Dismantling the Dogmas of Life and Death: How the Forgotten Prodigy William James Sidis Presaged the Quantum Undoing of Time and Thermodynamics

“There is no way of telling whether we are living organisms in a positive universe, or pseudo-living organisms in a negative universe.. The difference is really one merely between the two directions of time, and, though those two directions are opposite to each other, they have no physical properties which are in any way different.”

Dismantling the Dogmas of Life and Death: How the Forgotten Prodigy William James Sidis Presaged the Quantum Undoing of Time and Thermodynamics

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his exquisite refutation of time an epoch before we time-substantiated creatures came to discover the staggering strata of scientific fact beneath his poetic truth — our entire experience of selfhood is rooted in the neuropsychology of time and the bridge to other selves that we call empathy is a kind of internal clock.

Ever since humans discerned the presently known laws of physics, a blink ago in the evolutionary history of the universe, it seemed like time was inseparable from entropy: that inescapable, irreversible dissolution of order into disorder along the arrow of time, dismantling organized matter and self-aware minds, ensuring that everything we love and are ends up “one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.” Without entropy — which anchors the second law of thermodynamics — we couldn’t tell a previous moment from the next, and so it seemed like without entropy there would be no time. To imagine otherwise — to question the dictate of irreversibility — would be nothing less than to negate the laws of physics.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. This clock is available as both a wall and print version.

In the late 1920s, Arthur Eddington — whose heroic 1919 eclipse expedition confirmed relativity, vindicating Einstein — captured this long-held belief with his genial gauntlet at convention:

If… your pet theory of the universe… is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. If your theory of the universe is discovered to be contrary to thermodynamics’ second law, I cannot give you any hope. It is best to fall in humiliation.

Things changed dramatically in 2020s. As the daring new science of counterfactuals is furnishing a general theory of possibility for the physics of our epoch, new work in quantum information is rewriting the second law of thermodynamics, indicating that deep down in the quantum undertow, at the level of fundamental particles, reversing the classical laws of motion — and along with them the arrow of time — might be possible.

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Eddington had launched his gauntlet 100 years ago. The forgotten visionary was there. William James Sidis (April 1, 1898–July 17, 1944) contoured this possibility in his 1925 book The Animate and the Inanimate (public library | public domain) — an inquiry into the origin and nature of life, which anticipated Fermi’s paradox, inspired Buckminster Fuller, and explored black holes fourteen years before the first major work on this cosmic reality that Einstein himself had theorized but ultimately dismissed as a delightful plaything of mathematics.

Each era has its Democritus, and each one is blinded to their vision. Posterity can then vindicate them generations later or hundreds of years later when the landscape of knowledge changes.

Sidis was the son of a New York psychiatrist and his mother, a doctor mom who earned her medical degree at a time when few women had it. Sidis displayed an unusual gift for math and language from a young age. His parents — both of whom had emigrated from Ukraine to America as Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms — not only actively nurtured the natural gift but seemed to have expected it of him from the outset: They named their son for his godfather, their friend William James.

William James Sidis, as a child

He was able to read and write by the age of three. At five years of age, he began studying anatomy alongside his parents. At eight years of age, he was fluent in several languages, including English, and had invented a new one that he called Vendergood. He was so proficient in Latin and Greek, and so fertile was his mind with ideas that he soon began writing poetry in ancient languages.

Harvard finally admitted him at eleven — the youngest person to study at the venerable university. He had tried to be enrolled by his father for over two years.

The boy wonder was widely known. “The story of this boy’s life reads like a romance,” The Philadelphia Inquirer rhapsodized four days before his twelfth birthday, “but every step of his remarkable career is vouched for by those who have watched his marvelous development.” Journalists went to see this “boy in knickerbockers” with rosy cheeks and eyes as grey as Whitman’s stand “before the savants of Harvard to lecture on mathematics.” There was something both delightful and discomposing about the majestic mind discoursing on the fourth dimension with “the clear, musical voice” of a child.

By fourteen, he was presenting his own theories and was heralded not as “a learner” but as “a diviner.”

