The smart set

Membership in Mensa is mostly about the kinship in meeting like-minded people

FELIX CARROLL Staff writer
Section: Life-Today,  Page: G1

Date: Sunday, December 12, 2004

He had to find out, once and for all. Courage is what it would take. Anthony Rossi would do nothing less than attempt to assuage any doubters, to get to the bottom of a mystery that has badgered him since he was a boy: Was he highly intelligent? He thought so.

Learning the truth could empower him. Indeed, it could propel him from the moil and horror of - yikes! - intellectual averageness. Of course, it could prove perilous, too. While, as the saying goes, knowledge is power, what if he were to gain the highly insalubrious knowledge that he has little knowledge? That kind of knowledge couldn't power a penlight. This was the risk Rossi faced as he took a seat in a testing room on a Saturday morning in October at the Price Chopper Community Center in Schenectady, a No. 2 pencil gripped tightly in his sweaty fingers. It was there where he attempted to discern in 10 seconds flat the number that is "one-tenth of one-half of one-fifth of one-fifth of 6,000," or similar such brain benders, in a nearly two-hour test offered by American Mensa, the national high-IQ society.

Only the top 2 percent of the general population qualifies for Mensa. That is to say, people like Harry Ringermacher of Delanson, who not only looks like Albert Einstein but whose "hobby" is Einstein's theory of relativity. He crunches equations with pencil and paper in his downtime at home. Those equations amount to a stack of papers 3 feet high.

"General relativity just relaxes me," says Ringermacher, a physicist with General Electric, whose head gets "very, very hot" when he's thinking, reports his wife.

About 52,000 people nationwide belong to Mensa, 170 of whom are part of a local group, Mensa of Northeastern New York, whose president is Judy Keating, Ringermacher's wife. Keating, whose mother worked as Carl Sagan's secretary, is brilliant in her own right.

"We're pocket-protector people," says Keating, an accountant for Price Chopper. She's joking, sort of. Not all Mensa members fit the nerd model; some certainly do. Local members come with backgrounds that cover the career gamut from investment brokers, scientists and system analysts to homemakers, cashiers and janitors.

Ambition is by no means a precondition of the intelligent mind. Just ask Dennis Viscanti, 53, of Latham, who was recently accepted into Mensa. Though he worked for years as a computer network engineer, he's now a substitute school bus driver and part-time janitor. He prefers the life of the mind, career-be-damned. He takes college classes. He enjoys reading and private philosophizing.

If you noticed a little swagger in Rossi's gait as of late as he heads to his classes at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, where he studies technology education, it's because he recently received his acceptance letter into Mensa.

"I'm really happy," says Rossi, who says he's beginning to piece together his life up till now. It's a life defined by the following equation: A's on exams, plus F's for homework he didn't do - all equaling the solid B and C grades that have undermined his opinion of himself.

"I wasn't challenging myself," he says. "Now I will."

Tuesday, at the Van Dyck in Schenectady, the very unnerd-like-looking Rossi, with the build of a football player, will meet many of the local members of Mensa at a newcomers dinner.

Mensa, an international society, was founded in Great Britain in 1946 by two English barristers, Roland Berrill and Lionel Ware, who were looking for other smart people with whom to socialize. The society has three purposes: to identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity, to encourage research into the nature, characteristics and uses of intelligence, and to provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.

Ego boosts are what most people seek when they first join, says Richard Raczkowski, a rabies researcher with the state Department of Health, who first joined Mensa in the 1970s. "But that fades," he says.

What keeps Mensa members together, he says, is kinship, not to mention esoteric interests in such subjects as language, science, cooking, finances, even chocolate.

The local chapter publishes a monthly newsletter, which includes a calendar of Mensa events - local, regional and national gatherings - as well as recipes, columns and, um, humor.

For instance, Willard Hoyt of Schodack writes a quip-heavy column called "Witzelsucht." In his October column, he writes, "There was a fire in a nudist camp. The people barely escaped."

His column pretty much sums up Mensa's unwritten rule, unmistakable whenever two or more members gather: When you're highly intelligent, like Hoyt is, you can afford to be stupid.

"No one holds back," says Keating. "Everyone feels free to say whatever they feel like."

