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?


Kitt Hirasaki

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.

Josh

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

Cheryl Thompson

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.

David Glover

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

Mike

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.

Bart

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.

Michael F. Martin

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.

Shaun G

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.

L. Skywalker

Probably my friend Yoda. One time I told him I was going to try to blow up the Death Star, and he told me "Do, or do not; there is no try." I think he exemplified all the characteristics you mentioned in smart people.

Alison Lawler-Dean

Max Valiquette, Youth Culture and Marketing specialist and President of the Youthography and Y Syndicate (http://www.youthography.com). Whether he's talking to a crowd of 500 about the best ways to reach our youth, Twittering a catty play by play of the Academy awards or describing one of his latest culinary adventures, Max is able to look into the issue with fresh insights. I think his brain must work on another level because he's able to process an idea and make a witty remark about it before I've even registered it. Oh and he's also extremely fun. And handsome.

Ben C

I wouldn't say that I really know him (certainly he wouldn't know me), but the smartest person I have ever met in person and heard speak would definitely be Kevin Murphy. If you want to talk about mental horsepower, in comparison to Kevin's, Obama's has about the same horsepower as my lawnmower.

Doug Nelson

I differentiate between smart (mentally agile), intelligent (amount of knowledge), and wisdom (application of experience).

I know a lot of smart people, and a lot of intelligent people, and quite a few that are both. While they might be entertaining or stimulating, they also tend to be tiresome in larger doses. Most, however, are dull as tech manuals.

I don't know many wise people personally (which might speak to their wisdom), which is why I read blogs like this.

Galen

My father, a longtime engineering professor at Caltech, once locked his keys in the trunk of his car. He spent about 20 minutes thinking about "how they probably put this car together" and "how this car would look as it was going through the assembly line."
He was somehow able to remove the back seat without much difficulty by figuring out how it was constructed, crawl into the trunk, and rescue his keys. He does stuff like this all the time.

My mother (who also has a PhD), never does things like this. That's because she would never lock her keys in the truck in the first place.

As many of the other comments have alluded to, 'smartness' can be difficult to quantify.

Caliban Darklock

Dr. Cat, game developer from back in the day, currently focused on Furcadia. I'll be arguing some esoteric point about online community on a mailing list, and he'll wander through the discussion and just casually say something that makes all of us look and feel stupid. He has this unbelievable brilliance about him, where everything he says just seems so obvious and inevitable that you wonder why nobody else said it.

Lori Johnson Morse a.k.a Lori MathHead

Don Cohen, The Mathman (http://www.mathman.biz), is one of the smartest people I know. because he teaches calculus to kids. When most seven-year-olds are learning basic arithmetic, Don's are learning and exploring algebra, trigonometry and calculus.

I stand on the shoulders of this giant who never underestimates the intelligence of young people. His methods add delight and excitement to learning what most see as a very difficult subject. He has helped me do the same with my students.

Al V.

I know many people who are very intelligent, but my friend Dan Tedlie, who passed away three weeks ago, was someone who could make an articulate and convincing argument on almost any subject. He often brought a unique perspective to a discussion. He wasn't a poltician, scientist, or economist, but an actor.

Eric M. Jones

It would have to be Josh's girlfriend, for choosing him. But more globally, all the men I know would be in the state hospital for the criminally insane if not for the women in their lives.

On a serious note--Watch Ted.com and see all the smartest people on Earth giving short talks of profound interest. It would be difficult to be smarter than some of those people.

It is unfortunately true that social skills tend to take a beating as the IQ climbs towards the stratosphere. Towards the top end, they almost all need some sort of handlers. Many just get by with talented assistants and secretaries (and wives and girlfriends).

I was in Mensa in LA for a couple decades on and off. There you find some really magnificent specimens of brilliant people. I knew a guy who posted the Mensa gathering schedule on the local "things to do" bulletin board at a local psychiatric half-way house. That led to some interesting gatherings (and pissed off a whole lot of people).

Two nominees...

John Wilbur Hicks, who has a hundred of so patents in fiberoptics, knew Einstein personally and qualifies as the smartest guy in central Massachusetts by a mile.

John C. Gord, brilliant consultant, friend, great man.

Read more...

Aeirlys

My current favorite smart person is Richard Muller at UC Berkeley. I wasn't lucky enough to take his course, Physics for Future Presidents, but I did listen to the podcast. He does a wonderful job of explaining complicated, esoteric concepts of modern physics without all the math rubbish and putting them into social and political context.

MTN

My dad. When asked a question, particularly a complex one, he takes his time to think of every possible answer. Then, after if he determines the best answer, he speaks deliberately and explains the answer simply. You can always tell when someone knows his stuff because he can clearly explain himself so that he's understood.

BD

I'd have to agree with Mike on Thomas Sowell. I read Knowledge and Decisions and was blown away by how well he could articulate really complex ideas.

Karl Popper is also really articulate - his essay on critical rationalism is a great read. Actually all the essays in "Popper Selections" are really good.