This slight 136-page work from 1925 is one of the few to feature its author’s real name—William James Sidis (1898-1944).
It’s a name unfamiliar to pretty much most people, but the American was a child prodigy and super genius. Some suggest he was the smartest man in history. Yet he was ultimately elusive and slipped into obscurity.
This work covers Sidis’ musings on cosmology, the origins of life, and other physics stuff our pathetically inadequate brains don’t understand.
The Animate and the Inanimate
“This work sets forth a theory which is speculative in nature, there being no verifying experiments. It is based on the idea of the reversibility of everything in time; that is, that every type of process has its time-image, a corresponding process which is its exact reverse with respect to time. This accounts for all physical laws but one, namely, the second law of thermodynamics. This law has been found during the nineteenth century to be a source of a great deal of difficulty. The eminent physicist, Clerk-Maxwell, in the middle of the nineteenth century, while giving a proof of that law, admitted that reversals are possible by imagining a 'sorting demon' who could sort out the smaller particles, and separate the slower ones from the faster ones. This second law of thermodynamics brought in the idea of energy-level, of unavailable energy (or 'entropy' as it was called by Clausius) which was constantly increasing.”
This preface was written on January 6th, 1920. Unlike Albert Einstein, whose four essays in 1905 sent to the Annalen der Physik changed the world, Sidis’ book went unnoticed.
He even concludes the preface with humility:
“I have decided to publish the work and give my theory to the world, to be accepted or rejected, as the case may be.”
A Harvard University student rediscovered the book in 1979—from an old copy long discarded in an attic.
Reaching the scientific community again, Sidis’ history came to the fore—albeit briefly. And 40 years later he still remains an obscure individual. None of his books are in print, but you can read The Animate and the Inanimate online.
Sidis was likely working on his theories from a much younger age, but he waited until 1925 to present them to the scientific community. By that point, he’d taken himself off into solitude and was working in mundane jobs.
The Animate and the Inanimate champions the universe as infinite—he discusses positive and negative tendencies. Laws of physics in action across the ages.
Stars are alive—“astrobiology”—and over epochs they finish a process of reversing the second law of thermodynamics. That’s building up heat.
They then begin following the second law of thermodynamics—expending light and heat. The video above is a demonstration of Sidis’ theory in action.
“We thus find the universe to be made up of a number of what we may call bricks, alternately positive and negative, all of approximately the same volume; a sort of three-dimensional checkerboard, the positive spaces counting as white (giving out light), and the negative spaces as black (absorbing light).”
Regarding the origin of the universe, he claimed there wasn’t one—life (the universe) has always existed. Evolution has driven the changes humans document through historical records and scientific discovery.
Another belief was asteroids likely brought microbiological life to Earth.
Now, if you’re a layperson (as with us lot) a lot of this short book is difficult to comprehend. We’d all have to immerse ourselves further into scientific study to get an understanding.
Sidis’ prose isn’t overly impenetrable, but a knowledge of higher mathematics and physics will help.
Most of us also aren’t geniuses, so the likes of Carlo Rovelli’s insightful Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2014) introduces the basics.
Away from the scientific reasoning, what Sidis’ book represents is unusual.
Although Einstein, Hawkings, Turing, Katherine Johnson, Shakuntala Devi, Kurt Gödel and many others left their mark in the 20th century—Sidis is absent from that list of leading intellectual luminaries.
In fact, he remained in total anonymity and was desperate to fend off any attempts at scientific celebrity or academic renown.
William James Sidis
His life remains shrouded in confusion, myth, and mystery. The internet era has introduced many more people to him, but largely as a brief “did you know” type pop quiz.
Crucially, his parents took the decision to make him something of a media marvel.
That involved encouraging his high intellect. At the age of eight, one of their son’s projects was to invent a new language: The Book of Vendergood.
He adapted it from Greek and Latin—it distinguishes between eight conjugates (moods), including indicative, potential, imperative absolute, and subjunctive.
His parents continued to tout him as the next big academic deal, in similar fashion to the likes of Mozart—his father, Leopold, toured his son around Europe in the 1760s.
And, so, Sidis’ smarts were up for public display across the US.
His parents were also academically brilliant. And from the outset, with their son, they promoted a fearless love for knowledge—the attention affected the young man badly.
In that push, the lack of understanding in emotional intelligence, if not common sense, just didn’t work. Sidis wasn’t the type of person to revel in that pressure.
From the accounts we’ve come across, he was very shy and introverted. With colossal expectations dumped on him, his upbringing (and the celebrity it brought) inadvertently changed the course of his life.
He went off to Harvard University at age 12 where he stunned professors with his mastery of mathematics—that propelled his celebrity on further, making him increasingly nervous and insular.
In 1914 he completed a BA in Arts at age 16. Pursued by journalists, he hinted in interviews that, for him, solitude was the “perfect life” to lead.
During WWI he was a noted pacifist and, at just 17, took up an assistant job teaching mathematical systems from antiquity.
Again, his parents were instrumental in guiding him into teaching, while he pursued his graduate degree.
But he was frustrated—and bullied by older students. From all accounts he was socially awkward and struggled to talk to women, often left humiliated due to gullibility.
He was asked to resign from his teaching assistant role and soon stopped his mathematical studies. He went on to study law in 1916, but withdrew in 1919 during his final year.
Shortly after, he was arrested for participating in a socialist march in Boston.
Whilst on trial, he told the judge he considered the two major problems with the world as capitalism and religion. He also reaffirmed his status as a conscientious objector to WWI.
Again, his parents intervened and he was spared jail time. But his father was outraged, threatening to send his son off to an insane asylum.
His father then died suddenly in 1923 aged 56 of a cerebral haemorrhage.
After that Sidis took himself off into solitude. Whilst he wrote vociferously on mathematics and cosmology (using a pseudonym), the rest of the time he worked mundane jobs and had a low profile.
Only in 1937 did he briefly re-emerge, when The New Yorker ran an article about him. Sidis claimed an “invasion of privacy” lawsuit, which he lost. The article was a “Where Are They Now?” type deal and claimed Sidis was lonely and a wasted talent.
Upset about the piece, he disappeared again into obscurity. Then, sadly, in 1944 he died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 46.
His sister, Helena, later claimed her brother had taken an IQ test and the result was the highest in history—between 250 and 300.
It’s a much-disputed claim. But, more importantly, her brother wasn’t bothered about boosting his ego in that way.
Clearly a highly creative and curious mind, it’s interesting to note he stepped away from the limelight in favour of peace and quiet.
It’s unclear how many books he wrote, but his versatility was outrageous: politics (“social continuity” and socialism), grammar, cosmology, anatomy, philology, history, philosophy, thermodynamics etc.
With that level of spectacular intelligence, global fame was there for the taking—adulation, wealth, and a lasting legacy.
William James Sidis rejected it all to live in solitude—the “perfect life”.