Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star
The Boy Who Played with Fusion tells the extraordinary story of science prodigy Taylor Wilson. By the age of nine, Taylor had mastered the science of rocket propulsion. At eleven, his grandmother’s cancer diagnosis inspired him to seek new ways to produce medical isotopes. And by fourteen, Wilson had built a 500-million-degree nuclear fusion reactor. How could someone so young achieve so much, and what can Taylor’s story teach us all about high-achieving kids—and human potential in general?
In The Boy Who Played with Fusion, Tom Clynes recounts Taylor’s extraordinary journey—from unlikely but promising beginnings in an Arkansas town, to a unique Nevada high school designed just for academic superstars, to the present, where Taylor is designing devices to prevent terrorists from importing radioactive material and inspiring a new generation to take on the challenges of science. Through Taylor’s story, the book explores the challenges facing gifted children and their parents and educators, as well as the burgeoning world of amateur science. It also reveals how our education system shortchanges gifted students, depriving this country of one of its greatest resources, and what we can do to fix it.
“Propulsion,” the nine-year-old says as he leads his dad through the gate of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. “I just want to see the propulsion stuff.”
Situated next to the northern Alabama complex where NASA engineers designed and built the rockets that propelled America’s space program, the center showcases the world’s most impressive collection of high-flying hardware. Visitors can touch the scorched Apollo 16 command module, tumble-spin in a chair that mimics the frictionless vacuum of space, or command a mission in the space shuttle’s cockpit simulator.
But Taylor Wilson mostly wants to see the museum’s prize piece, the massive Saturn V rocket that launched mankind to the moon. Late that afternoon, father and son step inside the building built to house the reclining rocket, restored to its Apollo-era readiness. The tour guide, a young woman, leads their group of parents and children along the 363-foot-long behemoth suspended above the floor. As they duck under its five exhaust nozzles, each a dozen feet across, Kenneth Wilson glances at his awestruck boy and feels his burden beginning to lift. For a few minutes, at least, someone else will feed his son’s relentless appetite for knowledge.
The docent tells the group that the Saturn V is the most powerful rocket ever built. Churning out a million and a half pounds of thrust, it boosted America decisively past the Soviets, spiriting two dozen Apollo astronauts to the moon. Though the three-stage rocket is retired now, the guide says, it remains unmatched in its capacity to lift men and gear beyond the tug of Earth’s gravity. Producing thirty-two million horsepower at full blast, the Saturn could accelerate a spaceship from zero to seventeen thousand miles per hour in eight minutes.
Then Taylor raises his hand—not with a question, but an answer. He knows what makes this rocket go up. And he wants—he needs—to tell everyone about it, about how acceleration relates to exhaust velocity and dynamic mass, about payload ratios, about the mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen that the first stage burned at six thousand pounds per second. The guide takes a step back, yielding the floor to this slender, overexcited kid who’s unleashing a torrent of PhD-level concepts in a deep-Arkansas drawl as if there weren’t enough seconds in a day for him to blurt it all out. The other adults step back too, perhaps jolted off balance by the incongruities of age and audacity, intelligence and exuberance.
The nine-year-old tells the group that he designs and builds his own rockets at home in Texarkana. Next, he’s talking about the Saturn’s solid-fuel second and third stages, the comparative advantages of their propellants, the tradeoffs rocket designers make between thrust and cost, weight and safety. As the guide runs to fetch her boss—You gotta see this kid!—Kenneth feels the weight coming down on him again.
He and his wife, Tiffany, have done everything they can to nourish their older son’s manic, metastasizing curiosity. Since the first moments of his existence, Taylor has complicated, confounded, and chaoticized nearly every detail of his family’s lives. Indeed, Kenneth will look back on this particular day as one of the uncomplicated ones, when his scary-smart son was into relatively simple things, like rocket science.
This was before Taylor transformed the family’s garage into a trove of glowing rocks and liquids and metals with enigmatic and terrifying powers . . . before he built a reactor that could hurl atoms together in a 500-million-degree plasma core, becoming, at fourteen, the youngest person on Earth to achieve nuclear fusion . . . before the creations of his restless intellect astounded everyone from the president of the United States to the audiences at TED Talks . . . before he conceived, in a series of unlikely epiphanies, new ways to use subatomic particles to confront some of the biggest challenges of our time: cancer, nuclear terrorism, sustainable energy.
This book had its beginnings in 2010 when, as a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, I discovered a small community of nuclear physics enthusiasts, high-energy hobbyists who were taking on both the formidable theory and the precision engineering of applied nuclear science. The idea that self-taught amateurs outside the Big Science world of billion-dollar research laboratories were tinkering with nukes—fusing atomic nuclei, transmuting elements, constructing atom-smashing machines in self-built laboratories—was both intriguing and unsettling. Members of this guarded clique began to open up to me, and one of them mentioned a fourteen-year-old boy from Texarkana who had just become one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working nuclear fusion reactor, a miniature sun on Earth.
And yet, what would set Taylor apart was not his machine or his intellect but his buoyantly audacious approach to science, and life. I’d met a few child geniuses, and I could tell immediately that Taylor’s genius was a different kind.
