Thursday, December 29, 2011

IQ and Feynman

Richard Feynman was one of the most influential physicists of the middle of the twentieth century and notoriously bright - the kind of guy who gloried in outsmarting everybody and nearly always succeeded. One popular rumor holds that Murray Gell-Mann (my candidate for greatest living physicist) left Caltech because he couldn't stand being regularly bested by Feynman.

Razib Khan, writing in Discover, notes that Feynman reported his high school IQ test result as 125. Now 125 is a fairly respectable IQ, good enough that only one in 17 people scores that high, but nobody thinks that Feynman was just 1 in 17 people smart or even just 1 in 1700 people smart. He was the guy often called the smartest man in the world - though to be fair, when a magazine cover so dubbed him, Feynman reported his own mother's reaction: "Pity the poor world!"

Khan and others seem a bit befuddled by Feynman's "low" score. His theories:

One thing I have always wondered about is the fact that Richard Feynman had substantive accomplishments which marked him as definitively brilliant by the time he was talking about his 125 I.Q. score (which is smart, but not exceedingly smart). Intelligence scores are supposed to be predictors of accomplishments, but Feynman already had those accomplishments. Bright people take many psychometric tests, so there will be a range of score about a mean. My personal experience is that there’s a bias in reporting the highest scores. But it may be that Feynman gloried in reporting his lowest scores because that made his accomplishments even more impressive. Unlike most he had nothing to prove to anyone.

To which I say - all of the above. I don't have my "Surely you're joking" copy at hand, but I seem to recall that he had just won the Nobel Prize when he stopped by his old HS to check his IQ score. Feynman loved to punctuate his intellectual feats of strength with an "aw shucks" manner and some self-deprecating banter. Moreover, he was a notorious contrarian who could delight in finding "different" but still correct answers to conventional questions. He was exactly the kind of guy who, given 20 different IQ scores for himself, would tease everyone by choosing the lowest. When Doug Hofstadter, another pretty bright guy, gave a seminar at Caltech, he reported that Feynman sat in the front row and kept interupting him with "village idiot" questions. Feynman apparently delighted in the characterization.

Commenters drew some scorn from Khan by suggesting that (a)IQs weren't meaningful, or (b)that IQs above 125 were all the same, or (c)there was some fundamental flaw in the test Feynman got.