History is peppered with influential geniuses who changed the world. Individuals like Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein all had groundbreaking ideas that have lived on long after their deaths. Following this fine tradition, we take a look at 30 of the smartest people alive today – including brilliantly accomplished academics, former child prodigies, IQ whizzes, and super sharp young intellectuals with their whole lives ahead of them.
30. Paul Allen
Billionaire Paul Allen reportedly has an IQ of between 160 and 170. Allen was born in 1953 in Seattle and made friends with Bill Gates while still at school. He attended Washington State University but quit his studies in 1974 and then talked Gates into leaving Harvard. The following year, the pair founded Microsoft in New Mexico. After he was told that he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, Allen stepped back from Microsoft and eventually resigned in 2000, although he remained in an advisory capacity. He is a renowned philanthropist, and his donations to science, education, conservation, the arts and technology exceed $1.5 billion. As well as being a stakeholder in technology, media and other companies, Allen owns the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trailblazers and part-owns MLS team the Seattle Sounders. He launched the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003 and founded space transport company Stratolaunch Systems in 2011.
29. Christopher Langan
Born in San Francisco in 1952, self-educated Christopher Langan is a special kind of genius. By the time he turned four, he’d already taught himself how to read. At high school, according to Langan, he tutored himself in “advanced math, physics, philosophy, Latin and Greek, all that.” What’s more, he allegedly got 100 percent on his SAT test, even though he slept through some of it. Langan attended Montana State University but dropped out. Rather like the titular character in 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, Langan didn’t choose an academic career; instead, he worked as a doorman and developed his Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe during his downtime. In 1999, on TV newsmagazine 20/20, neuropsychologist Robert Novelly stated that Langan’s IQ – said to be between 195 and 210 – was the highest he’d ever measured. Langan has been dubbed “the smartest man in America.”
28. Judit Polgár
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1976, Judit Polgár is acknowledged as without doubt the best female chess player in history. Polgár was a chess-playing child prodigy and overcame her first grandmaster when she was just 11. At present, she is the only woman in the World Chess Federation’s Top 100 Players. She has also beaten nine world champions, including Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. In 1991, aged 15 and five months, Polgár won the Hungarian National Championship and became the then youngest grandmaster – eclipsing Bobby Fischer’s longstanding record by one month. Apparently, the way in which Polgár’s father raised her and her sisters was part of an experiment to prove that “geniuses are made, not born.” And considering Polgár’s reported IQ of 170 and significant accomplishments, perhaps he was on to something.
27. Marilyn vos Savant
Marilyn vos Savant was born in 1946 in Missouri. In 1986 the columnist and author made history when she was named in The Guinness Book of World Records as the person possessing the highest IQ, with a reported score of 228. She is said to have achieved the score on the Stanford-Binet test at the age of ten. In the mid 1980s, Savant also took the controversial Mega Test, scoring an IQ of 186. In the wake of her newfound fame, Parade magazine launched the popular “Ask Marilyn” column, which still runs today. Savant has been a member of elite “one-in-a-million” IQ society the Mega Society. And in 1989 New York magazine called her and husband Robert Jarvik – who designed the first successful artificial heart – “the smartest couple in New York.”
26. John H. Sununu
With a reported IQ of 180, John H. Sununu is another individual who has proved equal to the eligibility criteria for acceptance into the Mega Society high IQ club. Born in 1939 in Havana, Cuba, Sununu studied mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, achieving his bachelor’s degree in 1961, his master’s in 1963 and his Ph.D. in 1966. After he graduated, Sununu worked as a professor at Massachusetts-based Tufts University until 1968, when he was appointed the school’s associate dean of engineering, a position he held until 1973. Between 1983 and 1989 Sununu served as the governor of New Hampshire; then in 1989 he became the White House Chief of Staff. However, in 1991 Sununu stepped down following allegations that he had abused his government travel privileges.
25. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a high-profile American astrophysicist and research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, and he is also Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Tyson was born in New York in 1958 and loved astronomy from a young age. In 1980 he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in physics, and he went on to earn his master’s in astronomy from the University of Texas in 1983. He then went to Columbia, where he obtained his M.Phil. in astrophysics in 1989 and his Ph.D. two years later. Tyson achieved pop culture fame presenting educational PBS show NOVA ScienceNow from 2006 to 2011, and he has made numerous TV guest appearances. The awards he has received include a NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, and in 2001 Asteroid 1994KA was renamed 13123 Tyson in his honor.
