World’s smartest person wrote this one mysterious book
This video is about child prodigy William James Sidis. His father, Boris Sidis, together with William James, developed the idea that people only use a small fraction of their mental potential. William Sidis chose to live a private and independent life, some saw this as a waste of his potential, but this video aims to show that he continued to be a lifelong learner and thinker. The Animate and the Inanimate is one book that he wrote which tackles interesting ideas in physics and the reversibility of the second law of thermodynamics.
If you have ever stumbled onto one of those click bait list articles with titles, like
world’s top 10 smartest people, then you might have seen this name come up.
William James Sidis.
His name is often included in these lists alongside a claim that his IQ is between 250
For context that is higher than any recorded result and anything above 140 is considered
People like Steven Hawking and Einstein are said to have IQs around 160.
Now, from what I can tell this claim about William Sidis’ IQ seems highly dubious.
In fact, I can’t find any evidence that he ever took an IQ test.
It was his sister who said that a psychologist had once measured his IQ to be between 250
But that might have come about from a misunderstanding or an exaggeration when William did write
to his sister saying that he had just taken a civil service exam for which he scored 254th
on the list of candidates.
But he himself described that as not so encouraging.
What is true about William Sidis is that he was very intelligent and he was a child prodigy.
The New York Times was reporting about him when he was 10 years old and had just passed
the MIT entrance exam.
It says that when he was two, he could read and write.
And when he was four, he could speak four languages.
What is also true about William Sidis is that he has a very interesting story.
And I’ll share that story in this video, as well as share some of the work that he left
He set the record for the youngest person to enroll at Harvard at age 11.
And at age 12, he gave a lecture there on four dimensional bodies.
William’s father, Boris Sidis was a psychiatrist and his mother, Sarah was a doctor.
They had a lot of thoughts about developmental psychology and put a lot of effort into raising
William to be a prodigy.
They spent any spare money on books and learning tools for him and nurtured his hunger for
William Sidis was named after his dad’s friend, William James, who was a philosopher and psychologist.
It was Boris Sidis and William James, who together came up with the idea that we only
use 10% of our brains.
And they tested this theory on young William.
When William showed great talents in learning, it was seen as proof that most people only
meet a fraction of their full mental potential.
It was called the reserve energy theory and Boris was trying to unlock his son’s reserve
This 10% of the brain idea is largely considered a myth now with Wikipedia saying that it rests
in folklore, not science, and that brain mapping suggests that all areas of the brain have
a function and that they are used nearly all of the time, but keep that reserve energy
theory in your mind, because it’s important to this story in unexpected ways.
Life as a child, prodigy, wasn’t easy for William.
He was constantly reported on and struggled to fit in with older students, both at school
After he graduated his degree, he told reporters that he wanted to live the perfect life, which
to him meant living in seclusion.
He abandoned further studies in maths and law, and even got arrested for participating
in a political parade.
After that incident, his parents tried to reform him, but he soon became estranged from
them and went on to live a very independent and private life.
He ended up suing The New Yorker for an article they published about him calling him lonely
and invading his privacy.
The sentiment of that article as well as many modern footnotes about him seemed to imply
that despite his great early promise, he amounted to nothing or that he suffered a complete
mental breakdown due to being pushed too hard, mentally as a child by his parents.
But in all those years of William Sidis living outside of the public eye, he was still learning
and writing and sharing knowledge.
He published many books under pseudonyms, but I have one here that he published under
his own name.
It is called The Animate and The Inanimate, and it was published in 1920 when he was 22.
It details a theory of his that relates to cosmology, physics and life.
So let’s have a look through it.
Sidis says that this work is based on the idea of the reversibility of everything in
That is that all of the physical laws work backwards, but there is one exception and
that is the second law of thermodynamics.
The second law relates to the idea that say, you have a bunch of particles in a box.
They might start off all concentrated in one corner, but over time they will spread out.
And it’s so extremely unlikely that they would all collect in that corner again, that we
consider it to be impossible . With this we see that the flow of heat goes from hot to
You don’t see water spontaneously turning into ice because this is such an unlikely
flow of energy.
Then Sidis mentions the idea of Maxwell’s demon, that if you were to have a reversal
of this second law of thermodynamics, that you could imagine a sorting demon who could
separate the slower particles from the faster ones, a demon could do this by monitoring
some kind of barrier between two halves of the box, only letting slow particles into
the left hand side and fast particles into the right.
You’d see that left hand side of the box become cold and the right hand side become hot.
Something that wouldn’t naturally happen, but seems to have made available some kind
of energy flow between hot and cold.
The second law of thermodynamics also brought in the idea of entropy, which is constantly
increasing and for the next hundred or so pages William Sidis explores the idea that
perhaps in some regions of space, we do see a reversal of the second law of thermodynamics.
And in these regions, entropy flows in the other direction.
He also claims that perhaps these regions are what we know as life, that instead of
defining life as something that is able to reproduce or grow or respond to the environment
that we instead define it as something that is able to take what we might have thought
of as unavailable energy and turn it into a reserve fund of energy used only by life
and created by non-living forces.
And then he mentions the work of his father’s friend, professor William James, who discovered
in the domain of mental phenomena, what he calls reserve energy.
That’s that whole 10% of the brain idea.
So William Sidis is taking this idea that he has been raised to believe in and that
his father was heavily involved with.
And perhaps he credits for the reason he is called the prodigy and tries to apply it to
physics, to thermodynamics and the laws of the universe.
He does mention that this work is purely speculative and that there are no experiments to verify
what he suggests.
This work never really reached an audience.
And perhaps that made Sidis feel despondent about it, and he didn’t publish any more known
works of physics.
