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Annals of psychometry: IQs of eminent scientists

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I recently came across a 1950s study of eminent scientists by Harvard psychologist Anne Roe (The Making of a Scientist, published in 1952). Her study is by far the most systematic and sophisticated that I am aware of. She selected 64 eminent scientists — well known, but not quite at the Nobel level — in a more or less random fashion, using, e.g., membership lists of scholarly organizations and expert evaluators in the particular subfields. Roughly speaking, there were three groups: physicists (divided into experimental and theoretical subgroups), biologists (including biochemists and geneticists) and social scientists (psychologists, anthropologists).

Roe devised her own high-end intelligence tests as follows: she obtained difficult problems in verbal, spatial and mathematical reasoning from the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, but also performs bespoke testing research for, e.g., the US military. Using these problems, she created three tests (V, S and M), which were administered to the 64 scientists, and also to a cohort of PhD students at Columbia Teacher’s College. The PhD students also took standard IQ tests and the results were used to norm the high-end VSM tests using an SD = 15. Most IQ tests are not good indicators of true high level ability (e.g., beyond +3 SD or so).

Average ages of subjects: mid-40s for physicists, somewhat older for other scientists

Overall normed scores:

Test (Low / Median / High)

V 121 / 166 / 177

S 123 / 137 / 164

M 128 / 154 / 194

Roe comments: (1) V test was too easy for some takers, so top score no ceiling. (2) S scores tend to decrease with age (correlation .4). Peak (younger) performance would have been higher. (3) M test was found to be too easy for the physicists; only administered to other groups.

It is unlikely that any single individual obtained all of the low scores, so each of the 64 would have been strongly superior in at least one or more areas.

Median scores (raw) by group:

group (V / S / M)

Biologists 56.6 / 9.4 / 16.8
Exp. Physics 46.6 / 11.7 / *
Theo. Physics 64.2 / 13.8 / *
Psychologists 57.7 / 11.3 / 15.6
Anthropologists 61.1 / 8.2 / 9.2

The lowest score in each category among the 12 theoretical physicists would have been roughly V 160 (!) S 130 M >> 150. (Ranges for all groups are given, but I’m too lazy to reproduce them all here.) It is hard to estimate the M scores of the physicists since when Roe tried the test on a few of them they more or less solved every problem modulo some careless mistakes. Note the top raw scores (27 out of 30 problems solved) among the non-physicists (obtained by 2 geneticists and a psychologist), are quite high but short of a full score. The corresponding normed score is 194!

The lowest V scores in the 120-range were only obtained by 2 experimental physicists, all other scientists scored well above this level — note the mean is 166.

My comments:

The data strongly suggests that high IQ provides a significant advantage in science. Some have claimed that IQ is irrelevant beyond some threshold: more precisely, that the advantage conferred by IQ above some threshold (e.g., 120) decreases significantly as other factors like drive or creativity take precedence. But, if that were the case it would be unlikely to have found such high scores in this group. The average IQ of a science PhD is probably in the 130 range, and individuals with IQs in the range described above constitute a tiny fraction of the overall population of scientists. If IQ were irrelevant above 130 we would expect the most eminent group to have a similar average.

Conversely, I think one should be impressed that a simple test which can be administered in a short period of time (e.g., 30 minutes for Roe’s high-end exams) offers significant predictive power. While it is not true that anyone with a high IQ can or will become a great scientist (certainly other factors like drive, luck, creativity play a role), one can nevertheless easily identify the 99 percent (even 99.9 percent) of the population for which success in science is highly improbable. Psychometrics works!

The scores for theoretical physicists confirm an estimate made to me by a famous colleague many years ago, that only 1 in 100,000 people could do high level theoretical physics.

Feynman’s 124: in this context one often hears of Feynman’s modest grade school IQ score of 124. To understand this score we have to remember that typical IQ tests (e.g., administered to public school children) tend to have low ceilings. They are not of the kind that Roe used in her study. One can imagine that the ceiling on Feynman’s exam was roughly 135 (say, 99th percentile). If Feynman received the highest score on the mathematical portion, and a modest score of 115 on the verbal, we can easily understand the resulting average of 124. However, it is well known that Feynman was extremely strong mathematically. He was asked on short notice to take the Putnam exam for MIT as a senior, and received the top score in the country that year! On Roe’s test Feynman’s math score would presumably have been > 190, with a correspondingly higher composite IQ.

I thought I should put this post up now, as the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t is out soon and will surely handicap the discourse on this subject for years to come 🙂


Written by infoproc

July 7, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Dick Cavett on Bobby Fischer

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Dick Cavett, blogging in the Times, treats us to some recollections of and reflections on Bobby Fischer. Although I’ve read several biographies of Fischer, I doubt I’ve seen much live footage of him. The clip below is wonderful and a bit surprising — it captures a moment, one we’ll never see again.