24. Kim Ung-Yong
Before The Guinness Book of World Records withdrew its Highest IQ category in 1990, South Korean former child prodigy Kim Ung-Yong made the list with a score of 210. Kim was born in Seoul in 1963, and by the time he turned three, he could already read Korean, Japanese, English and German. When he was just eight years old, Kim moved to America to work at NASA. “At that time, I led my life like a machine. I woke up, solved the daily assigned equation, ate, slept, and so forth,” he has explained. “I was lonely and had no friends.” While he was in the States, Kim allegedly obtained a doctorate degree in physics, although this is unconfirmed. In any case, in 1978 he moved back to South Korea and went on to earn a Ph.D. in civil engineering.
23. Mislav Predavec
Mislav Predavec is a Croatian mathematics professor with a reported IQ of 190. “I always felt I was a step ahead of others. As material in school increased, I just solved the problems faster and better,” he has explained. Predavec was born in Zagreb in 1967, and his unique abilities were obvious from a young age. As for his adult achievements, since 2009 Predavec has taught at Zagreb’s Schola Medica Zagrabiensis. In addition, he runs trading company Preminis, having done so since 1989. And in 2002 Predavec founded exclusive IQ society GenerIQ, which forms part of his wider IQ society network. “Very difficult intelligence tests are my favorite hobby,” he has said. In 2012 the World Genius Directory ranked Predavec as the third smartest person in the world.
22. Manahel Thabet
In 2008, aged 25, Yemeni economist and scientist Manahel Thabet became the youngest person to receive a financial engineering Ph.D. magna cum laude. Thabet earned the degree at the University of Illinois and has since worked towards a second Ph.D. in quantum mathematics. In 2012 she came up with a revolutionary 350-page formula to calculate distance in space without the use of light. She also has an IQ higher than 168 and garnered a Genius of the Year Award and a spot on the 2013 World Genius Directory’s list. Thabet set up the company Smart Tips Consultants in 2008. Her accolades include a humanitarian award for her efforts with the United Nations and a Woman of the Year Award from the Women’s Federation for World Peace.
21. Richard Rosner
U.S. television writer and pseudo-celebrity Richard Rosner is an unusual case. Born in 1960, he has led a somewhat checkered professional life: as well writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live! and other TV shows, Rosner has, he says, been employed as a stripper, doorman, male model and waiter. In 2000 he infamously appeared on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, answering a question about the altitude of capital cities incorrectly and reacting by suing the show, albeit unsuccessfully. Rosner placed second in the World Genius Directory’s 2013 Genius of the Year Awards; the site lists his IQ at 192, which places him just behind Greek psychiatrist Evangelos Katsioulis. Rosner reportedly hit the books for 20 hours a day to try and outdo Katsioulis, but to no avail.
20. Chris Hirata
Astrophysicist Chris Hirata was born in Michigan in 1982, and at the age of 13 he became the youngest U.S. citizen to receive an International Physics Olympiad gold medal. When he turned 14, Hirata apparently began studying at the California Institute of Technology, and he would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics from the school in 2001. At 16 – with a reported IQ of 225 – he started doing work for NASA, investigating whether it would be feasible for humans to settle on Mars. Then in 2005 he went on to obtain a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton. Hirata is currently a physics and astronomy professor at The Ohio State University. His specialist fields include dark energy, gravitational lensing, the cosmic microwave background, galaxy clustering, and general relativity. “If I were to say Chris Hirata is one in a million, that would understate his intellectual ability,” said a member of staff at his high school in 1997.
