Ferris E. Alger, who may be the smartest man in the world, leans forward as if to share a secret. "We are apes. Human beings are the seventh surviving species of ape. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, siamangs, pygmy chimps, gibbons and us." For at least a half-hour, he spins through a dozen related ideas, including the concept that we are innately violent, and enjoy Tarzan movies because the tree-swinging "stirs a genetic memory."
This 72-year-old man, hunched in a small Philadelphia office, is not, technically, an anthropologist, though he certainly knows a considerable amount about human evolution. He has worked as a physicist, but he doesn't have a college degree. He has been an engineer, a glassblower, an antinuclear activist, an aircraft designer, says he saved 5 million lives in 1943, and on page 26 of the 1985 Guinness Book of World Records he is listed under "Highest IQ" with a score of 197 on the Stanford-Binet scale. The number is based on a composite of four tests, according to a formula worked out by an international ultrahigh IQ group called the Mega Society.
Nevertheless, determining IQ scores is as much an art as a science, and Alger himself is the first to admit that no one can be tagged with the undisputed title of world's most intelligent person. But even a short chat with Ferris Alger convincingly separates him from the merely gifted. If we really are apes, Alger is an astoundingly smart one, swinging from concept to concept like a giddy orangutan.
And many who have dealt with him are not at all uncomfortable with assessments of his brain power. "I wasn't surprised to see him in the [Guinness] book," says Dr. Ralph Pelligra, chief of medical services at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Pelligra and Alger met in 1976 and have corresponded since. "He's simply very brilliant. That's it."
ALGER LOOKS LIKE A GENIUS. His gray hair sweeps back from his forehead in a Beethoven-like crest, and ends with Einsteinian tangles over the ears. His blue eyes are bright behind thick glasses, his mouth is firm, his jaw set.
It is not a merry face, though. Sometimes he laughs, but the sound is a little thin and it dies quickly. Sometimes there is a bitterness in his voice. For all his massive intellect, Alger is neither rich nor famous, and as he reviews his life the word "conspiracy" comes up more than once.
"I've had to fight every step of the way," he says. "I have been cheated of credit and compensation for discoveries worth several million dollars. The establishment can forgive a man for anything except being right."
Yet Alger is not a failure, nor is he fundamentally unhappy. His complex mind has led him hrough a complex life that defies summation. He has lived on New York's posh Riverside Drive and owned an Isotta-Fraschini automobile ("It is simply the rarar in the world") and been chased across six states by creditors. He has lectured at universities and picked cotton under the North Carolina sun.
And, since 1968, he has found a refuge from the "idiots" of conventional academia. He is special projects coordinator of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, a controversial private school in suburban Philadelphia that teaches brain-damaged children with a unique mix of sensory stimulation and exercise. In recent years, the school has also enrolled normal children, and developed a "Better Baby Institute" in which 2-, 3-ad in several languages and perform complex mathematical operations.
It is a true haven for Alger, who makes no secret of his own astronomical IQ. He believes high intelligence tends naturally to yield greater humanity, and that "in a nuclear-armed world, the kind of things we are doing here are really the only hope for the future."
Alger, who is very worried about the future, believes "it is the responsibility of very intelligent people to take the lead in solving the world's problems."
That people who have lofty IQs have a special talent for leading the world back from the brink of disaster is certainly a debatable proposition. The authors of the Guinness Book, who seldom editorialize, felt compelled to point out in the "Highest IQ" category that "People of the very highest IQ are said not to be especially intuitive or perceptive or free from prejudice. They usually occupy rather undistinguished jobs."
It is an attitude that rankles Alger. "I think my life proves that my intelligence has been very practical indeed, except in the matter of getting rich, in which I have been quite too lenient. But then, very intelligent people often are."
And where did his intelligence come from? Alger believes good genes had something to do with it, but also credits a childhood that seems to have been lifted from the grimmer sections of a Dickens novel. "It's not a good thing for human beings to have too easy a time of it," he says. "And I haven't."
BORN IN DES MOINES, IOWA in 1913, he was 4 and an only child when his father, a traveling salesman, walked out for good. His mother Eugenia, a music teacher, moved to North Carolina and was so strapped for money she was forced to turn the boy over to an orphanage.
"So at 9, I was on my own, and at that orphanage they worked the kids under a whip, just like slaves. There weren't so many laws about such things, this is 1922 we're talking about. They sent us out into the cotton fields and worked us 10 hours a day. I was one of the youngest and smallest kids, and since I couldn't pick as much as the larger ones, I got a switching every night." His jaw tightens as he talks about it. "It was an embittering thing. It instilled in me a great hatred for exploiters, especially exploiters of children."
