By Rick Chillot
Being a child prodigy is no guarantee that you’ll grow up to be rich, famous or happy. You might have a breakdown and fade into obscurity (like that guy in the movie Shine), quit the scene altogether (like chess maestro Bobby Fischer), or turn to a life of petty crime (insert the name of your favorite child actor here). The road from kid genius to adult dud is a well-traveled one. But if you or someone you love happens to be a budding brainiac, don’t despair. Here are 9 instances of wonder boys and girls who bucked the trend and grew up to be smart cookies.
Areas of Expertise: Math, physical science, and philosophy
Notable Achievement: Making a bet with God
Secret to His Success: Doing geometry when his dad wasn’t looking
The great French thinker Blaise Pascal began studying geometry at age 12, even though his father had forbidden such academic endeavors and removed all mathematics textbooks from the house. But even Pascal senior couldn’t help but be impressed when his son recreated the geometry theories of Euclid, so he started taking young Poindexter to weekly meetings with the elite mathematicians of Paris. By age 19, Pascal had begun to develop a hand-held, mechanical calculator, which might have made him rich if it hadn’t proved impractical to mass produce (a big relief to the abacus industry). Fortunately, that didn’t send him spiraling into child-burnout depression, and he went on to many more years of scientific achievement. Besides publishing influential treatises in geometry, Pascal made significant contributions in physical science, like experimenting with atmospheric pressure and determining that a vacuum exists outside Earth’s atmosphere. His contributions to philosophy include the famous “Pascal’s Wager,” which states that believing in God costs you nothing if you’re wrong, and wins you everything if you’re right.
Areas of Expertise: Mathematics and astronomy
Notable Achievement: Proving that chicks are good at math, too
Secret to Her Success: Time management; she was known to write the solutions to difficult math problems in her sleep (literally)
When Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan in 1718, girls in upper-class Italian society were taught dressmaking, etiquette and religion, but not how to read. Thankfully, her father, himself a mathematician, recognized Maria’s amazing memory and talent for languages and decided that something like literacy might be a good thing for his daughter. By the time she was nine, Agnesi was impressing party guests with speeches she’d translated into Latin. By age 13, when a visitor would ask her for a waltz, Agnesi would treat her dance partner to a discussion of Newton’s theory of gravity (a second waltz was a rare request). But thanks to her father’s second and third marriages, Agnesi eventually found herself in charge of a household of 20 brothers and sisters, and since she was the oldest, she ended up utilizing more of those Home Ec skills than she had anticipated. Fortunately, in between breaking up slap fights and doling out bowls of spaghetti, the 30-year-old Agnesi managed to compose a highly influential, two-volume manual on mathematics that included cutting edge developments like integral and differential calculus. Afterward, Pope Benedict XIV wrote Agnesi, commending her work and suggesting her for a post at the University of Bologna.
Areas of Expertise: Piano, organ, and orchestra (performance and composition)
Notable Achievement: His “Wedding March,” which has survived over a century of rising divorce rates and overpriced wedding planners
Secret to His Success: Nicest guy in classical music
Widely regarded as the 19th-century equivalent of Mozart, German composer Felix Mendelssohn was musically precocious at an early age. Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons at age six, made his first public performance at age nine, and wrote his first composition (that we know of) when he was 11. By the time he turned 17, he had completed his Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of the Romantic period’s best-known, most-loved works of classical music. Then, in 1835, Mendelssohn’s father died, which (just like Wolfy) came as a crushing blow to the composer. But rather than sending him into an alcohol-induced stupor, the experience motivated Felix to finish his oratorio, “St. Paul,” which had been one of his father’s dying requests. From there, he went on to compose important and popular works, including the “Wedding March” (though he probably wouldn’t appreciate those cheesy “here comes the bride” lyrics). In 1843, at age 34, Mendelssohn founded the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, where he taught composition with fellow musical great Robert Schumann.
Areas of Expertise: Physics, chemistry and radioactivity
Notable Achievement: The first woman to win a Nobel Prize; and just for good measure, she won two
Secret to Her Success: Wanted to be in her element, so she discovered it
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Marie Sklodowska was the child of two teachers who placed great importance on education for all of their children. This wasn’t a problem for four-year-old Marie, who, just by hanging around her four older siblings, taught herself how to read (Russian and French) and was known to help her brothers and sisters with their math homework. It was also at age four that she began to freak people out with her incredible memory, as she was able to recall events that had happened years before (“Remember that time when I was three months old and you put my diaper on backwards, idiot?”) As a teenager, Marie was anxious to attend college, but her family couldn’t afford it since her father had lost his teaching job, so she spent five grueling years earning money as a governess (it wasn’t like The Sound of Music at all; the kids were stupid, and there was no singing or dancing). But her time came in 1891, and she headed for the Sorbonne in Paris. There, she discovered future husband Pierre Curie, along with the radioactive elements radium and polonium. In her thirties, Marie worked closely with her husband, and together they devised the science of radioactivity, for which they were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. After Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie continued her work, winning her second Nobel (this time in chemistry) at age 44.