19. Steven Pinker
Canadian visual cognition and psycholinguistics expert Steven Pinker was born in Montreal in 1954. His work covers popular science, experimental psychology, linguistics and cognitive science, and he is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard. Prior to taking up this position, between 1982 and 2003 he was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor within the school’s brain and cognitive science department. During his MIT tenure, Pinker took over as the director of the university’s cognitive neuroscience center. In 2004 TIME magazine featured him on its list of the 100 most influential thinkers and scientists. His awards include a Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences and a Royal Institution Henry Dale Prize. Perhaps Pinker’s best-known work is his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
18. Ivan Ivec
Born in 1976, Ivan Ivec is a Croatian mathematician and IQ test specialist with – according to the World Genius Directory – an IQ of 174. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics and works at Gimnazija A.G.Matoša High School in Samobor, Zagreb. Ivec’s website is dedicated to IQ testing and results, and his own tests cover IQ ranges of between 120 and 190. He has also worked with fellow Croatian mathematician Mislav Predavec to design such tests. Interestingly, Ivec says that the time restrictions on intelligence tests devised by psychologists are not ideal for everybody. “Specifically, there are intelligent people, capable of performing complex actions and resolving complex tasks, although their speed of solving is low,” he has explained.
17. Garry Kasparov
Born in 1963 in Baku, in what is now Azerbaijan, Garry Kasparov is arguably the most famous chess player of all time. When he was seven, Kasparov enrolled at Baku’s Young Pioneer Palace; then at ten he started to train at the school of legendary Soviet chess player Mikhail Botvinnik. In 1980 Kasparov qualified as a grandmaster, and five years later he became the then youngest-ever outright world champion. He retained the championship title until 1993, and has held the position of world number one-ranked player for three times longer than anyone else. In 1996 he famously took on IBM computer Deep Blue, winning with a score of 4–2 – although he lost to a much upgraded version of the machine the following year. In 2005 Kasparov retired from chess to focus on politics and writing. He has a reported IQ of 190.
16. Terence Tao
Born in Adelaide in 1975, Australian former child prodigy Terence Tao didn’t waste any time flexing his educational muscles. When he was two years old, he was able to perform simple arithmetic. By the time he was nine, he was studying college-level math courses. And in 1988, aged just 13, he became the youngest gold medal recipient in International Mathematical Olympiad history – a record that still stands today. In 1992 Tao achieved a master’s degree in mathematics from Flinders University in Adelaide, the institution from which he’d attained his B.Sc. the year before. Then in 1996, aged 20, he earned a Ph.D. from Princeton, turning in a thesis entitled “Three Regularity Results in Harmonic Analysis.” Tao’s long list of awards includes a 2006 Fields Medal, and he is currently a mathematics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
15. Scott Aaronson
Scott Aaronson is an associate professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s electrical engineering and computer science faculty. According to his website, his research focuses on “the capabilities and limits of quantum computers, and computational complexity theory more generally.” Aaronson was born in Philadelphia in 1981. In 2000 he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Cornell, and four years later he achieved a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Then in 2012 he was given the Alan T. Waterman Award for “illuminating the fundamental limits on what can be computed in the physical world” and breaking “important new ground in computational theory.” He is known for his key contributions to algebrization and the abstract quantum Turing machine.
14. Nikola Poljak
According to the World Genius Directory, Croatian researcher and physicist Nikola Poljak has an IQ of 183. Born in 1982, Poljak is at present an assistant research fellow and instructor in the University of Zagreb’s physics department. In addition, he is an assistant research fellow at CERN, working on the collaborative A Large Ion Collider Experiment in Geneva, Switzerland. And he is also an assistant research fellow with the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, involved in the STAR detector experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. In 2010 Poljak received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Zagreb. He has carried out scientific assignments for the Croatian Ministry of Science and the Agency for Mobility and EU Programmes, and his current projects include the “exploration of hadronic systems with relativistic probes.”
13. Alan Guth
Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1947, American physicist and cosmologist Alan Guth was smart enough to leave school a year early and go straight to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in physics. Guth initially began evolving his notion of cosmic inflation when he was a junior scientist at Cornell in 1979. Then in 1981 he officially put forward the theory, which is now widely accepted by many scientists. The theory suggests a time prior to the Big Bang during which the universe was able to evenly disperse itself thanks to its smaller size. This model also looks to explain more clearly the conditions that brought about the incredibly fast, exponential growth of the universe. Guth has been described as “the man who put the ‘big’ in ‘Big Bang.’” He has held positions at Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and Stanford, and he’s currently a physics professor at MIT.