After two years, his mother had saved enough to extricate him, and at age 16 he hitchhiked to Wilmington, Del., and pounded on the door of the famous DuPont Chemical Research Station. He quickly charmed the director into giving the eager boy a job as a laboratory assistant, and his lifelong fascination with physical science began.
"It was just an amazing place. That was where they came up with things like how to make ethylene glycol -- antifreeze. That was also the lab where nylon was invented. That lab was where I got my real education."
Among other things, Alger picked up the art of glassblowing. "Learning to blow glass well usually takes as much time as learning surgery," he says. "I picked it up almost immediately."
In 1931, he set out for Colorado, to find his father. "He'd never given me a dime, so I thought I'd see if I could get him to stake me to a year of high school." The plan worked, but at the end of Alger's senior year came another embittering event that was to change his life profoundly. "They gave the IQ test there as a contest for a scholarship to the University of Colorado.
"I not only won, I got a score so high they probably couldn't believe it -- that's what usually happens when I take these tests. It turned out to be the highest IQ ever recorded. But they gave the scholarship to a rich man's son. The principal said it was because, 'His father pays a lot of taxes he'd take my (high school) diploma as well.
"So, that was it, there was no help for it. But right then and there I decided two things: if the test was right, I would probably make out even without a college degree, and I ought to use my gifts for the benefit of mankind."
After graduating from high school, Alger went to New York City and used his glassblowing skills to land a lucrative job making neon signs. It brought him perhaps the greatest financial success of his life; he had a Riverside Drive apartment and cruised Manhattan in his maroon Isotta-Fraschini. When the Depression dried up business, he nearly went broke. Pursued by creditors, he worked briefly in Maine, and was married there in 1936. The marriage lasted four years. "I came back to New York in 1939. Possibilities were opening up again. She simply didn't come, so we got a divorce."
From then until joining the Institutes in 1968, he worked as a technical glassblower and designed and built high-vacuum testing equipment in a succession of laboratories and dabbled in a dozen sciences, especially aircraft design. He had designed his first airplane at 17, and in 1933 had created a high- speed, delta-winged model that anticipated the design of modern jet aircraft but didn't attract a builder. He patented a simple, lightweight maser (a microwave device used for frequency calibration). He built equipment for NASA that simvironment of outer space, and he briefly set up his own business and made high- speed photography flash systems.
In 1948, he married again and soon moved to his wife's home in New Hope, Pa. His unusual work habits became ingrained: "I would take the problem, study it carefully, store it all away in my head, and then forget it. Then, the following morning, I would go back to work, and the problem would be solved." Alger says he could then mentally check the reasoning backward to be sure he had the right answer. "But if I tried to push it along forward, I would get confused."
And during this time, there was an accomplishment that, in Alger's view, is the best proof of the practicality of his intelligence. In 1943, he won World War II.
THAT, AT LEAST, is his firm conviction. In 1942, he was working at Columbia University as a glassblower. The radiation laboratory there was working feverishly to develop an improved radar system, primarily so that German submarines could be pinpointed when they surfaced at night or in fog.
"Submarines--U-Boats--were the real problem for the Allies," Alger says. "By November of 1942, sub warfare was on the verge of forcing England to surrender. She was starving. The German subs were sinking everything; almost nothing was getting through.
"At Columbia, they were working on improving microwave radar, and concentrat- ing on the 1.25 centimeter wavelength. That's a narrow band -- the narrower the band, the higher the resolution, you see.
"Well, the problem was the glass-to-metal seal on the radar." Alger, sitting in the cafeteria of the school where he now teaches, begins drawing on a napkin. He sketches a cylindrical magnetron, a mechanical device that kicks out radar waves. On one side of the cylinder is an opening. He draws a glass cover over it, then taps his pen on a ring-shaped area where glass meets metal. "They could not make an alloy that would seal the glass to the metal," he says. "The radar signals must pass through the glas . . . and the seal has to be strong because you have to maintain a high vacuum inside the mag showed that "the only kind of glass that would seal properly was almost opaque to the radiation.
"They were discouraged, and said they would just have to give up. Well, whenever I hear that, it just gets me fired up. There are more ways than one to skin a cat.
