Monday, January 20, 2014


How would I think if I were a lot smarter? That question is prompted by the confluence of a few things lately on my mind. The oddest was a little article I read on Christopher Langan, touted by some as "the smartest man in the world" and featured in one of Malcolm Gladwell's recent excursions into whatever it is that he does.

Langan's brilliance is attested to by the usual mythology:

He began talking at six months, taught himself to read before he was four, and was repeatedly skipped ahead in school...


Langan says he spent the last years of high school mostly in independent study, teaching himself "advanced math, physics, philosophy, Latin and Greek, all that".[8] He earned a perfect score on the SAT despite taking a nap during the test.[6] Langan attended Reed College and later Montana State University [Disclaimer, alma mater of CIP], but faced with financial and transportation problems, and believing that he could teach his professors more than they could teach him, he dropped out.[8]


He says he developed a "double-life strategy": on one side a regular guy, doing his job and exchanging pleasantries, and on the other side coming home to perform equations in his head, working in isolation on his Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe.[8]

In a 1999 interview broadcast on the TV show 20/20, neuropsychologist Robert Novelly described Langan's IQ as "the highest individual that I have ever measured in 25 years."[6] Langan has been featured in magazines and newspapers such as Esquire[8] Popular Science,[9] The Times,[7] Newsday,[10] and Muscle & Fitness.[11] He appeared on BBC Radio[12] and the TV show First Person and[13] has written question-and-answer columns for New York Newsday,[14] The Improper Hamptonian,[15] and Men's Fitness magazine.[16]

If Muscle & Fitness and Men's Fitness both think that you are really smart, you've truly climbed the intellectual heights, I guess.

A second thread is that I've recently been rereading Arthur C. Clark's Childhood's End a fondly but hardly remembered classic that I first read nearly six decades ago. It is centered on the takeover of Earth by ostensibly benevolent Colonial Overlords with super technology and intelligence to match. Their super intelligence is attested by their ability to read really fast while simultaneously carrying on conversations.

The final thread was Lumo's derivation of the sum of the natural numbers from the modular transformations of a torus.

Anyway, I don't really think that being able to read really fast while carrying on a conversation is really a talent I strongly covet. I suppose that it might have been nice to be able to teach myself to read at age four, but how much good has it done Christopher, really? On the other hand, there are a couple of talents that I really do wish I had: remembering anything when I wanted to, and being able to read through stuff like Lumo's derivation, or almost any other kind of advanced math, and really understand it just like that.