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9 Child Prodigies (Who Actually Ended Up Doing Something)

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By Rick Chillot

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 some 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. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Areas of Expertise: Painting, drawing, sculpture
Notable Achievement: The most famous name in modern art
Secret to His Success: Quantity and quality

Everyone knows that Picasso achieved artistic fame and success as an adult, but little Pablo was quite the prodigy, too. In fact, it's said that Picasso had an interest in drawing even before he could speak. Perhaps that's why, once he finally could talk, he immediately started demanding that his father (an artist himself) give him his paintbrushes. And when he became old enough to go to school, pushy little Pablo said he would only go on the condition that, while there, he could draw as much as he liked. Fortunately, the headmaster and the other students recognized Picasso's gift, and more or less allowed him to come, go, and work as he pleased. Years later, the adult Picasso attended an exhibit of children's drawings and commented that he could never have been in such a show because at age 12, he "drew like Raphael." A little modesty might have done him some good, but in fact, drawings that survive from his childhood suggest that prepubescent Pablo could indeed have given the great Renaissance artist a run for his money. Picasso's many contributions to modern art—including cubism, "Guernica," and people drawn with two eyes on one side of their face—are too exhaustive to list here. By the time of his death, he'd created over 22,000 works of art.

3. 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.

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.

5. 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.

6. Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)

Area of Expertise: Violin maestro
Notable Achievement: Setting the standard for 20th-century violinists
Secret to His Success: When he played the violin, it made his teachers cry (in a good way)

Little Jascha's interest in music was noticeable at only eight months of age, when he reportedly smiled at his father's violin playing, but winced in pain whenever Dad hit the wrong note. When Jascha turned three, he asked for—and received—his first violin and promptly started taking lessons. So naturally, Heifetz was giving public concerts by the age of five (about the same time the rest of us started eating paste). At age 16, Jascha's family moved to the United States to dodge the Russian Revolution, and before long, he had his debut at Carnegie Hall, where he wowed critics and became an overnight musical idol. Musical burn-out seemed almost inevitable, but Heifetz continued touring into his sixties and kept recording into his seventies (take that, Keith Richards), racking up Grammy after Grammy without releasing a single music video. Heifetz once called being a child prodigy "a disease which is generally fatal," and one that he "was among the few to have good fortune to survive."

7. John von Neumann (1903-1957)

Areas of Expertise: Quantum mechanics, information theory, computer science
Notable Achievements: Developing the hydrogen bomb and a few early computers
Secret to His Success: Not too bookish to enjoy a good kegger

As a child in Budapest, Hungary, János von Neumann amazed adults and annoyed fellow six-year olds by dividing eight-digit numbers in his head, speaking in Greek, and memorizing pages out of the phone book. He published his first scientific paper while still a teenager, but because of Hungary's rising anti-Semitic atmosphere, he decided to pursue his mathematics career elsewhere. Unfortunately, he chose to go to Germany, which clearly didn't turn out to be such a hot idea. After he was offered a position at Princeton University, von Neumann headed to the States, choosing to adopt the first name John. In America, he was free to hang around with other expatriate eggheads, including future magazine cover model Albert Einstein. In between throwing raucous parties, ogling secretaries, and getting into car accidents (he was a notoriously reckless driver), von Neumann worked on theoretical mathematics and various real-world projects, including the development of the hydrogen bomb and construction of one of the first working computers.

8. JEAN PIAGET (1896-1980)

Area of Expertise: Child psychology
Notable Achievement: Changing the way we think about the way children think
Secret to His Success: The ability to hold conversations with three-year-olds

Does it take a child who's interested in psychology to make a child psychologist? Apparently not. When Jean Piaget was growing up in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, his area of expertise was zoology. He talked his way into a job at the local Museum of Natural History at the age of 10, where he developed a keen interest in mollusks (especially snails). By high school, he'd published so many papers on the subject that his name was well known among European mollusk experts (most of whom assumed he was an adult). So later in life, when his interests turned to psychology, Piaget's zoological background led him to seek out the "biological explanation of knowledge." Suspecting that observing children might lead to an answer, he came up with an earth-shattering new way to explore how children think: by watching them, listening to them, and talking to them. Piaget deduced that a child's mind isn't a blank slate, but is constantly imagining and testing new theories about the world and how it works. This revelation, plus his 75 years of scientific research, spawned whole new fields of psychology. He might even have had an explanation for why your kid put that peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich in the VCR.

9. Paul Erdös (1913-1996)

Area of Expertise: Mathematics
Notable Achievements: It would take a mathematician to explain them
Secret to His Success: Loved numbers, tolerated everything else

Paul Erdös was multiplying three-digit numbers for kicks when he was three. At age four, he started playing around with prime and negative numbers. Not much later, he developed a cute little habit of asking people their ages and then computing how many seconds they'd been alive. Never able to shake his passion for numbers, Erdös grew up to become arguably the most prolific mathematician in history, authoring or co-authoring almost 1,500 mathematical papers. In fact, collaborating with Erdös was such a point of prestige that—to this day—to this day—mathematicians assign themselves “Erdös numbers,” which works sort of like the fabled Kevin Bacon game. An Erdös number indicates how closely a person has worked with the great one: Those who co-authored a paper with him have a number of 1, those who wrote a paper with one of his co-authors have a number of 2, and so on. Never had the pleasure of writing a mathematics paper? Congratulations, you have an Erdös number of infinity. Now go balance your checkbook.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine

All images courtesy of Getty 

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10 Facts About Aspirin
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Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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