IQ tests have long been one of the most popular ways to scientifically ‘score’ and determine a person’s intelligence. Research into intelligence carried out by French psychologists Alfred Binet, Victor Henri and Théodore Simon during the early 20th century led to the introduction of the Binet-Simon test in 1905. The test was devised to identify a child’s mental age and to root out young children who were more likely to succeed in school and separate them from those who were not. The research has been refined and improved over the years, but the research by these French pioneers lay the foundations for what is known as the modern IQ test. Although the IQ test has been scrutinised over the years with many critics stating that it is a flawed methodology which cannot truly measure intelligence and that it exhibits cultural bias (when the Binet-Simon test was introduced in France, children from poor upbringings were marked as unlikely to perform and were removed from the school system altogether), it is still a very useful tool in identifying a person’s critical thinking, logic and problem solving skills. ‘Intelligence’ groups such as Mensa, the Prometheus Society and the Mega Society still place worth in the methodology and some of the most intelligent people of modern times scored highly on IQ tests.
10. James Woods (1947 – ) : IQ 180
When most of us think about Hollywood, the word ‘genius’ doesn’t usually factor into our image of the movie business. However, there is at least one genius working in Tinseltown. Actor James Woods is well-known for his film and TV work, but he very nearly took a different route in life. Woods was a very gifted high school student and earned outstanding scores on his SATS. He was offered a scholarship at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but while studying as an undergraduate he was bitten by the acting bug. An active member of the student theatre group, Woods directed and starred in several plays while attending the university and he dropped out before graduation to pursue his acting dream. Woods clearly excelled in his chosen field, but it would have been interesting to see where he may have ended up if he stayed in academia.
9. Bobby Fischer (1943 – 2008) : IQ 180
Bobby Fischer was an American chess prodigy who shocked the world. First picking up a chess set at the age of 6, FIscher was said to have been instantly taken with the game. He became completely engrossed with playing and learning the theory of chess and he devoured any books or writings about the game that he could find. Fischer neglected his schoolwork to concentrate on chess and by the age of 15 he had become the youngest person at the time to achieve the title of Grandmaster. Confident, cool and undeniably talented, Fischer was an American sensation, but he achieved worldwide fame at the World Chess Championship in 1972. At the height of the Cold War Fischer played against the reigning USSR champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Cold War tension and political ramifications made it the biggest chess match in history (Henry Kissinger, the then Secretary of State, apparently personally telephoned Fischer several times before the match to make sure that he was definitely going to play) and Fischer emerged victorious. Fischer was also well-known for his remarkable memory. Following the conclusion of a tournament in 1970, Fischer was said to have been able to recall the moves of the twenty-two games he had played in the competition; all 1,000 of them. He was also said to have shocked grandmaster Evgeni Vasiuko when he repeated a speed game the two had played 15 years ago. Following the 1972 championship, Fischer withdrew from the public eye and refused to play any public competitive matches. Burdened by his own skill (and hubris), it was remarked that Fischer didn’t consider any other opponents worthy of his time. Although he did play Spassky in a rematch in 1992, the event was overshadowed by the fact that Fischer had defied a United Nations embargo by playing in Yugoslavia. Effectively exiling himself from the United States, Fischer bounced around countries and was vocal in publicly making anti-American and anti-semitic statements. Unfortunately, this erratic behaviour during his later years overshadowed the undeniable genius and talent Fischer had shown as a young man.
8. Marilyn vos Savant (1946 – ) : IQ 186
One of the last people to be listed in the Guinness Book of Records under ‘Highest IQ’ before the title was retired in 1990, Marilyn vos Savant is nothing like the stereotypical image of a supergenius. Savant’s parents recognised her intellect from an early age and she took the Stanford-Bidet test when she was 10, scoring 228. However, her parents chose not to publicly disclose their child’s record-breaking score to afford her a normal childhood (she took the test again as an adult, yielding an adult IQ of 186). Savant enjoyed writing from an early age but she was savvy enough to know that she needed a financial base before she could pursue her passion. Dropping out of university after two years to join the family investment business, Savant eventually earned enough money to follow her dreams and become a full-time writer in New York. Savant was a writer of an IQ test and intelligence column for Omni magazine when the Guinness Book of Records obtained her test scores from the Mega Society and suddenly thrust her into the limelight. Savant enjoyed her newfound celebrity and her outspoken, bubbly personality made her a favourite on the talk show circuit. Since 1986, Savant has been writing a massively popular question and answer column for Parade magazine called ‘Ask Marilyn’ where readers contact the genius with various problems and quizzes.
7. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) : IQ 190 (estimated)
American psychologist Catherine Cox dedicated significant research to the study of genius and the issues related to IQ. In 1926, Cox undertook a historiometric study to determine which of “the most eminent men and women” throughout history may have had the highest IQ scores. Using biographical data such as school rankings, the type of work produced, anecdotes from other people, etc, Cox looked at a wide variety of different philosophers, scientists, writers, statesmen and artists who were alive during the years 1450 to 1850. Although the results were, by Cox’s own admission, only an approximation, the historical figure with the highest ranking IQ (taking into consideration their deviated IQ, ie comparing the estimated figure to others in that person’s age group) was Ludwig Wittgenstein with 190. Austrian-born Wittgenstein is widely considered to be one of the great modern philosophers and his approach to logic, mathematics and language forever changed the way philosophy was analysed and discussed. Although he published very few works while he was alive, his collection of manuscripts (published as an edition called ‘Philosophical Investigations’) is arguably one of the most important works of modern philosophy. Wittgenstein challenged the traditional Western philosophical approach and the way language and science could be used as analytical tools, and he is one of the few modern figures who truly changed and challenged philosophy. Although he suffered from bouts of depression, Wittgenstein was an eccentric, charismatic figure and a compelling, passionate teacher.