Cavett’s focus on Fischer’s physical appearance (his height, eyes, even shoulders) is interesting, perhaps odd, but understandable given that celebrity itself is his (Cavett’s) main expertise. Sylvia Nasar devoted an equivalent amount of attention to John Nash’s appearance in A Beautiful Mind.

The comments on the original post are well worth reading — many are from the generation that experienced Fischer’s meteoric ascent firsthand. See here for a followup.

NYTimes: It must seem strange to people too young to remember that there was once a chess champion — of all things — who became arguably the most famous celebrity on earth. And that his long-anticipated match against the reigning Russian champion, Boris Spassky, was broadcast and watched worldwide as if it were the Super Bowl, except that chess drew a much bigger audience.

There was another element that added to the drama. With Fischer the American and Spassky the Russkie, the monumental match was seen as a Cold War battle.

The Russian chess champions considered themselves the undoubted best. Time out of mind the Soviet chess dynasty had reigned supreme, viewing themselves as a rightful symbol of Soviet superiority in all fields.

PBS broadcast the drama in sports fashion, complete with play-by-play commentary by Shelby Lyman, who himself became a household name. People stayed home from work, glued to their sets, and PBS got its highest ratings ever. The country and the world became chess-crazy. And Fischer-crazy. Chess sets, dusty on the shelves, suddenly sold in the millions.

We ordinary mortals can only try to imagine what it might feel like to be both young and so greatly gifted at a complex art. And to be better at it than any other living being, past or present. There are plenty of geniuses and lots of famous people, but few are both. Is anyone really capable of surviving such a double burden?

We assume that geniuses are blessed creatures who don’t have to work hard to achieve their goals. Hard for us, easy for them. But Bobby as a kid — IQ pushing 200 — put in 10 to 15 hours a day of brain power and heavy concentration that would kill an ordinary person. (Or at least me.)

The chess world was already well aware of this kid prodigy. But they were unprepared for him to suddenly go up against the acknowledged top player of the day in the United States Chess Championship. And win — at the age of thirteen. When asked what happened, he said, “I got better.”

What does such dedication to seemingly unreachable goals — until he reached them — do to the rest of you, the over-achiever? Touchingly, when he returned to my show after having disposed of Spassky, triumphant in the eyes of the world, he opined that he might be wise to try developing some of the rest of himself. He had begun to see that a life of nothing but chess was “kind of limited.” (He went to dinner in Reykjavik with friends. “Bobby couldn’t follow the conversation,” one said. “He sort of backed into the corner, got out his little pocket chess set and played with himself.”) He announced on my show that he was now “reading a lot of magazines, trying to keep up with what’s going on in the world.” He was still in his twenties.

Until the advent of Bobby Fischer, my image of a young chess genius was not flattering. I pictured a sort of wizened and unpopular youth, small of frame, reclusive, short, with messy hair, untended acne, thick glasses and shirt sticking out in back. And also perhaps, as the great V. Nabokov wrote in describing somewhat genderless piano prodigies with eye trouble, obscure ailments, “and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters.”


Getting Fischer on my show that first time, before the big match, was considered a major catch at the time. If anyone in the audience shared my image of what a chess genius probably looked like, Bobby’s entrance erased it.

Here was no Nabokovian homunculus. There appeared, somewhat disconcerted, a tall and handsome lad with football-player shoulders, impeccably suited, a little awkward of carriage and unsure how to negotiate the unfamiliarity of the set, the bright lights, the wearing of make-up, the band music, the hand-shaking and the thundering ovation — all at the same time. I had hoped to avoid the cliché “gangling,” but Bobby gangled. He sort of lurched into his chair.

Once seated, he was something to behold. Six foot two (tall in those days), athletic in build, perfect in grooming, and with striking features. The face radiated intelligence. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone you’d ever seen.

And there were the eyes.

Cameras fail to convey the effect of his eyes when they were looking at you. A bit of Svengali perhaps, but vulnerable. And only the slightest hint of a sort of theatrical menace, the menace that so disconcerted his opponents.

Looking out over the audience, I could clearly see entranced women gazing at him as if willing to offer their hearts — and perhaps more — to the hunky chess master.

When I asked him about such matters, he said that the awful demands of his life — the global travel; the constant study, sometimes until dawn, followed by play; the punishing five-hour sessions at full concentration, day after day — all this made it “pretty hard to . . . [hesitates] . . . build up a relationship.” He seemed quite surprised with himself, as did friends watching, that he had allowed so revealing a moment. (That old Cavett magic, no doubt.)

One thing he said in that first appearance became famous. At one point I asked him what, in terms of thrills, the chess equivalent might be of, say, hitting a home run. His answer: “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” There was a trace of a chill in his laughter.

… I’ve sat for a while trying to figure out how to close. A faint glimmer of a bit of poetry had been swimming elusively in my head, just out of reach. And then it emerged.

It’s from E.E.Cummings’ famous poem about another lionized and legendary figure who, after triumph and glamour, also did not have “a good death”: Buffalo Bill.

With Cummings’ quirky punctuation, it’s a short poem, with no title but referred to by its first three words: “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct.”

