Being a child prodigy is no guarantee that you’ll grow up to be rich, famous or happy. You might have a breakdown and fade into obscurity (like that guy in the movie Shine), quit the scene altogether (like chess maestro Bobby Fischer), or turn to a life of petty crime (insert the name of your favorite child actor here). The road from kid genius to adult dud is a well-traveled one. But if you or someone you love happens to be a budding brainiac, don’t despair. Here are 9 instances of wonder boys and girls who bucked the trend and grew up to be smart cookies.
1. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Areas of Expertise: Math, physical science, and philosophy
Notable Achievement: Making a bet with God
Secret to His Success: Doing geometry when his dad wasn’t looking
The great French thinker Blaise Pascal began studying geometry at age 12, even though his father had forbidden such academic endeavors and removed all mathematics textbooks from the house. But even Pascal senior couldn’t help but be impressed when his son recreated the geometry theories of Euclid, so he started taking young Poindexter to weekly meetings with the elite mathematicians of Paris. By age 19, Pascal had begun to develop a hand-held, mechanical calculator, which might have made him rich if it hadn’t proved impractical to mass produce (a big relief to the abacus industry). Fortunately, that didn’t send him spiraling into child-burnout depression, and he went on to many more years of scientific achievement. Besides publishing influential treatises in geometry, Pascal 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.
2. Maria Agnesi (1718-1799)
Areas of Expertise: Mathematics and astronomy
Notable Achievement: Proving that chicks are good at math, too
Secret to Her Success: Time management; she was known to write the solutions to difficult math problems in her sleep (literally)
When Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan in 1718, girls in upper-class Italian society were taught dressmaking, etiquette and religion, but not how to read. Thankfully, her father, himself a mathematician, recognized Maria’s 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. By age 13, when a visitor would ask her for a waltz, Agnesi would treat her dance partner to a discussion of Newton’s theory of gravity (a second waltz was a rare request). But thanks to her father’s second and third marriages, Agnesi eventually found herself in charge of a household of 20 brothers and sisters, and since she was the oldest, she ended up utilizing more of those Home Ec skills than she had anticipated. Fortunately, in between breaking up slap fights and doling out bowls of spaghetti, the 30-year-old Agnesi managed to compose a highly influential, two-volume manual on mathematics that included cutting edge developments like integral and differential calculus. Afterward, Pope Benedict XIV wrote Agnesi, commending her work and suggesting her for a post at the University of Bologna.
3. 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
Secret to His Success: Nicest guy in classical music
Widely regarded as the 19th-century equivalent of Mozart, German composer Felix Mendelssohn was musically precocious at an early age. 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. Then, 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, the experience motivated Felix to finish his oratorio, “St. Paul,” which had been one of his father’s dying requests. From there, he went on to compose important and popular works, including the “Wedding March.” In 1843, at age 34, Mendelssohn founded the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, where he taught composition with fellow musical great Robert Schumann.
4. Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Areas of Expertise: Physics, chemistry and radioactivity
Notable Achievement: The first woman to win a Nobel Prize; and just for good measure, she won two
Secret to Her Success: Wanted to be in her element, so she discovered it
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Marie Sklodowska was the child of two teachers who placed great importance on education for all of their children. This wasn’t a problem for four-year-old Marie, who, 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?”) As a teenager, Marie was anxious to attend college, but her family couldn’t afford it since her father had lost his teaching job, so she spent five grueling years earning money as a governess (it wasn’t like The Sound of Music at all; the kids were stupid, and there was no singing or dancing). But her time came in 1891, and she headed for the Sorbonne in Paris. There, 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.
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