Who’s the Smartest Person You Know, and Why?

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As a writer, I enjoy listening to people speak and, when they’re in the middle of a particularly interesting sentence, I try to imagine how I’d like to see it finished.

Usually I am disappointed. But with some select people, the payoff is far greater than I could have imagined. They have something to say that’s remarkably insightful or unexpected or even just articulate in a way that takes your breath away.

I’ve run across three such instances lately — one on TV, one in a book, and one in an audio recording.

The audio recording was an interview with the late pianist Glenn Gould by the music critic Tim Page. It was included on the CD of Gould’s 1981 re-recording of Bach‘s Goldberg Variations. Gould’s very first recording, in 1955, was also the Goldberg Variations, and the interview is a discussion of the difference between the two versions. (Here’s an NPR interview with Page on the subject.)

The book was The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam‘s man-at-work biography of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. It isn’t Halberstam’s best book, and Belichick has a variety of unappealing personal characteristics, but we get to hear a lot of his thoughts.

The TV performance was President Obama‘s first press conference.

In each case, the subject spoke with what I can only characterize as total intelligence — a lot of mental horsepower, to be sure, but also nuance, precision, conceptual and practical elements combined in the same sentence, and psychological astuteness.

I guess, therefore, that if I were asked to define what it means to be “smart” in this day and age, those are the characteristics I’d list. I know a lot of super-brainy people who don’t express themselves well; I know a lot of psychologically astute people who haven’t a whiff of organization or precision about them; I know a lot of articulate people who can’t see the big picture. But if I were friends with either Obama, Belichick, or Gould, I’d have to say that they were the smartest people I know. (Sadly, I’m not.)

So: who’s the smartest person you know, and why?

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  1. Kitt Hirasaki says:

    One of my smartest friends is Amar Hamoudi, a college classmate of mine and an economist. He has a center of gravity at a dinner conversation caused by his breadth of knowledge and interests, and ability to conceptualize and analyze situations and ideas. He’s also ready to smile or dive into the absurd in a flash.

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  2. Josh says:

    It would have to be my girlfriend, for choosing me.

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  3. Cheryl Thompson says:

    I know several smart people (married to one). I consider someone smart (i.e., intelligent) if they can converse with depth on a variety of subjects.

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  4. David Glover says:

    David Noever, my high school debate partner. Went on to become a Rhode Scholar, work for NASA, and start numerous companies.

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  5. Mike says:

    By that standard – not being disappointed by the end of a promising sentence, maybe I’d pick one of a number of talented comedians.

    Or, Thomas Sowell’s columns and Milton Friedman.

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  6. Bart says:

    I went to a high school for smart people called the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, but a classmate named Ed Boyden was several standard deviations above our norm. Beyond the usual indicators of intelligence (he’s now an Assistant Professor at MIT; he had a perfect GPA at MIT and Stanford), he got a shout-out in a Malcolm Gladwell article in the ‘New Yorker’ in May 2008. And he surfs.

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  7. Michael F. Martin says:

    Smart people help bring order to my experience of the universe. Unfortunately, I don’t get to hang out with such people often enough. I’m afraid I probably add disorder to theirs!

    Limiting this to people I’ve met personally, I would pick Richard Epstein from the University of Chicago Law School. If I were to pick anyone alive now whether I’ve met them or not, I’d pick mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose.

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  8. Shaun G says:

    I’d have to say it’s my friend Dr. Adam Ruben, a molecular biologist and stand-up comedian. Crazy brilliant. Heck, I’ve heard him place pizza delivery orders that were profound.

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