Its closing lines somehow seem appropriate here. They are:

he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

From the comments:

… The finest thing about Bobby …is that he made being smart, that is intellectualism, a cool thing. He was brilliant, knew it, was outwardly proud of it and not only could perform great feats with it but he said that he would and then did and did so far beyond the wildest dreams of anyone. So thank you Bobby and thank you Dick.

The truly great thing about Bobby Fischer was an audacious courage that for lack of a better comparison I mention Muhamid Ali and even though Bobby’s courage was on its own level there were similarities in the “not afraid of nothin” certainty with which they went about their business. Fischer’s march through the qualifying rounds of the world championship are simply unfathomable. Bobby the destroyer of ego was in full bloom and the completeness and ruthlessness was scary to watch even though I could not look away.

Even to people who play high level chess, the things he lay before the world were unbelieveable to see. It was watching that runup to the world championship that confirmed my inklings that a man could become mad in chess and accept it fully as more than reality and that here was such a man who not only possessed a fine and strong intellect but also the courage to throw it against or into the madness, the howling inferno that chess on that level can become. I was witnessing my own personal dark fear displayed on the largest stage and at a scale bigger than life in a man with one of the finest minds and the profound courage to risk it entirely. The outcome of the championship was certain to everyone by quarter finals.

Thank you so much Bobby and to borrow a few words to help express my love from Don McClane:

“but I could have told you Bobby, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”

Conrad Elledge

Written by infoproc

February 24, 2008 at 1:47 pm

So long, Bobby

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I like to remember how you began, not how you ended…

NYTimes: There may be only three human activities in which miraculous accomplishment is possible before adulthood: mathematics, music and chess. These are abstract, almost invented realms, closed systems bounded by rules of custom or principle. Here, the child learns, is how elements combine and transform; here are the laws that govern their interactions; and here are the possibilities that emerge as you play with signs, symbols, sounds or pieces. Nothing else need be known or understood — at least at first. A child’s gifts in such realms can seem otherworldly, the achievements effortlessly magical. But as Bobby Fischer’s death on Thursday might remind us, even abstract gifts can exact a terrible price.

In 1956 Mr. Fischer, at 13, displayed powers that were not only prodigious but also uncanny. A game he played against Donald Byrne, one of the top 10 players in the United States, became known as “the Game of the Century,” so packed was it with brilliance and daring (and Mr. Fischer’s sacrifice of a queen). “I just got good,” he explained — as indeed he did, winning 8 of the 10 United States Championship tournaments held after 1958 and then, of course, in 1972, breaking the long hold that Soviet chess had on the international championship.

“All I want to do, ever,” he said, “is play chess.” And many thought him the best player — ever. Garry Kasparov once said that he imagined Mr. Fischer as a kind of centaur, a human player mythologically combined with the very essence of chess itself.

But of course accompanying Mr. Fischer’s triumphs were signs of something else. His aggressive declarations and grandiose pronouncements were once restricted to his chosen playing field. (“Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.”) Eventually, they grew in scope, evolving into ever more sweeping convictions about the wider world.

Written by infoproc

January 19, 2008 at 4:20 pm

Posted in bobby fischer, chess, genius

Gladwell and genius

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Malcolm Gladwell exhibits exquisite taste in the topics he writes and talks about. I just wish his logical and analytical capabilities were better (see also here). This talk at the New Yorker’s recent Genius 2012 conference is entertaining, but I disagree completely with his conclusion. Ribet, Wiles, Taniyama and Shimura are probably the real geniuses, not Michael Ventris, the guy who decoded Linear B. (Gladwell also can’t seem to remember that it’s the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, not Tanimara. He says it incorrectly about 10 times.) My feeling is that Gladwell’s work appeals most to people who can’t quite understand what he is talking about.

Gladwell is confused about the exact topic discussed in James Gleick’s book Genius. In a field where sampling of talents is sparse (e.g., decoding ancient codexes) you might find one giant (even an amateur like Michael Ventris) towering above the others, able to do things others cannot. In a well-developed, highly competitive field like modern mathematics, all the top players are “geniuses” in some sense (rare talents, one in a million), even though they don’t stand out very much from each other. In Gleick’s book, Feynman, discussing how long it might have taken to develop general relativity had Einstein not done it, says “We are not that much smarter than each other”!

To put it really simply, if I sample sparsely from a Gaussian distribution, I might find a super-outlier in the resulting set. If I sample densely and have a high minimum cutoff for acceptable points, I will end up with a set entirely composed of outliers, but who do not stand out much from each other. Every guard in the NBA is an athletic freak of nature, even though they are evenly matched when playing against each other.

To counteract the intelligence-damping effect of Gladwell’s talk, I suggest this podcast interview with Nassim Taleb, about his new book The Black Swan. Warning: may be psychologically damaging to people who fool themselves and others about their ability to predict the behavior of nonlinear systems.

Written by infoproc

May 12, 2007 at 2:43 pm