12. Donald Knuth
Born in Milwaukee in 1938, Donald Knuth is a groundbreaking computer scientist and mathematician perhaps most renowned for his multi-volume tome The Art of Computer Programming. In recognition of his pioneering work, he has been referred to as the “father” of algorithmic analysis. Knuth is also well known for his popular 1978 open software typesetting system TeX, which is one of the world’s most intricate typographical frameworks. In 1971 Knuth won the inaugural Grace Murray Hopper Award, and his other honors include the A.M. Turing Award and a National Medal of Science. Knuth obtained his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1963 from CalTech, and he is currently a professor emeritus at Stanford.
11. Noam Chomsky
Philosopher, cognitive scientist and political observer Noam Chomsky has been called the “father of modern linguistics,” and his revolutionary work has had an impact on everything from artificial intelligence to music theory. Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Chomsky enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945, at the age of 16. There, he achieved his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in linguistics, leaving in 1955 to take up a post teaching philosophy and linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – where he presently holds the position of professor emeritus. A revered cultural icon, Chomsky is still politically active, especially when it comes to issues of American foreign policy, state capitalism and mass media news. He has written in excess of 100 books and was named the “world’s top public intellectual” in a poll conducted in 2005.
10. Evangelos Katsioulis
Greek doctor Evangelos Katsioulis made headlines in his home country when he won the World Genius Directory’s 2013 Genius of the Year Awards. According to the site, Katsioulis’ IQ is a remarkable 198. He apparently scored 205 on the Stanford-Binet scale with a standard deviation of 16, which is on par with 258 on the Cattell scale with a standard deviation of 24 and 198 on the Wechsler scale with a standard deviation of 15. Born in Ioannina in 1976, Katsioulis studied at Greece’s Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, earning an M.Sc. in medical research and technology, a master’s degree in philosophy, and a Ph.D. in psychopharmacology. In 2001 he formed the World Intelligence Network IQ society. He is currently a member of 28 IQ societies, including the exclusive Giga Society. Only 1 in 30 billion people will match his intelligence levels.
9. Magnus Carlsen
Born in Tønsberg, Norway in 1990, Magnus Carlsen is the current World Chess Champion. He qualified as a grandmaster in 2004 when he was just 13. In 2009 chess icon Garry Kasparov began personally training him, but the following year it was reported that they were no longer working together. In 2010, scarcely a month after his 19th birthday, Carlsen became the world’s youngest ever number one-ranked player. And at the 2013 World Chess Championship, he defeated Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand and took the title of world champion. After the victory, The Times of India called Carlsen “a genius who’ll only get better.” So far, he has won four Chess Oscars – seven less than Kasparov. Carlsen has also done modelling work for G-Star Raw, and the media has dubbed him “the Justin Bieber of chess.”
8. Shahriar Afshar
Born in 1971, Iranian American physicist and entrepreneur Shahriar Afshar has won a number of awards for his groundbreaking inventions. Afshar is known for his 2004 Afshar experiment, which he conducted at Harvard University. The optical experiment investigates – and, according to Afshar, contradicts – the quantum mechanical principle of complementarity. Afshar served as an associate at Harvard between 2003 and 2004 and was a visiting scientist at Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in 2006. He is a visiting research professor of physics at New Jersey’s Rowan University as well as the president, CTO and CEO of consumer electronics startup Immerz. One of his notable inventions is the award-winning “4D” Soundkix mini speaker. In 1989 Afshar won a prestigious Iranian Khwarizmi International Award.
7. Akshay Venkatesh
Born in India in 1981, Akshay Venkatesh is a mathematician and former child prodigy. He was brought up in Australia and showed promise from a young age, earning a bronze medal at the International Physics Olympiad in 1993, when he was just 11. A year later he achieved another bronze medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad. In 1997 Venkatesh gained a first class honors degree in pure mathematics from the University of Western Australia, having been the youngest person to ever study at the university. He then went on to obtain his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2002, at the age of 20. The math whiz has held positions at the Clay Mathematics Institute in Rhode Island and at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. He currently works as a professor in Stanford University’s mathematics faculty.