"I thought about it, and I got a wild idea, something completely original. I decided to change the whole shape of the seal. To use a different geometry turned the different expansion rates of the glass and metal into an advantage instead of a disadvantage. It worked beautifully, made a tight seal."
Alger says he made the discovery just before Christmas of 1942, and "by March, they were being used in battle. By April, things were going badly for the German subs, and by May -- well, the Germans call May of 1943 Black May." Alger believes the crushing blow against U-boats made possible by his radar discovery shortened the war by several years, saving perhaps 3 million lives by shutting down the Nazi extermination camps and another 2 million by ending the armed combat.
War-era records in the Library of Congress partially substantiate Alger's claims. From 1935 until 1942 Allied losses to U-boats were devastating, and worsened each year. but in the early months of 1943, the new "centimeter" radar sets were installed in Allied ships and airplanes, and, according to British historian Barry Pitt, "The sudden reversal of Allied fortunes seemed a near miracle . . . " Historian Michael Salewski writes that with shortwave radar the Allies "had a device that rendered the submarines helpless." The new radar sets could detect a surfaced U-boat 15 miles away, allowing Allied airplanes to swoop in and bomb the vessels before they could submerge. In May, 35 U-boats were destroyed, and the puzzled and frantic German Navy leaders were forced to withdraw the whole fleet.
ALger emphasizes that many other technical innovations were required to create shortwave radar. "I didn't do it all alone, but everything hung on that seal. Without that, it could not have been done."
And how did the nation -- specifically, the Columbia University laboratory -- respond to this accomplishment?
"They fired me," says Alger. "Since I had no degree, they did not want me to get any credit. Professional jealousy, pure and simple."
Most of Alger's co-workers at Columbia 43 years ago are dead. Dr. Polykarp Kusch, 74, a 1955 Nobel prize winner for physics and professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Dallas, was director of the radiation laboratory for part of Alger's tenure there, but says after searching his memory, "It is with great regret that I am not able to particularize individual contributions," made by the research team members. A spokesman for Kusch adds that Kusch does not recall why Alger was fired.
SOON AFTER leaving Columbia, Alger got a glassblowing job at the Freed Radio Co. in lower Manhattan. His boss was research engineer Michael Neumann, now 77 and retired in Chi- cago. Neumann has plenty of experience with genius first- hand: his brother, John von Neumann, is regarded by many as the greatest mathematician of the 20th century.
"An absolutely brilliant man," Neumann says of Alger. "An extremely adaptable mind. He developed better ways of doing all kinds of things.
"For example, in glassblowing, you need a baking oven, like a kiln, which is always made of heavy ceramic. He made our kiln, but not at all like that; he made it very light -- instead of heavy insulation, he used chrome-plated steel to reflect the heat back into the oven. Twenty-five years later, I was trying to sell his idea to a company that needed a kiln, and they didn't believe it could be done. To this day, the whole heat- treating industry does it with high heat and heavy insulation, even though it's expensive and clumsy. Thirty-five years ago, Ferris had this very elegant system, and could have gone into business with it himself anytime -- but he didn't bother. He just was satisfied that he had solved the problem, and he went on to other things."
IF NO MAN is a hero to his valet, then perhaps no man is genius to his wife. Margaret Alger, a soft-spoken and personable woman, reflects on their 36 years together and says, "He's truly something, but perhaps when you are with someone every day, you don't notice it so much.
"He really is an independent thinker. Sometimes, he's really over my head. But even if I don't understand it all, I find it fascinating."
For the last 34 years, Alger and his wife have lived in a pre-Revolutionary stone farmhouse in New Hope, an idyllic village 25 miles north of Philadelphia. It seems the perfect spot for raising children, but there are none. "I suppose that's my biggest regret," says Alger. "I have felt a certain responsibility to pass along my genes, but more than that, I wanted a family for the same reasons anyone does. It just didn't work; we still don't know exactly why."
THE DESIGNERS of IQ tests believe that one important aspect of intelligence is the ability to see the connection between two apparently unconnected objects or ideas. One question in the Mega Society's test asks: " 'Pain' is to 'Rue' as 'Bread' is to ?" The answer is "Street." The connection in this case is the French language -- "pain" is French for "bread", "rue" is French for "street."
