Being ‘different’ makes man with staggering IQ of 189 more, not less, humanistic. Or so he tells THEO PANAYIDES
It’s 4pm, and I’m sitting with Nikos Lygeros in the CyBC cafeteria. He’s a guest on a radio talk-show at 5 o’clock, then he’s talking to “the geologists” (he doesn’t say which ones) about natural gas and the Exclusive Economic Zone at 7. Nikos is alternately touted – though not by himself, he insists; it’s just something reporters like to say – as the smartest man in Greece and one of the 50 smartest people in the world. He has a measured IQ of 189, which is staggeringly high. IQ typically ranges between 85 and 115; only one per cent of the population have an IQ over 135.
Did he know, even as a child, that his IQ was so high?
“It was hard not to know.”
And why is that?
“Because when you’re playing chess at two years old…” he shrugs, as if to say ‘QED’. “Anyway. Whatever.” It’s not very important, he adds with practised nonchalance, his eyes deceptively sleepy.
Maybe not. But it’s interesting.
“A child who starts to read quickly,” he explains, as if indulging my curiosity, “who learns to write by himself, whose interests are slightly odd for his age – OK, the difference is obvious. It’s not such an important difference, it’s just there.”
And what were those slightly odd interests?
“I’m involved in various frameworks,” he replies, “such as maths, strategy, philosophy, physics, chemistry, literature, cognitive sciences”. Not to mention “slightly more technical” questions combining mathematical problems with, for instance, robotics. “I’m also involved in art, poetry…”
Yes, but in childhood, I interrupt. What were his interests in childhood?
“All the things I just mentioned.”
Is he pulling my leg? It’s hard to tell sometimes. Nikos has a jowly bulldog face (he has something of the young Orson Welles, another child prodigy) and a slow, deliberate manner – but a smile occasionally pulls at the corners of his mouth, just before he says something that he knows will surprise or provoke. He enjoys the effect he has on people – as, for instance, when I ask if he ever felt pressured as a child, by parents or schoolmates.
“But, you know, I was never a schoolboy.”
“I was born old.”
He did go to school, of course, “because that’s the way society operates” – primary school in Greece (he was born in Volos 45 years ago), then from the age of 12 in France, where the whole family moved for his father’s work (Dad was a chemist, Mum a teacher) and where Nikos completed his studies. He’s still based there, working as a research fellow at the University of Lyon – but also holds various positions at Greek universities and indeed comes and goes between France, Greece and Cyprus, holding forth on all kinds of topics.
His business card calls him a strategic consultant. “I’ve advised on strategy,” he explains, “military matters, energy, geopolitics…” He often lectures in high schools, presumably bolstered by his ‘smartest man in Greece’ tag. Just this morning he gave a talk at a primary school, titled ‘The Future Belongs to Us, the Children’ (“I spoke to them about the future, the past, the present. The meaning of continuity, the meaning of sacrifice, the meaning of resistance”). He also talks to nursing-home patients, and children with special needs – and of course he’s always happy to be interviewed. During the time of the Annan Plan (which he strongly opposed) he made a point of reading all 10,000 pages, and apparently briefed President Papadopoulos on its shortcomings.
Clearly, he doesn’t shirk from political issues. His personal website, www.lygeros.org, includes two petitions for readers to sign – one calling for Greece to insist on its Exclusive Economic Zone and exploit the hydrocarbons therein, the other in favour of mining the zeolite (a precious mineral) that exists in Thrace. His commitment is impressive – but what’s even more impressive is what you’ll find above the petitions: a vast, numbered list of nearly 14,000 works, headlined simply ‘Opus’.
Some of these are poems, some sketches, some paintings, some random thoughts (they don’t include the hundreds of interviews, books and newspaper articles going back to 1985 that you’ll find elsewhere on the site). Every day, Nikos adds a couple of items – not by design, he claims; they just come to him – to this indefatigable list. His ‘opus’, or life’s work (his ergo, in Greek), comes up a few times in our conversation, as when he talks of the small band of students – one could call them disciples – who accompany him everywhere, and indeed sit together at a nearby table in the cafeteria while we talk. Vicky, his secretary, used to be a postgraduate student on the Bioethics course he teaches in Athens; the group also includes an IT student, an economist and a designer. Why are they always with him? “Because they’re students,” he replies blandly. “We produce the opus together”.
Some might say, of course, that producing 14,000 poems and paintings means nothing; what matters is producing one that’ll stand the test of time. On some level, I suspect, his prodigious output is like the provocative statements he likes to precede with a secret smile – a marker he lays down deliberately, a way of grabbing people’s attention and proclaiming his superior intelligence. Still, the sheer effort involved is remarkable. When does he do all that painting? (There are literally thousands of sketches and paintings.) “When I have exhibitions to prepare,” he shrugs. Most painters do nothing but paint, I point out; that’s a whole career in itself. Yes of course, he replies, unruffled – on the other hand, “I also work as a translator and interpreter in French courtrooms”. That’s also a career in itself.
