Professor who knew Bill Gates as a student at Harvard: He was the smartest person I’d ever met

Bill Gates made an impression on several professors during his time as a Harvard student in the 1970s with his mathematical prowess.

In a work co-authored by then-Harvard professor Christos Papadimitriou and published in the journal Discrete Mathematics in 1979, he put out a sophisticated solution to the problem of “pancake sorting.”

In a piece published by the Association for Computing Machinery a few years ago, Papadimitriou, who is currently a professor of computer science at the Columbia University, related a story about working with Bill Gates. The story was brought up again in a response to the question “How intelligent is Bill Gates?” on Quora.com.

When I was an assistant professor at Harvard, Bill was a junior. My girlfriend back then said that I had told her: “There’s this undergrad at school who is the smartest person I’ve ever met.

That semester, Gates was fascinated with a math problem called pancake sorting: How can you sort a list of numbers, say 3-4-2-1-5, by flipping prefixes of the list? You can flip the first two numbers to get 4-3-2-1-5, and the first four to finish it off: 1-2-3-4-5. Just two flips. But for a list of n numbers, nobody knew how to do it with fewer than 2n flips. Bill came to me with an idea for doing it with only 1.67n flips. We proved his algorithm correct, and we proved a lower bound—it cannot be done faster than 1.06n flips.

We held the record in pancake sorting for decades. It was a silly problem back then, but it became important, because human chromosomes mutate this way.

Two years later, I called to tell him our paper had been accepted to a fine math journal. He sounded eminently disinterested.

He had moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to run a small company writing code for microprocessors, of all things. I remember thinking: “Such a brilliant kid. What a waste.”

Papadimitriou

Other researchers discovered a 1% quicker sorting method thirty years later. However, Harry Lewis, a different Harvard professor who instructed Gates in the 1970s, claimed in an NPR interview that those researchers benefited from sophisticated computers. The young Gates, however, just utilised his own mental capabilities (and in fact he helped develop the computers that would find a faster solution).

It’s simple to write off these anecdotes as outliers to the generalisation that anyone may succeed in life without becoming a genius by the age of twenty.

However, a rising amount of evidence points to the fact that intelligence is an astonishingly accurate predictor of income and success in later life.

The potential connection between intelligence and career achievement has even been highlighted by Bill Gates. “Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future,” he told Forbes in 2005.