William James Sidis, “boy wonder.”

He was also, and predictably, a highly unusual child that became an even more unusual young man — eccentric, as his era called him; neurodivergent, as ours might.

Upon graduating at age sixteen, he silenced the press fanfare by promptly declaring that he wished to live the rest of his life in seclusion — his idea of the perfect life. This lasted for less than one year. (Let us suffer no Cartesian delusion — he might have had the mind of a genius, but it was coursing through the body of a teenager.)

Harvard offered him a place in its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, so he returned. He was bullied, but he was also brilliant. So he left Harvard.

At the time he was seventeen years old, he was teaching mathematics and Euclidean geometries at Rice University. He was so unmotivated after a year that he moved to New York City as an adder clerk, earning $23 per week. He entered the Harvard Law School, then dropped out and set about translating Chekhov’s pamphlet on the hazards of tobacco and refuting Freud while working out his own social and scientific theories.

William James Sidis

Two decades before the pioneering X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale — another of the rares — was imprisoned as conscientious objector to the Second World War, William James Sidis was arrested for objecting to the First.

He was joined by a young, rebellious socialist and suffragist named Martha. Martha had just dropped out college and had struggled for equality rights. She could also recite Milton from her jail cell.

He was naturally in love.

Both were sentenced to eighteen months at New York City’s House of Correction. Martha was his light through all of it, and he loved her until the end. It is rare for a person to be able to love another person. The basic laws of probability say that being lonely comes with being uncommon.

Sidis never served the sentence — by his own account, his parents “kidnapped” him “by arrangement with the district attorney” and took him as far away from the state as possible: to California. He had written a paper a year before that correlated sun spots and social upheaval. “Revolutionary changes are taking place on a gigantic scale under our very eyes,” his father had written in the foreword, “without our realization of their trend and significance.”

Solar protuberances, observed on May 5, 1873, 9:40 A.M.
One of French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s 19th-century drawings of celestial objects and phenomena. Available as both a print or as stationary cards.

Sidis had been incubating new ideas all through these tense interactions between his unique mind and the world. The Animate & the Inanimate — ideas anchored in the audacious proposition that the second law of thermodynamics, with its almighty entropic power to transmute life into non-life as organized matter unfurls into chaos, might be reversible after all. That is, it could be that Before After — these bookends of a transmutation — are the abstractions of an organized mind that experiences the flow of time in a particular way because of its particular position in it and its degree of access to the energy of the universe.

At the heart of his theory of the origin of life is the idea that “there was no origin, but only a constant development and change in form.” The direction of change is what we call time.

Drawing on Emmy Noether’s revolutionary work on symmetry, which had shaken centuries of physics a few years earlier, Sidis considers the undeniable difference between the transformation of energy from positive to negative — from life to non-life — and its transformation in the opposite direction, deemed impossible by the laws of physics:

It might be supposed that this difference between one kind of transformation and its inverse indicates an irreversible law; and… if we give up the second law of thermodynamics, we must replace it by the statement that all physical laws are reversible. This would make it seem like we were at an inconsistency. However, when we look deeper into this question we’ll see that neither one of these forms of transformations is the exact reverse, but each is actually symmetrical and the reverse of its own.

Art by Daniel Bruson for “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Sidis had been nursed on his godfather’s notion of “reserve energy.” The year his godson left Harvard, William James had delivered a rousing address to the American Philosophical Association, in which he formulated this central tenet of his philosophy:

Our organism is capable of holding energy reserves that it doesn’t normally use, but which may be used. These include deeper, more complex strata of combustible and explosive material that have been arranged in a discontinuous manner, ready to be utilized by those who dig so deeply. They can also repair themselves with rest, as well as the strata that lie below. Most people continue to live near their surface unnecessarily.

Sidis took the idea from philosophy and made it physics-related. Here is the place where many scientists fall into metaphysics. But while there is a metaphysical feeling to Sidis’s theories, he holds firmly to the foundation of physics, aiming not to dismantle it but to repair is most rickety plank — the second law of thermodynamics, which had left generations of scientists uneasy ever since Clausius coined entropy.

