Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

10 Child Prodigies Who Actually Ended Up Doing Something

There’s an interesting story on CNN.com from Mental Floss about child prodigies.  Most people who amaze people with their academic or musical skills when the rest of us are just learning to wear big boy pants never amount to much.  Maybe it is the pressure to live up to their early successes, or perhaps it’s just the system that beats them down to normalcy and mediocrity.  In either case those voted most likely to succeed in preschool rarely do.

There are, however, some notable exceptions.  The article lists ten of them.  Here’s the highlights:

Blaise_pascal_2 BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662)
Areas of expertise: Math, physical science and philosophy
Notable achievement: Making a bet with God

Pascal began studying geometry at age 12, even though his father forbade academic endeavors and removed all mathematics textbooks from the house. By age 19, Pascal had begun to develop a hand-held, mechanical calculator. As an adult he published influential treatises in geometry, 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.

Maria_agnesi_2 MARIA AGNESI (1718-1799)
Areas of expertise: Mathematics and astronomy
Notable achievement: Proving that chicks are good at math, too; known to write the solutions to difficult math problems in her sleep (literally)

In 1718, girls were taught dressmaking, etiquette and religion, but not how to read. Thankfully, Maria’s father, himself a mathematician, recognized her 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. Before she turned 30 , managed to compose a highly influential, two-volume manual on mathematics that included cutting edge developments like integral and differential calculus.

Felix_mendelssohn_2 FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
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

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.  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 like Mozart, the experience motivated Felix to finish his oratorio, “St. Paul,” which had been one of his father’s dying requests. At age 34, Mendelssohn founded the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, where he taught composition with fellow musical great Robert Schumann.

Marie_curie_2 MARIE CURIE (1867-1934)
Areas of expertise: Physics, chemistry and radioactivity
Notable achievement: The first woman to win a Nobel Prize; for good measure, she won two

Four-year-old Marie, 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?”) In college, 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.

Pablopicasso_2 PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
Areas of expertise: Painting, drawing, sculpture
Notable achievement: The most famous name in modern art

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. Drawings that survive from his childhood suggest that prepubescent Pablo could have given the great Renaissance artists a run for their money. Picasso’s many contributions to modern art are too exhaustive to list here. By the time of his death, he’d created over 22,000 works of art.

Jean_piaget_2 JEAN PIAGET (1896-1980)
Area of expertise: Child psychology
Notable achievement: Changing the way we think about the way children think

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). Later in life, Piaget’s zoological background led him to seek out the “biological explanation of knowledge.” 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.

Jascha_heifetz_2 JASCHA HEIFETZ (1901-1987)
Area of expertise: Violin maestro
Notable achievement: Setting the standard for 20th-century violinists

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 16, Jascha’s family moved to the Unites 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.”

Johnvonneumann_2 JOHN VON NEUMANN (1903-1957)
Areas of expertise: Quantum mechanics, information theory, computer science
Notable achievements: Developing the hydrogen bomb and a few early computers

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.

Paul_erdos_2 PAUL ERDOS (1913-1996)
Area of expertise: Mathematics
Notable achievements: It would take a mathematician to explain them

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.

Midori_2 MIDORI (b. 1971)
Area of expertise: Violin virtuoso
Notable achievement: Set the standard for violin performance in the 21st century? (Check back in 96 years)

Japan native Midori was given her first violin at age four, and instead of chewing on it, she started taking lessons. She gave her first public performance when she was seven, and by the time she was 11, her playing had so impressed New York Philharmonic director Zubin Mehta that he invited her to come to the States and solo with his orchestra. She accepted, and her debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra earned her a standing ovation. Midori spent the next decade performing with the world’s leading orchestras on the major concert stages.In her twenties, she took a bit of a break from performing, but that was hardly an indication of her declining career. She founded a nonprofit foundation to bring music and enrolled in New York University and earned a bachelors degree in psychology.

Read the CNN article here.

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