of excess of street distance over air distance is about 24 per cent, while in a city of crooked, haphazard streets such as Boston, it is nearer 6 per cent. The latter arrangement also makes many lines of crosstown transit possible that would be difficult to arrange otherwise, and naturally has its effect on the car index, which indicates the effectiveness of the transit service. Note the high car index of Boston as given in Section 66, is probably partly due to this circumstance.
TLDR: studying transfers tells you a lot about the efficiency of the city's transportation facilities, sense of design and culture, and points to several counterintuitive results.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:35 AM on May 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


though many college classmates fount transit planning on the dull end of planning

Ha. Well, there's why we disagree. I just graduated with my MCP and I hated, hated hated non-transportation-related planning.
posted by millipede at 9:35 AM on May 27, 2011


It sounds like a particular form of confusion about what "intelligence" is, to me. This man, Sidis, was really good at absorbing information. Learned english early. Learned Latin quickly. Learned math, absorbed everything there was to know about streetcar transfers, etc etc. At a glance, we tend to look at people with this sort of talent and say "Wow! A genius!"

But could he create? Well, that's less clear. He gave a famous lecture on four-dimensional geometry. I don't know how mcuh of that was original work. Beyond that, it sounds like he had little interest in, or accomplishment at, doing original work. He was an information sponge. That doesn't mean he was ever capable of fulfilling the unreasonable expectations the world had for him -- "most important scientist of his century," and so on.

But I don't know that for sure. all I did was listen to that little podcast. It seems like this happens with some regularity, though -- people who are remarkably good at storing and retrieving information get stuffed in the "genius" box, while people who are a little spacey and daydreamy get shuffled into to menial jobs like, say, patent clerk.
posted by rusty at 10:39 AM on May 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


It looks to me like Sidis chose to study transfers because no one else would be interested.

I'd guess Sidis needed something to keep his brain occupied or it would do something unpleasant-- such as have a seizure, perhaps-- but he knew from bitter personal experience that if he worked at something other people cared about, they'd come after him with all their absurd demands and make his life a living hell.
posted by jamjam at 10:40 AM on May 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


I don’t really buy the idea that if you’re smart you’re obligated to try and save the world. That seems like saying if you’re beautiful you’re obligated to be a model, for everyone’s sake, so we can all enjoy your beauty.
posted by bongo_x at 10:44 AM on May 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


That seems like saying if you’re beautiful you’re obligated to be a model, for everyone’s sake, so we can all enjoy your beauty.

And to be bisexual, for the sake of equal opportunity.

But more seriously, it is a reasonable argument that talent brings with it an obligation to put it to good use. The trouble was that Sidis's family and friends were dicks for not letting him pursue math on his own terms and without the limelight.
posted by ocschwar at 11:05 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does mediocrity carry with it an obligation to fail to achieve? I can't see how. "Mediocre people do exceptional things every day," as the Ok Go lyric says. So conversely, I don't think talent carries any obligation to excel. We all do what we decide to with the hand we're dealt.
posted by rusty at 11:09 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


To me, power carries with it obligation, natural gifts like talent and beauty do not. Both the powerful and the talented are lucky, but it's very important to not confuse those who were given a gift with those who directly or indirectly took their advantages from others. Gifts don't come with strings attached.

We never really know what things are going to be important anyway. Plenty of scientific and engineering breakthroughs have started with people thinking deeply about seemingly trivial or irrelevant problems. There are close to seven billion people on this planet, surely we can allow those who wish to be fascinated by the trivial to be so.
posted by hackwolf at 11:35 AM on May 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


"It looks to me like Sidis chose to study transfers because no one else would be interested.

I'd guess Sidis needed something to keep his brain occupied or it would do something unpleasant-- such as have a seizure, perhaps-- but he knew from bitter personal experience that if he worked at something other people cared about, they'd come after him with all their absurd demands and make his life a living hell.
"

Yeah, this. Public transit transfers were his nutshell, and within it he could be a king of infinite detail. He probably enjoyed working on transfer studies a great deal, as do latter day nerds who master sci fi plots, movie trivia, song titles and sports statistics.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:15 PM on May 27, 2011


True intelligence is entirely about the capacity for adaptability that occurs within various social contexts. High IQ - or genius like micro-skills - *may* help with that, but all by themselves mean very little.
posted by Vibrissae at 3:14 PM on May 27, 2011


I spend two hours on trains every day. Anything that makes them more efficient strikes me as useful.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:26 AM on May 28, 2011


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