6. Garry Kasparov (1963 – ) : IQ 190
Widely considered to be one of the greatest chess players who ever lived, Garry Kasparov won the world chess champion title at the age of 22. Between 1986 and 2005, Kasparov spent an astonishing 225 out of 228 months ranked as the number one chess player in the world. In 1997, Kasparov famously played and lost against IBM’s chess supercomputer Deep Blue. The match received huge media coverage from across the world, but Kasparov later alleged that there was human intervention helping on behalf of the computer. Kasparov asked for IBM to publish the machine’s logs for the match and he also wanted a rematch but IBM declined and dismantled the Deep Blue program (however, the company did eventually release the logs on the Internet). Now retired, Kasparov has turned his fierce intellect to politics. Forming the United Civil Front movement, Kasparov is a fierce opponent of Vladimir Putin and he was an unsuccessful candidate in the 2008 Russian presidential race.
5. Christopher Langan (1952 – ) : IQ between 195 and 210
Despite being named “the smartest man in America”, Christopher Langan has not had the type of life typically enjoyed by most geniuses. Born into poverty and physically abused by his stepfather from an early age, Langan had taught himself to read by the age of 4 and was skipped ahead several grades while at school. He spent his high school years engaged in fervent self-study (as well as weightlifting – he forcibly kicked out his abusive stepfather at 14, never to see him return) and scored a perfect SAT score, even though he claims he fell asleep during the exam. He dropped out of college for financial reasons and spent most of his adult life working manual labour jobs while also working on his Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe – a theory about the creation of everything – in his spare time. Langan was brought to the media’s attention when he performed an IQ test on American television and the neuropsychologist performing the test remarked that he had scored completely off the charts. Pop psychology writer Malcolm Gladwell interviewed Langan in his 2008 book Outliers and suggested that he never quite reached his potential in life because of his lack of social skills and poor upbringing. However, Langan’s work and theories about the universe have faced harsh criticism by academics and his brash personality in interviews has seen many accuse him of being a man of his own hype (he compared himself favourably to Darwin and Einstein and stated that their IQs were “in the toilet”).
4. Kim Ung-Yong (1962 – ) : IQ 210
Former Korean child prodigy Kim Ung-Yong has led a very interesting life. At 3 years old Kim was reading and communicating in several different languages. By 4, he was solving complex calculus problems on Japanese TV and he was listed as one of the people with the ‘Highest IQ’ in the Guinness Book of World Records while he was still a child. He was working at NASA when most people his age were attending high school and he received a PhD in Physics when he was still in his teens. Unfortunately, the rollercoaster lifestyle Kim endured during his formative years made him deeply unhappy as he struggled to connect with other people. Tired of being the centre of attention, he returned to Korea, gained his elementary, middle, and high school diplomas (he had skipped them all as a child, but they only took him 2 years to earn as an adult), attended University and then went on to work in civil engineering.
3. Christopher Hirata (1982 – ) : IQ 225
Christopher Hirata achieved more by the age of 30 than most fellow academics and geniuses could hope to do in their entire lifetime. A former child prodigy, Hirata was dabbling in college-level courses in calculus and physics by the age of 12. At 13, he won a gold medal at the International Physics Olympiad, an annual competition for the smartest high school students in the world, making him the youngest American to do so. He was offered a place at the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Caltech) at 14 and he had completed his PhD in Physics from Princeton University at the age of 22. During this time, he was also collaborating with NASA on an ambitious project which discussed the feasibility of human travel to Mars. Now teaching astrophysics at Caltech, Hirata is currently researching dark energy and galaxy clustering.
2. William James Sidis (1898 – 1944) : IQ Unknown
The son of noted psychiatrist Boris Sidis, William James was raised to be a genius. By 18 months he was reading the New York Times and by 4 he was reading Latin and writing poetry. Unlike most child prodigies, William had multiple abilities and excelled in many different fields. One of the youngest people to be enrolled at Harvard, William started studying at the school aged 11 and he had earned his degree by 15. However, Sidis grew tired of the academia lifestyle and he hated being in the limelight. Retreating into hiding, Sidis moved from city to city and wrote books on many different subjects under pseudonyms. Sidis enjoyed a quiet life until The New Yorker published an exposé article about him in 1937 which painted him as an eccentric recluse and wrongly stated that he had suffered from a nervous breakdown. Sidis won a libel settlement against the magazine in 1944 when he successfully argued that the piece had brought him public ridicule, but he sadly died from a brain haemorrhage the same year. Following his death, Sidis’ sister made many exaggerations about her brother’s intellect and stated that his IQ was between 250 and 300 and that he could learn a new language in one day. Although these claims were refuted and couldn’t be backed up by evidence, there was no denying Sidis’ phenomenal intellect.
1. Terence Tao (1975 – ) : IQ between 220 and 230
Terence Tao is another genius who promised great things from an early age. As a child, Tao was one of 40 subjects of Miraca Gross’ research into exceptionally gifted children. By the age of 2, Tao was speaking and performing basic arithmetic (he told his father that he had learned the skills from Sesame Street). At the age of 8, he scored 760 (out of 800) on the SAT mathematics section, making him one of only two children to ever do so, and by the age of 9 he was attending university level mathematics courses. Aged 10, Tao was the youngest participant at the International Mathematical Olympiad, and he was also the youngest winner of bronze, silver and gold medals. Tao received his PhD at the age of 21 and was a professor at the prestigious University of California (UCLA) by the age of 24. Tao is a highly respected figure in the world of mathematics and his research has won him some of the biggest awards and achievements in the field, notably the Fields Medal (2006) and the Bôcher Memorial Prize (2002). To date, Tao has published more than 250 research papers and 17 books.