Art from Russian artist and mathematician Anatolii Fomnko’s series Mathematical Impressions

Sidis proposes a model of the universe that resembles “a sort of three-dimensional checkerboard,” made of black and white “bricks” — distinct regions of positive and negative energy, in which the positive, light-emitting portions constitute the white bricks and the negative, light-absorbing portions the black. We would see only the white brick in such a universe. This is because we fall naturally into positive energy areas by virtue of our existence. The surrounding black bricks would not only remain invisible — for they are absorbing the light that is the sight-sense of consciousness — but would also absorb the light from any white bricks beyond them, thus rendering them also invisible from the vantage point of our brick. And so, while energy is constantly flowing in all directions — the directional flow we call time — we can only see it vanish into our neighboring black brick.

Sidis is puzzled by the strange intimation that such a universe might be.

You can’t tell whether you are living organisms within a positive universe or pseudo-living organisms inside a negative one. It is just one thing that makes the difference, even though both directions of time are opposing each other. However, these two directions have identical physical properties.

Then he adds the more bizarre caveat:

Identity is not achieved by perfect interchangeability. Identity isn’t that two items can be interchanged without distorting the truth of the statements. It is that any one may substitute for the other without altering the truthfulness of any statement. This test of identity for A and B should be used to substitute A for A without simultaneously substituting A for A.


A well-organized mind should see time flowing in the direction of more energy reserve in that part of the universe. It could be any direction, or that which we perceive as forwards, but if this mental definition is used, then the second law on thermodynamics will apply.

With their combination of a superficial knowledge of science and an eagerness to take over certain bits in order to affirm their beliefs, this is where New Age demagogues might be able find their foothold. But no — Sidis is very clear in preempting the basic misappropriation by describing the experience of time as a sine wave of available energy, undulating vertically between positive and negative, while moving horizontally along the arrow of time from past to future — but moving by constant up-down fluctuation. Imagine a mythic sea serpent swimming in some direction amid a boundless ocean, its glistening body curving above the surface (let’s call this the area of positive energy), then curving below (negative energy).

If a mind is pinned at any point on the sine, it would gaze up at the peak of the wave to call this memory. Then look down towards the bottom to call the time.

You will vanishMaria Popova Available as a printed version.

You might think of it as the feeling of having to go back, but not something that occurs. Hinter the mind but within it — front and back are conveniences of consciousness, adapted to our particular physiology, in order to move efficiently through the particular world we evolved in.

Sidis wrote:

Therefore, time is two-dimensional, as the bottom axial lines. However, a mind of any size would see it as a continuous stream. FlowThe curve tends to be towards the bottom, but that could actually lead it toward the past rather than towards the future. To be clear, the difference in curve length is not noticeable.


Hence… the second law of thermodynamics is to be interpreted as a mental law, as the law determining the direction in which a given mind will conceive of time as flowing. [And yet]The appearance of flow is only a mental phenomena, and time itself does not exist. In reality, there is no flow in time or space. Therefore, either direction of time can be called the past or the future. There are no differences in the properties and functions of the universe. However, we have to accept that intervals of time exist as physical realities and are necessary for explaining physical phenomena.

Jacob’s DreamWilliam Blake (1805). This print is also available as a stationery card, a mask, or as an image.

It was only 46 years that William James Sidis had lived. His unusual mind was put into a coma following a brain hemorhage. Unfeeling funeral notices appeared in the immediate aftermath. New York Times, stating that he was found in his room “in a Brookline boarding house, apparently destitute.” Unmentioned was the book in which he peered far past the era’s horizon of truth, presaging a century of physics and unmooring our millennia-deep certitudes about life and death.

Complement The Animate and the Inanimate — an extraordinary read a century later, though not for the faint of mind or for the queasy at contradiction — with Sidis’s godfather on the permeable boundary between different forms of consciousness and his contemporary Erwin Schrödinger, who would win the Nobel Prize for pioneering the quantum science that would substantiate Sidis’s ideas, on mind and matter, then revisit physicist Alan Lightman’s classic reimagining of time.

Giving = Being Loving

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