Mensa membership is not all fun and games. The group holds colloquiums on such topics as consciousness and fuel technology, to name two. It would seem only natural then that the combined brainpower of Mensans would be utilized to change the world.

There's one problem with that.

"Even if it were possible for us to change the minds of world leaders, say, then how do you determine a policy when no one in Mensa agrees?" says Raczkowski.

Moreover, a common Mensan trait - perhaps the sign of a healthy mind? - is the incapability individual Mensans have of feeling one emotion, of believing one opinion, without simultaneously embracing the merits of their opposites. Indeed, there's a saying that if you seek the opinion of 10 Mensans, you'll leave with 20 opinions.

And even if Mensans could get their stories straight, Joe O'Malley, a Mensan from Rotterdam, doubts the world would be better off.

"Herbert Hoover and John Q. Adams were most likely our most intelligent Presidents," says O'Malley, "but hardly our best. On the other hand, FDR was once asked what his favorite book was and replied that he had not read a book since he left college, and hated every one he had to read while there. But it is his picture, not Hoover's, that is on the dime."

Intelligence of course comes in many forms. Some Mensans are verbal wizards while being numbskulls at mathematics, and vice versa. But the universal trait Mensans share, says Ringermacher, is intellectual nonconformity, "an insatiable desire to understand the world around us" and "an ability to transcend your reality."

"There's a rebelliousness to it," he says.

Such rebellion recently led to him having his E-Z Pass revoked, temporarily. Out of pure scientific inquisitiveness, Ringermacher was trying to determine how fast he could go through the toll and still have the electronic collection system register his car. By law, you're not supposed to exceed 5 mph.

"They'll apparently accept 20 mph," he says, raising his eyebrows.

But soon after his ad hoc E-Z Pass experiments were complete, he received a letter from the state telling him to slow down or else. Then, something strange happened. He says he did indeed slow down, yet the state started sending a series of letters informing him that E-Z Pass had clocked him going 30-plus mph through the toll gate. How could that be?

This is the type of situation in which a Mensa marriage can prove its mettle (Keating and Ringermacher met at a Mensa meeting five years ago).

"Maybe it's the sticky accelerator," Keating suggested.

The accelerator pedal in their car was known to stick, meaning they would press it and it would take a moment before the car popped with power. Ringermacher got out his pencil and paper to determine if that quick burst of power translated into 30-plus mph.

"If you estimate the maximum acceleration a car can achieve," he says, "then you can calculate the speed a car achieves over a short distance ... "

Long story short: His calculations proved it was the sticky accelerator.

He folds his hands on his lap.

"Funny, I got nabbed on a crazy bit of physics," Ringermacher says.

Felix Carroll can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail at

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Mensa tests smarts

Mensa holds testing days in October, but will administer its test to any willing takers year-round. To take Mensa's test, contact Judy Keating at 441-7058.

Here are the kinds of questions you will encounter:

1. What number, plus 13, is equal to one-fourth of 116?

2. Start with the number of U.S. senators, subtract the number of states, then multiply by the number of seconds in five minutes. What do you get?

3. Can you think of an American tree whose name contains all five vowels?

4. A well-known saying appears below in high-flown language. Can you restore it to its original form?

It is all but impossible - indeed, very difficult - to attempt to instruct a superannuated canine in the art of acquiring hithertofore unknown stunts or activities.

5. What is the 11-letter word that all smart people spell incorrectly?

6. What royal word in the plural becomes singular when you add one letter?

7. Priscilla and Paul went shopping for a new sofa. They found one for $500 at a special sale. It had been reduced 50 percent and then 20 percent. What did it cost before the sale?

8. The busy chemist left a message for his new assistant: "Try -40 degrees." The assistant was puzzled. Did he mean centigrade or Fahrenheit?

9. What one three-letter word inserted in the blank below will create two new words from those on either side?

Door Ace

10. Unscramble the letters below to make one word.

New Door


1. 16

2. 15,000 (100-50 50; 50 x 300 15,000)

3. Sequoia

4. You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

5. Incorrectly.

6. Princes. (becomes Princess)

7. $1,250 (One-half of $1,250 is $625. Twenty percent off $625 leaves $500.)

8. The question is irrelevant: -40 degrees is the same temperature on either scale.

9. Men.

10. One word.

(Taken from