Teaching and further education (1915–19)
After a group of Harvard students threatened physical harm, his parents
secured him a job at the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement
of Letters, Science, and Art (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas as
a mathematics teaching assistant. He arrived at Rice in December 1915 at
the age of 17. He was a Graduate Fellow working toward his doctorate.
Sidis taught three classes: Euclidean geometry, non-Euclidean geometry,
and trigonometry (he wrote a textbook for the Euclidean geometry course
in Greek). After less than a year, frustrated with the department, his teaching
requirements, and his treatment by students older than he, Sidis left his
post and returned to New England. When a friend later asked him why he had
left, he replied, "I never knew why they gave me the job in the first
place — I'm not much of a teacher. I didn't leave — I was asked to go."
Sidis abandoned his pursuit of a graduate degree in mathematics and enrolled
at the Harvard Law School in September 1916, but withdrew in good standing
in his final year in March 1919.
Politics and arrest (1919–21)
In 1919, shortly after his withdrawal from law school, Sidis was arrested
for participating in a socialist May Day parade in Boston that turned into
a scuffle. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison under the Sedition Act
of 1918 for rioting and assault. Sidis's arrest featured prominently in
newspapers, as his early graduation from Harvard had garnered considerable
local celebrity. During the trial, Sidis stated that he had been a conscientious
objector of the World War I draft, did not believe in a god, and that he
was a socialist[ (though he later developed his own philosophy of quasi-"libertarianism"
based on individual rights and "the American social continuity").0]1]
His father made an arrangement with the district attorney to keep him out
of prison before his appeal came to trial; his parents, instead, held him
in their sanitorium in New Hampshire for a year, then took him to California
where he spent another year.2] While at the sanitorium, his parents set
about "reforming" him and threatened him with transfer to an insane
Later life (1921–44)
After returning to the East Coast in 1921, Sidis was determined to live
an independent and private life, and would only take work running adding
machines or other fairly menial tasks. He worked in New York City and became
estranged from his parents. It took a number of years before he was cleared
to return to Massachusetts, and he remained concerned about possible arrest
for years. He devoted himself to his hobby of collecting streetcar transfers,
published periodicals, and taught small circles of interested friends his
version of American history.
In 1944, Sidis won a settlement from The New Yorker for publishing an article
about him in 1937, which he alleged contained many false statements. Under
the title "Where Are They Now?", the pseudonymous article described
Sidis's life as lonely, in a "hall bedroom in Boston's shabby South
End". Lower courts had dismissed Sidis as a public figure with no right
to challenge personal publicity. He lost an appeal of an invasion of privacy
lawsuit at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in
1940 over the same article. Judge Charles Edward Clark expressed sympathy
for Sidis — who claimed that the publication had exposed him to "public
scorn, ridicule, and contempt" and caused him "grievous mental
anguish [and] humiliation" — but found that the court was not disposed
to "afford to all the intimate details of private life an absolute
immunity from the prying of the press".
Sidis died in 1944 of a cerebral hemorrhage in Boston at the age of 46.
His father had died of the same malady in 1923 at age 56.
Publications and subjects of research
From writings on cosmology, to Native American history, to a comprehensive
and definitive taxonomy of vehicle transfers, an equally comprehensive study
of civil engineering and vehicles, and several well-substantiated lost texts
on anthropology, philology, and transportation systems, Sidis covered a
broad range of subjects. Some of his ideas concerned cosmological reversibility,"social
continuity," and individual rights in the United States.
In The Animate and the Inanimate (1925), Sidis predicted the existence of
regions of space where the second law of thermodynamics operated in reverse
to the temporal direction that we experience in our local area. Everything
outside of what we would today call a galaxy would be such a region. Sidis
claimed that the matter in this region would not generate light. (These
dark areas of the universe are not properly dark matter or black holes as
they are used in contemporary cosmology.) This work on cosmology, based
on his theory of reversibility of the second law of thermodynamics was the
only book published under his name.
Sidis' The Tribes and the States (ca. 1935) employs the pseudonym "John
W. Shattuck," giving a 100,000-year history of North America's inhabitants,
from prehistoric times to 1828. In this text, he suggests that "there
were red men at one time in Europe as well as in America."
Sidis was also a "peridromophile," a term he coined for people
fascinated with transportation research and streetcar systems. He wrote
a treatise on streetcar transfers under the pseudonym of "Frank Folupa"
that identified means of increasing public transport usage.
In 1930, Sidis was awarded a patent for a rotary perpetual calendar that
took into account leap years. Also, in his adult years, it was estimated
that he could speak more than forty languages, and learn a new language
in a day.
Abraham Sperling, director of New York City's Aptitude Testing Institute,
said after Sidis' death that according to his calculations, Sidis "easily
had an IQ between 250 and 300" and that there was no evidence that
his intellect had declined in adulthood. Sidis' father once dismissed tests
of intelligence as "silly, pedantic, absurd, and grossly misleading".
"What the journalists did not report, and perhaps did not know, was
that during all the years of his obscure employments he was writing original
treatises on history, government, economics and political affairs. In a
visit to his mother's home I was permitted to see the contents of a trunkful
of original manuscript material that Bill Sidis composed."
Sidis in educational discussions
The debate about Sidis' manner of upbringing occurred within a larger discourse
about the best way to educate children. Newspapers criticized the child-rearing
methods of Boris Sidis. Most educators of the day believed that schools
should expose children to common experiences to create good citizens, and
most psychologists thought that intelligence was hereditary — a position
that precluded early childhood education at home.
The difficulties that Sidis and other highly gifted young students encountered
in dealing with the social structure of a collegiate setting helped shape
opinion against allowing them to rapidly advance through higher education.
The debate over gifted education continues today, and Sidis remains a topic
of discussion. Cast in modern standards, scholars usually classify Sidis
as a profoundly gifted individual, and some critics use Sidis as the most
vivid example of how gifted youth do not always achieve corresponding success
as adults — in either material or creative terms.
Many of these depictions rely on Sidis' negative portrayal in the press
of the day, which refused to acknowledge that his intellect could be attributed
to anything but monotonous cramming — precisely what his parents had argued
against. The New York Times, for example, described Sidis as "a wonderfully
successful result of a scientific forcing experiment". His mother later
noted that newspaper accounts of her son bore little resemblance to William