Polymath physicist Steve Hsu answers a question about his hero, Richard Feynman. Is it true Feynman’s IQ score was only 125?
Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability.
Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton.
It seems quite possible to me that Feynman’s cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided — his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept while an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics for an undergraduate — including general relativity and the Dirac equation — it also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.
Razib Khan adds this:
One thing I have always wondered about is the fact that Richard Feynman had substantive accomplishments which marked him as definitively brilliant by the time he was talking about his 125 I.Q. score (which is smart, but not exceedingly smart). Intelligence scores are supposed to be predictors of accomplishments, but Feynman already had those accomplishments.
Bright people take many psychometric tests, so there will be a range of score about a mean. My personal experience is that there’s a bias in reporting the highest scores. But it may be that Feynman gloried in reporting his lowest scores because that made his accomplishments even more impressive. Unlike most he had nothing to prove to anyone.