This work was pretty much unknown until it was rediscovered in an attic in 1979.
Now let’s take a little look through some more of the chapters.
The first few chapters look at some of the physical laws and explore what they might
look like in a reverse universe.
He says that in the real universe, energy runs down to a common level and in the reverse
universe, energy tends to build itself up into different levels.
In the real universe, we would see an ultimate heat death mentioned here as when all of the
energy is in the form of heat it’s least concentrated form and at a uniform concentration.
A dead level of energy would be reached.
And after that, nothing further could ever happen in the universe.
That’s unless heat was able to build itself up into different levels and be converted
back into mechanical or kinetic energy as in a reverse universe.
Now, I don’t mean to make any of this sound too believable, and there are many dubious
claims in here we’ve got here the requirement that the mechanical efficiency in the reverse
universe is over a hundred percent, just like how the second law of thermodynamics is really
an overwhelming probability rather than a law.
So too is its reversal that in this reverse universe, these probabilities are weighted
in the opposite direction.
Sidis believes that tracing back, there must be a time in the past when the available energy
was a hundred percent of the total universe, and there must have been what he called a
great collision, where everything was at a temperature of absolute zero.
And there were two semi universes, which were moving towards each other in each of which
there was not even a trace of relative motion.
Sidis believes that in our own universe, 50% of cases will obey the second law of thermodynamics.
And in 50% of the cases, it will be reversed.
The universe as a whole will be neutral.
So where apparently is all of this reverse universe, hiding?
Well Sidis believed that there were vast pockets of space that have a tendency towards the
positive direction and other pockets that have a tendency in the reverse direction.
That the universe is made up of a number of what we may call bricks, ultimately positive
and negative, all approximately the same volume arranged sort of like a three dimensional
That what we see is simply the white space that we are in.
The black spaces surrounding us are invisible.
In them the laws of thermodynamics would be predominantly reversed.
The stars in those black spaces would be reverse stars that instead of giving out light, they
This is an intriguing part of his discussion because he’s doing a good job of describing
what we would now call black holes.
He calls these reverse stars, perfectly black bodies.
These stars use radiant energy to build up a higher level of heat.
He says that we can only see stars in the section of space where the second law of thermodynamics
prevails, but that there is an additional part of the universe, which is not visible
These black spaces even absorb the light from the white spaces beyond them.
So even those cannot be seen by us.
And by looking at the distribution of light in the sky, we get an idea merely of the size
and shape of our special white space.
And if you think that Sidis is predicting the existence of black holes here, keep in
mind, this is 47 years before the term black hole was even first used and almost 20 years
before Chandrasekhar even theorized the existence of something like a black hole.
He says the boundary surface is between the positive and negative sections of space that
when light crosses it, it crosses in one direction from the positive side to the negative side.
If we were on the positive side, as seems to be the case, then we could not see beyond
such surface though.
We might easily have gravitational or other evidence of bodies existing beyond the surface.
And that seems to have a lot in common with what we know as the event horizon.
Sidis then mentions a supernova and suggest that the flaring up of a star must be it changing
over from the negative to the positive tendency that in the universe stars will be constantly
crossing over from one section to the next and that when this happens and a star crosses
over from a positive to a negative section of the universe, there happens a slow process
of development of life growth, changing the star from a positive one to a negative one
And here you can start to see where the title of this book comes from The Animate and The
Sidis says that inanimate phenomena are positive tendencies and follow the second law of thermodynamics
while animate phenomena on the contrary are negative tendencies and tend to reverse that
There’s a motivation behind a lot of these stranger connections, which comes from the
fact that at the time this book was written around 1920, there was a lot about biology
and living processes that we didn’t understand.
And we have learned so much more since then, the way that biological processes work within
living bodies and the way that cells process energy is much less of a mystery to us now.
And a lot of what we know about biology wouldn’t stack up against some of these claims, even
the way our own brains work was a lot less understood.
Sidis calls it a central organ in which the reserve energy is stored.
And it seems that if he had been raised in any other family, he probably wouldn’t have
had that idea and been trying to draw that kind of a connection.
Some of the claims get more and more dubious as the pages go on, but Sidis himself even
recognizes this and ends with some objections to his theory.
He emphasizes that this work is only mere speculation.
One objection is that we have no proof that life really does reverse the second law of
Instead, we have plenty of evidence of living bodies obeying the second law.
The theory also supposes that life exists everywhere and under all sorts of circumstances,
but that’s in contrast to what we actually observe when it comes to life.
It instead seems to be an extremely complex phenomenon that can exist only under very
Sidis says that he will leave the reader to compare for themself the theory, and weigh
up the various arguments for and against.
This book remained pretty much unknown for many decades.
When it was found again in 1979, it was given to Buckminster Fuller who happened to be a
former Harvard classmate of William Sidis.
Buckminster Fuller gave the work, perhaps its first proper review.
He said that he felt excitement and joy on being handed a copy of the book, which he
says clearly predicts the black hole.
So many people commenting on Sidis’ life have said that he amounted to nothing and didn’t
use any of his academic brilliance.
But Fuller says here, I hope you’ll become as excited as I am at this discovery that
Sidis did go on after college to do the most magnificent thinking and writing.
Sidis’ work is hard to understand, and we may never find a place for it within modern
theories, but Sidis himself was also hard for society to understand.
People poked at his first signs of weakness, perhaps to feel better about themselves.
William didn’t deserve to be lumped with the pressures of having to continuously prove
That a child prodigy would grow up and collapse under the mental burden of their childhood
is an easier narrative to report on than understanding the alternative ways that we all try to live
a fulfilling life.
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