Archives Home Bio W.J. Sidis
BOY PRODIGY OF HARVARD
Current Literature, 1910, 48, 291-93.
ALTHO the eleven-year-old scientist of Harvard, William James Sidis, fell ill after his recent lecture on the fourth dimension, there is no evidence whatever that his studies have undermined his health. On the contrary, he seems to enjoy enviable bodily vigor. Rumors that he may never return to his advanced studies invariably follow his preparations for vacation; but, as vacation and rest enter into his course of education, these rumors need not be taken seriously. In the meantime, the father of the prodigy, Professor Boris Sidis, one of the most eminent of living psychologists, has given, in response to requests innumerable, an authentic account of the scope and aims of his son's intellectual career. "I do not believe in the prevailing system of education for children," writes Professor Sidis. "I have educated my son upon a system of my own, based to some extent upon principles laid down by Professor William James," This system, Professor Sidis insists, has justified itself by its results in the case of the boy prodigy of Harvard. He knows as much at eleven; the father says, "as a gifted professor of mature years," and when he grows up "he will amaze the world." Nor is the result due to heredity or to abnormality of the child's brain. The results achieved in the case of this eleven-year-old lad are due wholly to the methods of training pursued. To quote the father's words as given in a recent issue of the New York American;
"He is not a freak who can perform vast sums in arithmetic, as some children have done, but he understands the underlying principles of mathematics and whatever he learns.
"You must begin a child's education as soon as he displays any power to think. Everybody knows how hard it is to learn a new language late in life. The same holds good of all our acquisitions. The earlier they arc acquired the more truly they become part of us.
"At the same time keep alive within the child the quickening power of curiosity. Do not repress him. Answer his questions; give him the information he craves, seeing to it always that he understands your explanations.
"You need not he afraid of overstraining his mind. On the contrary, you will be developing it as it should be developed―will he habituating the child to avail himself of the great fund of latent energy which most of us, to our detriment, so seldom use,
"The law of ‘reserve mental energy,' as set forth by Professor William James, has much to do with the progress of my son. Professor James explained that the power of getting what is popularly known as 'second wind' might be controlled at will and enable us to accomplish daily and regularly what we can all do under stress of circumstances. If you do prolonged mental work you will find yourself grow tired, but if you keep on working the feeling of fatigue will pass away. You are drawing on your reserve mental energy.
"As a baby grows more rapidly after birth than at any other time, so his brain develops most rapidly then and becomes less sensitive to impressions as he grows older. The process of education cannot begin too soon.
"I began to train my boy in the use of his faculties immediately after his birth. He was bound to use them anyway, and therefore I took care that he used them properly. I taught the child to observe accurately, to analyze and synthetize and make sound deductions. Neither his mother nor myself confused him with baby talk, meaningless sounds or foolish gestures, and thus, altho he learned to reason so early, his mind was no more burdened than that of the ordinary child.
"I knew that as soon as he began to speak his first interest would be in the sounds he was uttering, and so I trained him to identify the elements of sound. Taking a box of large alphabet blocks I named each to him day after day.
"In this way he learned to read and spell correctly before he was two years old. What was still more important he learned to reason correctly.
"When he learned that he could express himself more quickly and clearly on the typewriter than in handwriting, his natural eagerness led him to master the typewriter.
"I taught him to count with similar blocks, and then, wishing to familiarize him with ideas of time, as well as the meaning and use of numbers, I placed in his hands several calendars and taught him their use. At five from his own studies of these he had devised a method of telling on what day of the week any given date would fall.
"His interest in anatomy was suddenly aroused by his discovering a skeleton in our house, a relic of my student days. It was almost gruesome to see the enthusiasm with which he studied the bones, identifying each by close comparison with the plates in a text hook on anatomy, Within a very short time he knew so much about the structure of the body that he could pass a medical student's examination creditably at six years of age.
