How do we define genius? If it's by IQ alone, then Nathan Leopold wins hands down. Leopold was born in 1904 to a wealthy German Jewish immigrant family in Chicago. A child prodigy, his IQ tested out at 210, where the cutoff for mere genius is 140.
By age 19, Leopold had already graduated from the University of Chicago and was planning on studying law at Harvard University. He spoke five languages fluently, and was a nationally recognized expert on birds. He had identified a Kirtland's warbler that had been thought extinct.
Folie à deux
Leopold's best friend and constant companion was Richard Loeb, who was also exceptionally intelligent. Loeb was the University of Michigan's youngest graduate at age 17. Leopold considered both he and Loeb to fit German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the superman — people whose superior intellects allowed them to rise above the laws and rules that governed average people.
Leopold sent Loeb a letter stating, "A superman ... is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do." If they weren't liable, that meant Leopold and Loeb could do whatever they wanted, and what they wanted to do was commit the perfect crime.
On the afternoon of May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb, driving a leased car rented under the name "Morton D. Ballard" convinced Loeb's second cousin, 14-year-old Bobby Franks, to accept a ride home from school. Once in the car, Loeb struck Franks with a chisel, eventually killing him.
They dumped Franks' body near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana, then returned to Chicago where they mailed a ransom note to Franks' parents that was typed on a typewriter Leopold and Loeb had previously stolen. They burned their clothes, cleaned bloodstains from the car and destroyed the typewriter.
Leopold had devised a series of individual steps for delivering the ransom, and those steps have been repeated ad nauseum on TV shows.
Almost immediately, a nervous Franks family member forgot the address of a store where he was supposed to receive the next set of directions. Then, Franks' body was discovered. Convinced they were safe, Leopold even spoke to police and reporters, offering his theories of the crime.
But, they were far from safe. Next to Franks' body, police had found a pair of eyeglasses that had a common frame and prescription. While the prescription and frame were common, the unusual hinges were anything but. Only three people in Chicago had that particular hinge, and one of them was Nathan Leopold. Police then recovered the typewriter from the Jackson Park Lagoon.
Think about that: the man with the highest IQ ever recorded, or ever likely to be recorded, dropped next to the body of the murdered boy the one piece of evidence that could tie him to the crime.
When questioned, the two men came up with an alibi, saying they had spent the evening of the murder with two women driving around in Leopold's car. Unfortunately, the Leopold family chauffeur was repairing the young man's car on the night in question. Both Leopold and Loeb admitted to being driven by the thrill of the kill and pleaded guilty.
They were represented by famous attorney Clarence Darrow, and his 12-hour speech pleading for life sentences rather than the death penalty is famous. Leopold and Loeb were sentenced on September 10, 1924 to life in prison plus 99 years. In 1936, Loeb was killed by a fellow prisoner.
In 1929, Franks' murder was portrayed in a play by Patrick Hamilton called Rope, which was filmed in 1948 by Alfred Hitchcock. In 1956, author Meyer Levin recounted the murder in his book Compulsion, which was filmed in 1959. The 2002 film Murder by Numbers was also based on the crime.
In 1958, after 33 years in prison, Leopold was paroled and moved to Puerto Rico, where he worked at a hospital, earned a master's degree, and did research on leprosy at the University of Puerto Rico. He died in 1971.
During the 1920s, Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who had pioneered the IQ test, began tracking over 1,500 California children who had IQ's above 140, the threshold for genius. The children came to be called "Termites", and they were followed throughout their lifetimes.
When they grew up, the "Termites" came to include members of the National Academy of Sciences, politicians, doctors, professors, and musicians. They created thousands of academic papers, wrote books, received 350 patents, and wrote 400 short stories. But, several dozen of them flunked out of college.
Two children whose IQs hadn't made Terman's cut — Luis Alvarez and William Shockley — both received Nobel Prizes in physics, Alvarez for the discovery of resonance particles (subatomic particles having extremely short lifetimes and occurring only in high-energy nuclear collisions) and Shockley for the the development of the transistor.
In 1968, high school graduate Ed Witten was rebelling against the "family business" which was physics. Witten's father, Louis, was a theoretical physicist specializing in gravitation and general relativity, but Ed decided to major in history at Brandeis University.
Graduating in 1971, Witten attended the University of Wisconsin for one semester majoring in economics before dropping out. In 1973, he entered Princeton University where in just three short years, in 1976, he received a Ph.D. in physics.
In 1990, Witten was awarded the Fields Medal, mathematics' highest honor. This is kind of like a basketball player winning football's MVP award. Witten was the first physicist to win the prize, and mathematician Michael Atiyah said of Witten: "Although he is definitely a physicist (as his list of publications clearly shows) his command of mathematics is rivaled by few mathematicians, and his ability to interpret physical ideas in mathematical form is quite unique. Time and again he has surprised the mathematical community by a brilliant application of physical insight leading to new and deep mathematical theorems... [H]e has made a profound impact on contemporary mathematics. In his hands physics is once again providing a rich source of inspiration and insight in mathematics."
He Rocked the Joint
In the mid 1990s, string theory was struggling with what it called "an embarrassment of riches". There were five separate versions of the theory and they were known as type I, type IIA, type IIB, and the two flavors of heterotic string theory (SO(32) and E8×E8).
In 1995, at a string theory conference at the University of Southern California, Ed Witten stepped up to the podium and rocked the joint. He showed that the five string theories were not distinct, but different limits of a single theory, which he called M-theory. This led to what is known as the second superstring revolution.
In 1990, at a cosmology conference, an informal poll was taken to determine who was "the smartest living physicist." Ed Witten received the largest number of votes.