Alger not only excels at seeing such connections, he is forever forging them himself in the course of conversation. Ask him about a new IQ test and he asserts that one question has a subtle Marxist bias. This leads him to an exploration of Marxism in general, which he at length traces back to Plato's allegiance to Socrates. He then suggests that Socrates never loved Athens at all -- that he was a frightened old man who feigned civic loyalty to ensure the state's care for his young wife and children after his death. Later, Alger holds forth on Shakespearean scholars ("A. L. Rowse is the only one who knows what he's talking about"), segues into the formation of the solar system ("Earth was never molten, that's sheer nonsense"), and eventually offers his views on the evolution of the species and the nature of man ("We're apes, but there are still idiots teaching Piltdown anthropology!"). At other times he'll bounce to the geometry of ammonia molecules, the joy of Bach, low-temperature surgical techniques and arguments for his theory that "the universe definitely had a designer."
While roaming through details of scientific disciplines, he'll often tell the story of a genius who was chalked off as a "nut" by society, only to have his ideas dramatically vindicated. For example: "I. P. Semmelweiss was locked up in an asylum for daring to suggest that doctors wash their hands before delivering a baby." He recounts the tale of Professor Raymond Dart, the anthropologist who found the fossil skull of Australopithecus africanus and suggested in 1925 that the ape-like creature was an ancestor of man. "They laughed at him for 30 years."
And his memory seems nearmem experiment at the DuPont lab 55 years ago. He not only quotes Shakespeare, but gives references: " 'Give me an egg, nuncle, and I'll give you two crowns.' That's Lear, Act 1, Scene 4, line 170." He rattles off the titles of aircraft-design texts he read in the 1930s, recites passages from Robert Ardrey's African Genesis, and laboriously names what seems to be a complete list of the records made by Maria Callas.
It all combines to make Alger fascinating to listen to and nearly impossible to interview -- each idea he puts forth is, at length, woven into a huge tapestry that often stretches back to the beginning of time and out to the ends of the universe. It is reminiscent of a scene in Aldous Huxley's novel Point Counter Point in which the hugely intelligent Philip Quarles and his wife Elinor are motoring through Delhi when their car strikes and kills a stray dog. Philip breaks the ensuing strained silence by acknowledging the small tragedy, then spins off into oblique tangents and themes:
Elinor listened with interest and at the same time a kind of horror. Even the squashing of a wretched animal was enough to send that quick, untiring intelligence to work. A poor starved pariah dog had its back broken under the wheels and the incident evoked from Philip a selection from the vital statistics of Sicily, a speculation about the relativity of morals, a brilliant psychological generalization. It was amazing, it was unexpected, it was wonderfully interesting; but oh! she almost wanted to scream . . .
THOUGH HE TENDS to range far afield in his conversation, Alger almost always loops back to one theme: the grim future of man. "This is a very dangerous time," he says. "I am fairly convinced as a result of my studies that we are going to get into a nuclear war.
"And we're going to get into it kind of backward -- that is, one of the more dangerous periods will come at a time when we are holding peace talks. There is a lot of precedent. Remember that the Japanese were talking peace to us at the time they attacked Pearl Harbor.
"Logic dictates that it will come as a complete surprise. This Star Wars thing has en- chanted a lot of people; they think it will render the nuclear weapons of Russia useless. But there is another scenario that is very likely. North America could be destroyed 10 minutes after the bombs were launched. That is because the missiles could come from submarines just off the coast. There is simply no defense possible against that. We would not even have time to identify the country that launched them."
In Alger's view, our only hope is ethology: the science of objective observation of behavior. It is usually applied to animals, but he feels it can be used to dispassionately dissect human behavior, and find "the engines of our psyche." His dream is to assemble an institute for human ethology that would unite ethologists and anthropologists including Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris.
He already has an idea of what they would find: that man is inherently murderous, with a grisly legacy of prehistoric cannibalism, infanticide and other horrors. "We are not the peaceful vegetarians of Margaret Mead and Ashley Montagu," he says.
But assuming that ethologists are qualified to diagnose mankind's sordid tendencies, are they also qualified to dispense a prescription? Alger doesn't know. "Science always dictates that the problems be identified first, and that's what we need to do. The answers won't be simple, I'm sure. But I am convinced the fate of humankind hangs in the balance." He pauses, shakes his head, and says softly, "Do you know, even the children nowadays say there will be a nuclear war?"
HE IS ASKED if he has ever sat back and really thought about the possibility that he may be the smartest man in the world. How does feel about it?
He doesn't miss a beat. "I'll tell you how I feel about it. I don't get the idea that I'm God or something, but I do think society needs my intelligence. It burns me up that people won't listen to what I have to say."