Areas of Expertise: Painting, drawing, sculpture
Notable Achievement: The most famous name in modern art
Secret to His Success: Quantity and quality
Everyone knows that Picasso achieved artistic fame and success as an adult, but little Pablo was quite the prodigy, too. In fact, it’s said that Picasso had an interest in drawing even before he could speak. Perhaps that’s why, once he finally could talk, he immediately started demanding that his father (an artist himself) give him his paintbrushes. And when he became old enough to go to school, pushy little Pablo said he would only go on the condition that, while there, he could draw as much as he liked. Fortunately, the headmaster and the other students recognized Picasso’s gift, and more or less allowed him to come, go, and work as he pleased. Years later, the adult Picasso attended an exhibit of children’s drawings and commented that he could never have been in such a show because at age 12, he “drew like Raphael.” A little modesty might have done him some good, but in fact, drawings that survive from his childhood suggest that prepubescent Pablo could indeed have given the great Renaissance artist a run for his money. Picasso’s many contributions to modern art—including cubism, “Guernica,” and people drawn with two eyes on one side of their face—are too exhaustive to list here. By the time of his death, he’d created over 22,000 works of art.
Area of Expertise: Child psychology
Notable Achievement: Changing the way we think about the way children think
Secret to His Success: The ability to hold conversations with three-year-olds
Does it take a child who’s interested in psychology to make a child psychologist? Apparently not. When Jean Piaget was growing up in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, his area of expertise was zoology. He talked his way into a job at the local Museum of Natural History at the age of 10, where he developed a keen interest in mollusks (especially snails). By high school, he’d published so many papers on the subject that his name was well known among European mollusk experts (most of whom assumed he was an adult). So later in life, when his interests turned to psychology, Piaget’s zoological background led him to seek out the “biological explanation of knowledge.” Suspecting that observing children might lead to an answer, he came up with an earth-shattering new way to explore how children think: by watching them, listening to them, and talking to them. Piaget deduced that a child’s mind isn’t a blank slate, but is constantly imagining and testing new theories about the world and how it works. This revelation, plus his 75 years of scientific research, spawned whole new fields of psychology. He might even have had an explanation for why your kid put that peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich in the VCR.
Area of Expertise: Violin maestro
Notable Achievement: Setting the standard for 20th-century violinists
Secret to His Success: When he played the violin, it made his teachers cry (in a good way)
Little Jascha’s interest in music was noticeable at only eight months of age, when he reportedly smiled at his father’s violin playing, but winced in pain whenever Dad hit the wrong note. When Jascha turned three, he asked for—and received—his first violin and promptly started taking lessons. So naturally, Heifetz was giving public concerts by the age of five (about the same time the rest of us started eating paste). At age 16, Jascha’s family moved to the United States to dodge the Russian Revolution, and before long, he had his debut at Carnegie Hall, where he wowed critics and became an overnight musical idol. Musical burn-out seemed almost inevitable, but Heifetz continued touring into his sixties and kept recording into his seventies (take that, Keith Richards), racking up Grammy after Grammy without releasing a single music video. Heifetz once called being a child prodigy “a disease which is generally fatal,” and one that he “was among the few to have good fortune to survive.”
Areas of Expertise: Quantum mechanics, information theory, computer science
Notable Achievements: Developing the hydrogen bomb and a few early computers
Secret to His Success: Not too bookish to enjoy a good kegger
As a child in Budapest, Hungary, János von Neumann amazed adults and annoyed fellow six-year olds by dividing eight-digit numbers in his head, speaking in Greek, and memorizing pages out of the phone book. He published his first scientific paper while still a teenager, but because of Hungary’s rising anti-Semitic atmosphere, he decided to pursue his mathematics career elsewhere. Unfortunately, he chose to go to Germany, which clearly didn’t turn out to be such a hot idea. After he was offered a position at Princeton University, von Neumann headed to the States, choosing to adopt the first name John. In America, he was free to hang around with other expatriate eggheads, including future magazine cover model Albert Einstein. In between throwing raucous parties, ogling secretaries, and getting into car accidents (he was a notoriously reckless driver), von Neumann worked on theoretical mathematics and various real-world projects, including the development of the hydrogen bomb and construction of one of the first working computers.
Area of Expertise: Mathematics
Notable Achievements: It would take a mathematician to explain them
Secret to His Success: Loved numbers, tolerated everything else
Paul Erdös was multiplying three-digit numbers for kicks when he was three. At age four, he started playing around with prime and negative numbers. Not much later, he developed a cute little habit of asking people their ages and then computing how many seconds they’d been alive. Never able to shake his passion for numbers, Erdös grew up to become arguably the most prolific mathematician in history, authoring or co-authoring almost 1,500 mathematical papers. In fact, collaborating with Erdös was such a point of prestige that—to this day—mathematicians assign themselves “Erdös numbers,” which works sort of like the fabled Kevin Bacon game. An Erdös number indicates how closely a person has worked with the great one: Those who co-authored a paper with him have a number of 1, those who wrote a paper with one of his co-authors have a number of 2, and so on. Never had the pleasure of writing a mathematics paper? Congratulations, you have an Erdös number of infinity. Now go balance your checkbook.
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. To learn about our current issue – ’The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years’ – and for details on subscribing, click here.