24 of the smartest people who ever lived

The smartest humans in history are ranked.

Making a list of the smartest people who ever lived may not be a smart thing to do. After all, intelligence can be measured in a variety of different ways. Some believe in IQ tests, others place more stock in emotional intelligence. There's also something to be said about having accomplishments. Being intelligent is not the same as using that intelligence to create something that no one else can, to somehow advance humanity, to be smarter than everyone.

Many smart people do not live up to their potential. It is also true that prejudices and lack of opportunities have surely prevented some brilliant people from reaching their full potential and being recognized. Still, for the sake of argument, we will use all criteria at our disposal to come up with a list of the brightest humans.

Note: while IQ testing was developed in the early 1900s, there have been subsequent studies that estimated IQs of geniuses of the past. Anything above 140 is generally considered near genius-level.

24. William Siddis (1898-1944) was an American child prodigy, whose IQ was reportedly between 250-300, perhaps the highest ever. He had outstanding abilities in math, entered Harvard at age 11, and claimed to know 40 languages. An MIT professor predicted the young Siddis would become the greatest mathematician of the 20th century. William crashed and burned as an adult, however, holding menial jobs and getting in trouble with the law, never finding an avenue to live up to the expectations.

William Sidis. 1914.

23. Judit Polgar (b. 1976) is a Hungarian chess grandmaster, widely regarded as the strongest female chess player of all time. She broke Chess World Champion Bobby Fischer's record to become grandmaster at age 15. Her IQ is recorded as 170.

The youngest international chess grand master, 17-year-old Judit Polgar (L) writes down her first move 16 February, 1993 in her last match with Russian born chess champion Boris Spassky (R) in Budapest. (Photo credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

22. Philip Emeagwali (b. 1954) is a Nigerian inventor and scientist, reportedly with an IQ of 190, voted as the “greatest African scientist of all time". Although this claim is controversial, his math work is often credited as being instrumental in the creation of the internet.

Philip Emeagwali with Exxon-Mobil partial differential equations for petroleum reservoir simulations across an internet powered by 65,536 computers. 2013. ©Photo: emeagwali.com

21. Terence Tao (b. 1975), Chinese, born in Australia, is a former a child prodigy whose IQ scores range from 220-230, some of the highest ever recorded. He is currently a Professor of Mathematics at UCLA.

Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

20. Cleopatra (68-30 B.C.) was the last pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, ruling the country for almost thirty years. She was fluent in five languages and had an IQ of around 180. Cleopatra was also known for relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony.

Painting of Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse. 1888.

19. Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was an Indian mathematician, who made great contributions in such areas as number theory, continued fractions, and infinite series, despite not having any formal education in math. His estimated IQ was 185.

Srinivasa Ramanujan. 1920.

18. Garry Kasparov (b. 1963), Armenian-Jewish, is regarded by many as the greatest chess player of all time, with an IQ reportedly in the 190s. He was the world's number one player for nearly two decades, winning the world championship when was only 22.

Chess legend Garry Kasparov plays chess with his Russian peer Anatoli Karpov (unseen) at the Arts Palau in Valencia on September 24, 2009, 25 years after their epic world championship duel. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)

17. Aryabhata (476—55) was probably the earliest Indian mathematician and astronomer. He is known for approximating the value of pi and developed the knowledge and use of zero.

A statue of Aryabhata in Pune, India. 2006.

16. Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment. With an IQ of 190 to 200, he was a notoriously witty writer, historian and philosopher. "Voltaire" was actually his pen name as he was born François-Marie Arouet.

Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

15. Hypatia (b.350-70, d. 415) was a Greek astronomer, philosopher and mathematician, who lived in Egypt and later the Eastern Roman Empire. She was the first female mathematician that we know of, with an estimated IQ of 170-190. She was accused of witchcraft and brutally murdered by a group of Christian fanatics.