6. Saul Kripke
Born in Long Island, New York in 1940, Saul Kripke is an award-winning logician and philosopher noted for the jointly developed Kripke-Platek set theory, his causal theory of reference and his “Kripkenstein” theory. He was a child prodigy, too, having apparently learned Ancient Hebrew on his own by the time he was six before quickly grasping complex mathematics and philosophical questions. In 1980 Kripke published his hugely significant book Naming and Necessity, which discusses proper nouns within the context of the philosophy of language. Kripke has also had a significant bearing on areas surrounding mathematical logic, the philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics and epistemology. In 2001 he was awarded the esteemed Rolf Schock Prize. Furthermore, according to a 2009 poll, in which votes were cast by philosophers, Kripke ranked as the seventh most important philosopher of the past two centuries. He has taught at Harvard, New York’s Rockefeller University, and Princeton – where he is currently a professor emeritus. In addition, he is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York.
5. Ruth Lawrence
Born in 1971, British mathematician and former child prodigy Ruth Lawrence made many headlines in 1985 when, aged just 13, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oxford University, gaining a starred first. Another degree, this time in physics, followed in 1986, and in 1989 she received her D.Phil. in mathematics, again from Oxford. In 1990 she was made a junior fellow at Harvard. And after a stint at the University of Michigan, she took on an associate professorship there in 1997. Lawrence is currently an associate professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Einstein Institute of Mathematics and investigates algebraic topology and knot theory. In 1997 Charles Arthur wrote in The Independent, “The branch of mathematics she is now researching… is so advanced, so abstruse, so mind-bogglingly complicated for the non-mathematician that it will be years before technology and science advance enough to make any practical use of it.”
4. Grigori Perelman
Born in 1966, Grigori Perelman is a highly influential, if somewhat eccentric, Russian mathematician. In 2002 he famously cracked the Poincaré conjecture, one of topology’s most weighty and complicated problems. However, the following year he reportedly quit mathematics to live with his mother in very modest circumstances in Saint Petersburg. In 2006 Perelman was honored with the esteemed Fields Medal for his work in furthering the understanding of geometry and particularly the Ricci flow, but he did not accept the award. “I’m not interested in money or fame; I don’t want to be on display like an animal in a zoo,” he explained. In 2010 he was offered the Clay Millennium Prize and one million dollars for his solving of the Poincaré conjecture, but again he declined. “I know how to control the universe. Why would I run to get a million, tell me?” he said.
3. Andrew Wiles
Andrew Wiles was born in Cambridge in 1953. He is an award-winning English mathematician perhaps best known for officially proving Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1995. Before he cracked it, The Guinness Book of World Records listed the 358-year-old theorem as one of the world’s “most difficult mathematical problems.” Wiles attained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oxford in 1974, followed by a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1980. He has worked as a professor at Princeton and Harvard, and in 1985 he received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to spend time at Paris’ École Normale Supérieure and the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifique. The mathematician currently holds a Royal Society research professorship at Oxford, and his extensive list of awards includes an International Mathematic Union silver plaque, The Shaw Prize, and a National Academy of Sciences Award in Mathematics.
2. Edward Witten
Edward Witten is a scientist recognized for his research contributions to string theory, M-theory, quantum gravity and supersymmetry. Born in Baltimore in 1951, Witten was originally a history major at Massachusetts’ Brandeis University, attaining his bachelor’s degree in 1971. Five years later he obtained a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton after first earning a master’s degree from the same school. Witten has been described as “the most brilliant physicist of his generation” and “the world’s greatest living theoretical physicist.” In 2004 TIME magazine included him on its annual rundown of the 100 most influential people in the world. Although he is a physicist, Witten has had a major effect on mathematics, and he has a slew of awards to his name, including the Fields Medal, the Dirac Prize, the Albert Einstein Medal and the Nemmers Prize in Mathematics. He is currently a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.
1. Stephen Hawking
Guest appearances on TV shows such as The Simpsons, Futurama and Star Trek: The Next Generation have helped cement English astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s place in the pop cultural domain. Hawking was born in 1942; and in 1959, when he was 17 years old, he received a scholarship to read physics and chemistry at Oxford University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1962 and then moved on to Cambridge to study cosmology. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, Hawking became depressed and almost gave up on his studies. However, inspired by his relationship with his fiancé – and soon to be first wife – Jane Wilde, he returned to his academic pursuits and obtained his Ph.D. in 1965. Hawking is perhaps best known for his pioneering theories on black holes and his bestselling 1988 book A Brief History of Time.