So how does he find the time?
Unexpectedly, he reaches across the table and takes my hand. “What you’re asking me is this,” he says, and touches my fingers one by one – “but I deal exclusively with this,” he goes on, and takes the whole hand again. His approach, in other words, is holistic. There’s a Japanese koan about “the space between two thoughts,” muses Nikos – but that koan means nothing to him, because he’s never between two thoughts. His whole life is one thing, one organic entity, “one continuous thought”.
I nod, a little dubiously. So what does he do for fun, when he isn’t working?
“First of all, I don’t concern myself with ‘work’. Or with ‘fun’. I concern myself only with the opus. Therefore, all this is really a form of fun.”
Yes, but I mean something pointless. Just pointless fun.
“That’s not possible. For instance, I’m having fun talking with you now – but there’s a point to it.”
So he’ll never just veg out on the sofa and watch TV?
And he doesn’t miss it?
“Why should I miss it?”
Because it relaxes the mind. At least for most people.
That secret smile again: “I find relaxation exhausting”.
He never lets up, says Nikos. His weekends are the same as his weekdays. He has no obvious vices: he doesn’t smoke – it’s bad for the brain – and barely drinks at all, beyond the occasional glass of wine with friends. He has no children, and doesn’t appear to be married. His life is apparently devoted to churning out product, as if to validate his God-given talent. When is he happy? “When humanity is doing well”. What about his own affairs? “Those are my affairs. The world is my world.”
Can we really take Nikos Lygeros at face value? “Don’t try to take a conventional approach [to my life],” he warns at one point, “or you may have a problem with comparisons”. Clearly, anyone who’s been called a genius all his life – and felt unique all his life – is going to view the world in a rather unique way. Yes, but why should an academic with a background in maths (branching out into game theory, hence strategy consulting) feel the need to advise and lecture so relentlessly? Is he some kind of megalomaniac? “A man shouldn’t just stay isolated in his lab, and stay at the university talking to students,” he replies when I put the question. “We try, each in his own way, to help humanity”.
Is he really so altruistic? It seems surprising – not just because few people dedicate their lives to helping others, but also because someone with an IQ of 189 seems even less likely to do so. Surely such a person would spend their life feeling superior, and end up (consciously or unconsciously) looking down on others as products of a lower intelligence. Even in our own conversation, hints of condescension come through – albeit always in a joshing, friendly way. “So you’ve thought until today,” says Nikos pointedly when I mention that I always thought maths went together with music, not painting (though in fact he writes music too). “You should become more informed, it’ll do you good,” he opines later, when I reveal my ignorance of our deal with Noble Energy.
Yet the truth, he says firmly, is that being ‘different’ makes him more, not less, humanistic. A study was apparently done in the US, looking at two groups of children – the first group comprised of gifted kids, the second of ‘normal’ ones. The super-intelligent kids “see the flaws in their parents more quickly,” he admits – but that only means that “they love them for being human, and having flaws. The children who aren’t gifted see the parents as gods. Then they grow up, and realise that gods don’t exist.”
Maybe something similar happened with Nikos Lygeros, a gifted child who saw the flaws early and decided to embrace them, bonding – or just reconciling himself – with other humans by falling back on our common humanity. He loves “timeless” concepts like faith and culture (he’s very big on Hellenistic values, even while deriding Golden Dawn-like nationalism); you’d expect a genius – a mathematician, no less – to be fixated on things like technology and artificial intelligence, but Nikos is in fact quite conservative. He believes in God, eternal verities and the wisdom of the ancients. “That’s why faith is very important to me. Whereas I don’t attach much importance to society, because it’s constantly changing.”
Should we listen to this man? It’s a fair question; being smart isn’t always the same as being right. Nikos’ thoughts on overcoming the crisis – mostly by exploiting our natural resources, hence the petitions on his website (he also seems to think the Annan Plan was designed in part to place our wealth in the hands of foreigners, specifically the British Bases) – sound a bit simplistic; more money would help, to be sure, but the real problem, both in Greece and Cyprus, is a corrupt system that promotes inertia and rewards mediocrity. A natural-gas bonanza wouldn’t do much good if it just delayed an inevitable meltdown – even if the money trickled down to all, which is far from certain.
But maybe I’m taking a conventional approach again. After all, the point isn’t really the rightness or wrongness of a particular policy. The point is the ‘opus’, the life in general, with its strange combination of grandiloquent vision, obsessive work ethic and noblesse oblige. Never mind the fingers; the point is the whole hand.
‘Do you feel like a man of today?’ I ask Nikos Lygeros, and he shakes his head. No offence to the Sunday Mail, but “I don’t read newspapers. I read books. In other words, I believe that if our conversation has meaning, then it will produce a future. Whereas if it doesn’t, it will only produce a present, which will quickly become the past”. Did it have meaning? No idea – but I’m sorry to see him go, walking off with disciples in tow, en route to his next appointment. Another tiny notch on the opus.