His is not the eyes-down, inwardly focused kind that skulks in the corner at the science fair. Nor is it the socially maladroit kind typified by Sheldon Cooper, the theoretical physicist in the television series The Big Bang Theory. Taylor’s genius is eyes-up and hands-on, and exuberantly connected to the universe. Indeed, it is his gift for creating connections—personal, intellectual, practical—that has allowed him to build a world for himself that seems to have few limits.
“Within two minutes of meeting him,” says Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “you realize that the kinds of things that most people think are impossible, Taylor just goes out and does.” You also realize that, despite his precocity and the Einsteinian zeal of his curiosity, Taylor is in many ways a normal kid with a normal (though often baffled) circle of family and friends, a normal teenager’s series of crushes and confusions, and a still-developing identity. At first a timid child, he would burgeon into a garrulous, science-obsessed grade-schooler with a passion for explosive chemistry that would progress to an obsessive need to understand the mysteries of the subatomic world. At the age of eleven, distraught over his grandmother’s impending death, Taylor would experience an illuminating moment in which he’d envision not only a solution that could help millions but also an image of his future self, transformed from curious child to groundbreaking nuclear physicist. The clarity of his vision, and his belief that he could achieve it, would open new galaxies of possibilities for Taylor and sustain and motivate him as he pursued his unlikely dream.
The attention that the Popular Science feature generated caught me off-guard. I’d imagined that people would find Taylor’s story fascinating, but I hadn’t anticipated how deeply readers would connect with it emotionally. Beyond the newsworthiness of a fourteen-year-old achieving nuclear fusion, many people said they were inspired by the sense of wonder and surprise—and, especially, optimism—that had originally drawn me into Taylor’s world.
For me, the story was a departure from the kinds of things I had spent much of my career covering: subjects like Ebola epidemics, eco-mercenaries, and career-ending scientific slap-fights. For the most part, I don’t do optimistic. But I found Taylor’s story—or maybe it found me—at the right moment, during a bleak period in my own life, just after my ten-year marriage had fallen apart. The hopefulness at the heart of Taylor’s driving need to understand the world and make it better helped me reimagine the possibilities ahead for myself and my own young children, and for the world they would grow into.
As a parent, I was inspired by Kenneth and Tiffany’s often counterintuitive approach to nurturing their children’s talents. The lengths to which they—and the educators and mentors they brought into Taylor’s orbit—were willing to go to support their son as he pursued his unnerving interests were, to me, even more impressive than Taylor’s intrinsic talents. I would come to understand that what Taylor would achieve was a product of not only his intellectual gifts, but of the fact that he’d been gifted with parents of the most extraordinary sort.
Taylor, with his nonscientist parents and his early upbringing outside the elite zones of education, didn’t emerge from what we often consider the typical wellsprings of prodigiousness. Child-development experts, educators, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists are just now beginning to understand the complex mix of genetics and environment that creates a child like Taylor Wilson. At this point, we don’t know when or where a prodigy will pop out of the population. We do, however, know how to spot one.
Four decades of tracking data have made it clear that many of the innovators who are transforming society, advancing knowledge, and reinventing culture are in the top 1 percent in intellectual ability—and that many of them were identified as top performers by their teenage years. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin each attended a summer program sponsored by the Center for Talented Youth, open, at the time, to kids who scored in the top 1 percent on standardized tests. Bill Gates was in the top 1 percent; Steve Jobs too. Many high-achieving nontechies are as well: Stefani Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga, was enrolled in the same program as Zuckerberg and Brin.
Unfortunately, of the millions of potential world-changers who are born each year, only a small portion will be noticed and given the resources they need to develop their prodigious gifts. By refusing them an education that is appropriate to their abilities, we are potentially hobbling our economies and denying our civilization its next generation of innovators—the Salks, Mozarts, and Curies who can push the frontiers of knowledge forward.
Education researchers now estimate that the academically gifted make up 6 to 10 percent of the U.S. school-age population. When the definition of gifted is expanded to include artistic, athletic, and other talents, the proportion is much higher. In fact, the latest research suggests that nearly everyone has the capacity to achieve extraordinary performance in some mode of expression, if each can discover opportunities in a domain of expertise that allows his or her unique set of personal attributes to shine.
But what does it take to identify and develop the raw material of talent and turn it into exceptional accomplishment? How do we parent and educate extraordinarily determined and intelligent children and help them reach their potential? How can we help more conventionally talented children find the self-motivation and external support that moves them toward the fulfillment of their dreams? And how do we shift the course of an educational culture that has, for the past several decades, underchallenged the children it once regarded as its best hope?
Taylor’s ostensibly Icarus-like story demonstrates what can happen when we give young people opportunities to rewrite the old myths that have kept our generation (and previous ones) from achieving new heights. It takes considerable courage to overcome our instincts to keep our children’s feet on the ground, for we know that if we give them the wings they crave, some will fall. Others, though, will fly; they’ll go places and do things—real things—that the mythical Icarus never dreamed of. Some may even discover new ways to soar, as Taylor did, to the sun and even beyond—high enough to capture stars of their own.