"His great interest in words gave me an opportunity to start him in the study languages. As I am a polyglot myself, I was usually able to answer his questions about the meaning of words in foreign languages, and to put him in the way of learning more. Thus after English he learned Russian, French, German, Latin and Greek."
By far the most remarkable achievement of the youthful William James Sidis is his exposition of what is termed the fourth dimension. The literature of the fourth dimension is now voluminous, and few there are who have not heard or read of this factor in intellectual processes. For some reason, however, it has been found extremely difficult to popularize the fourth dimensional idea. The practical problem of the fourth dimension, therefore, is less its validity as an intellectual concept than the correct mode of convincing the average person that it is anything more than an academic abstraction with no reference to the world of realities. For instance, in his lecture at Harvard, young Sidis used such words as “hecatonicosihedrigon" and “hexacosihedrigon”―words invented by the boy himself to fit the exigencies of his explanation. By way of preface, therefore, to young Sidis's technical analysis of the fourth dimension, it may be well to read the ensuing paragraphs in which Professor Henry P. Manning, of Brown University, practically applies the abstraction:
"If you were a point and if you lived on a straight line you would be a one-dimensional man. You could move backward and forward only. You could not look up or down, nor from side to side. Your visible world would lie always in front of your eyes. You could only see the back of the man's head in front of you. You could never turn around and talk to the man behind you.
"If you lived on a surface you would be a twodimensional man. In other words you would be a smear. You would slide around like quicksilver, but you would have no thickness. You could turn around and see the man behind you, but you could not look down or up at the sky, if there is one in your two-dimensional world.
"The world in which we live is a world of three dimensions. It has length, breadth and thickness. If the inhabitants of the two dimensional-world, smears on a plate without thickness, were to attempt to imprison you in a two-dimensional jail you could escape simply by stepping over the walls of your prison, and your twodimensional jailers would never realize how you eluded them.
“If there is such a thing as a fourth dimension it would be impossible for us to incarcerate a four-dimensional criminal. He would step out of his jail and we would never know how he escaped. A rope knotted in the middle and fastened to two walls can be unknotted without detaching it from the walls in the fourth dimension. A hollow rubber ball could be turned inside cut in the fourth dimension. A liquid could be poured into a completely enclosed vessel in the fourth dimension."
Young Sidis's own definition of the fourth dimension was more technical. "It is an Euclidian space," he said, "with one dimension added." To quote from the lecture delivered last January before the faculty of Harvard:
"My own definition of the Fourth Dimension would be that it is an Euclidian space with one dimension added. It is the projection of the figures of the Third Dimension into space. The third dimensional figures, such as the cube, are used as sides of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, and the figures of the Fourth Dimension are called configurations.
"It is not possible to actually construct models of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, or to conceive of them in the mind's eye, but it is easy to construct them by means of Euclid's theorem.
"In his theorem, F equals the faces of the figures, S equals the sides, V the vertices and M equals the angles. The theorem is that F plus S equals V plus M.
"It is possible to take any figure of the Third Dimension and with it construct figures of the Fourth Dimension. These figures of the Fourth Dimension are called Polyhedrigons. It is possible to tell how many faces any given figures of the Fourth Dimension will have by applying Euler's theorem. Some figures of the Fourth Dimension, however, cannot be worked out by this theorem, but must all be tried by using logarithms.
"When a figure of the Fourth Dimension is pressed flat, as I have already said, it is made into a figure of the Third Dimension. It is possible to construct figures of the Fourth Dimension with a hundred and twenty sides called Hecatonicosihedrigons, and also figures with six hundred sides called Hexacosihedrigons. I attach great value in the working out of my theories to the help given by the polyhedral angles of the dodesecahedron which enter into many of the problems. Some of the things that I have found out about the Fourth Dimension will aid in the solution of many of the problems of elliptical geometry."
In its recent study of boy prodigies, with particular reference to the Harvard case, the Revue Psychologique insists that much of their performance is of the nature of memory work.
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