Actress Mary Aynderson in a scene from the play, 'Hypatia'. circa 1900: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

14. Johann Goethe (1749-1832) was a German polymath, with notable achievements in science and considered to have been one of the greatest talents in Western literature, penning the classic “Faust". His projected IQ was 213.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. circa 1790. Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

13. Avicenna aka Ibn Sina (980 – 1037) was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most important thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age. He wrote on philosophy, medicine, astronomy, alchemy, logic, math, physics, psychology and other subjects. He is particularly known for his work on Aristotelian philosophy and his medical books (like “The Canon of Medicine"), which became standard at Medieval universities.

Drawing of Avicenna from 1271.

12. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was one of the seminal scientific heroes of all times, making significant contributions in a variety of areas, from astronomy to physics to math and philosophy. The Italian's championing of heliocentrism, which saw Earth revolving around the sun got him branded as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition. His IQ range: 180-200.

Galileo Galilei, circa 1630. Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

11. Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was another German polymath - a philosopher and mathematician who is best known for inventing calculus. His philosophy work is noted for the conclusion that we lived in the best possible universe that God could have created. Leibniz's IQ estimates range from 182 to 205.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, circa 1690. Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

10. Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian-born inventor and futurist, known for AC electricity, Tesla coil, wireless transmission of energy, the “death" ray, as well as predicting the smartphone, drones and other technologies. Estimated IQ - 195.

9. Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) was a Bengali Indian physicist, whose brilliant work on quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein resulted in Bose-Einstein statistics. Bosons, a class of particles, are named after him.

8. Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish physicist and chemist. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in fact, winning it twice). She developed the theory of radioactivity (coining that term) and discovered two elements (polonium and radium). Her estimated IQ was 180-200.

Marie Curie in her laboratory. 1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

7. Confucius (551 B.C. - 479 B.C.) was a highly influential Chinese philosopher and teacher, renowned for popular aphorisms. His moral and political teachings had a profound impact all across East Asia. Some recent scholars have argued that much of what we know about Confucius is a myth.

Chinese philosopher Confucius, or K'ung Fu-tzu, circa 500 BC. Source - Rischgitz/Getty Images.

6. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a German-Jewish theoretical physicist who, for most people, is an obvious candidate for such a list as this. Arguably the most famous scientist who ever lived, Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, received a 1921 Nobel Prize for physics and had a revolutionary impact on his field. His IQ was estimated to be somewhere between 160-190.

Albert Einstein. 1930. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

5. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is widely seen as the greatest writer of the English language and one of the world's most popular and esteemed playwrights. With an approximate IQ of 210, Shakespeare wrote such constantly-performed classic plays as “Romeo and Juliet," “Hamlet" and “Macbeth".

A painting of William Shakespeare which is believed to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life. 1610. (Source - Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

3-4. Plato (427 - 347 BC) and Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) were both Greek philosophers, who also had a major scientific influence on the Middle Ages. Plato was a foundational figure of Western science, math and philosophy, writing a number of famous works like “Republic". Aristotle was actually a pupil of Plato's, being a part of Plato's Athenian Academy for over 20 years. Aristotle had a major influence on the development of Western philosophy and science, writing on physics, biology, metaphysics, logic, theater, esthetics and other topics. IQs of the Greek thinkers are projected to be at 180-190.

Greek philosopher Plato Aristocles with the philosopher and scientist Aristotle. Ca. 350 BC. Original Publication: From Raphael: School of Athens - Vatican Stanzae (Source - Picture Post/Getty Images)

2. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726) was an English physicist and mathematician, most famous for discovering gravity. One of the most celebrated and influential scientists of all time, Newton had an estimated IQ of 193. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica was the foundational text of classical mechanics and influenced scientific thought for over 300 hundred years.

English scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, creating a shaft of light, circa 1665. Original Artwork: Engraving by J A Houston, RSA Original Publication: Aldus Disc - People & Personalities - 1353 - 007 (Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian Renaissance man, who excelled in a variety of fields, from science to painting and sculpture to inventions. His painting “Mona Lisa" is arguably the most famous art work in the world. The IQ of the man, who was perhaps the most diversely talented person ever, is estimated to have been around 200.

The Italian painter, sculptor, architect and engineer Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1510. Original Artwork: Engraving by J Posselwhite after an engraving by Raphael Morghen, (1758 - 1833), after a self-portrait by da Vinci. (Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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