Scorpion: Walter O'Brien on his life off-screen
The high-tech escapades in the TV version of his life can sound run of the mill when you hear Walter O’Brien talk about his work, from nannying ‘supergeniuses’ to breaking journalists out of jail
Walter O’Brien, the son of a Wexford farmer, says he has an IQ of 196. The Irishman’s life is now the subject of Scorpion, a prime-time TV drama in the US. Photograph: Lisette M. Azar/CBS via Getty Images
Jadyn Wong, Ari Stidham, Elyes Gabel (as O’Brien), Katharine McPhee and Eddie Kaye Thomas in Scorpion. Photograph: Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images
The man with perhaps the fourth-highest IQ ever measured says, “Once your IQ is 150 or over, it stops beings ability and becomes a disability.” Walter O’Brien, the son of a Wexford farmer, says he has an IQ of 196. The Irishman’s life is now the subject of Scorpion, a prime-time TV drama in the US. The show, about supergeniuses solving crimes, will soon be screened on RTÉ. His life story, as he tells it, is as remarkable as anything on television.
When CBS, the network behind Scorpion, unveiled O’Brien to the press, one journalist asked the show’s producer why the network was investing so much money in the story of an Irish “supergeek”. “Walter O’Brien has saved the world several times over – things he can’t even tell us about,” the producer said. “Walter personally caught the Boston Marathon bombers. This makes for compelling television.”
It’s impossible to substantiate such claims. It’s even hard to pin down what having a high IQ means. O’Brien’s was measured when he was a child; IQ tests usually takes age into account: a 10-year-old with the intelligence of a 15-year-old is certainly bright but isn’t necessarily as clever as a normal 20-year-old.
But back to high-tech derring-do. Ask O’Brien directly if he has ever saved the world and he evades the question with a series of “there are things I can’t talk about” answers. Ask him anything else and he’ll talk you under the table.
O’Brien, who is 39, was born and grew up near Clonroche. The second child in a family of five, he says he always knew he was “weird” because of his mental ability. At the age of nine he got his hands on his first computer, an Amstrad. “I learned everything there was to know about this computer in three days,” he says. “I didn’t sleep or eat for three days; I just took this computer apart.”
At St Mary’s CBS in Enniscorthy he stood out immediately, he says. “I just didn’t know what to do, how to behave. I sucked at hurley. Maybe I was unpopular a bit because I was a teacher’s pet. But even the teachers complained about me. They would say to my parents, ‘For every one question any pupil asks, Walter asks 10.’ ”
Hacking into NasaWhen O’Brien was 13, he says, his life took a dramatic turn. He had been happily breaking into the computer systems of some of the most powerful institutions in the world – then arrived home from school one day to find a team of Americans waiting to arrest him for having hacked into Nasa. O’Brien says he coolly whipped out an extradition waiver from his schoolbag. If they signed it, he explained, he would show them the gaps in their security.
Press O’Brien and he responds that he can’t say any more about any deals he may have cut with the US authorities. “I cannot go into all of that. It’s been purged,” he says.
It is a matter of record, though, that a few years later, when O’Brien was in his mid 20s, the US recognised him as being of value to the country and granted him an E11 visa – aka a Green Card Through Self Petition, which allows people who have shown “extraordinary abilities” to become US residents.
He misses Ireland. “I’m a typical Irishman, in that I only get home for weddings and funerals. Since that original Irish Times article” – we first reported in August the details of the show and O’Brien’s life – “I’ve been getting loads of messages from old school friends and people I used to know. I’ve a meeting with the queen of England in October, so I’ll get home then.
“It was difficult for my family growing up. Having one of the highest IQs ever measured is as much a curse as it is a blessing. My parents were great, though: they were always seeking the most difficult presents possible for me – Rubik’s cubes and things like that.”
His Leaving Certificate results were by no means spectacular. “I failed Irish in the Leaving. Yes, there were a few As in there, too, but with me I have this on/off switch. If I am interested in a subject I click that switch. If I’m not interested I don’t.”
Instead of having a paper-round job as he became a teenager, O’Brien says, he was hired by Irish banks – which at that stage were just becoming computerised – to install software, train staff and troubleshoot technical problems. He frequently did these jobs during his school lunch break, he says, adding that he loved Irish banks’ computers because they were of a quality he could never afford, so provided him with a rare training ground.
O’Brien is disarmingly honest about how, despite having a high IQ, he has a very low EQ, or emotional intelligence. “This is why I agreed to the show portraying my life. You look at TV now and you see shows such as Jersey Shore and The Kardashians. But, growing up, I loved shows such as MacGyver. When I read somewhere that the popularity of the show CSI led to so many school-leavers choosing ‘unpopular’ science degrees, I realised a TV show could make a difference. Scorpion is there as a drama about my life but also to reach out to those people going through what I went through growing up – feeling like a freak, an outsider, isolated.
“I may have this massive IQ, but I have no filter. My filter is broken. To explain: at work I will say to someone, ‘Those jeans make you look fat.’ I am learning why you should not say this to colleagues. I have no inner voice, as everyone else does, that tells me not to say to someone that their new jeans make them look fat – even if the jeans do make them look fat.
“In my world there is a lot of Asperger’s, autism and ADHD,” he says, referring to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “I observe people to learn how to behave. Relationships are hard for me; dating is hard for me.”
SupernanniesO’Brien, who is single, is based in Los Angeles, where he runs Scorpion Computer Services. He spends a large part of his time recruiting fellow “supergeniuses” – and, he says, placing them with what he calls supernannies. “These are high-EQ people who teach the geniuses how to behave as ‘humans’, how to interact socially. Often it is the case that after time with their supernanny we release one of our geniuses into the working world. Then I will get a call from the new employer, saying, ‘This guy is a genius, but we cannot deal with him. We are sending him back to you.’ ”
O’Brien also runs a “concierge” service. He tells an unverified story about a client who approached him. The man’s daughter wanted to be a journalist; her first assignment was covering the Arab Spring in Libya. She was arrested, accused of being an activist and imprisoned. Her family went to Libya only to find out that there was no bail for anyone charged with activism and that the wait for a trial would last two years. “So he came to me with this information, and within 48 hours we had her home with her family.”
How? “Oh, we just partnered with the largest private military group in the US, and together we did a forced extradition.”
With Scorpion now having made him a minor celebrity in the US, O’Brien is not fazed by the attention. After all, he says: “If it is so required there are people who will bring me to a safe place.”