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Who can measure a child’s true potential?

CrossFire Nuclear Fusion Reactor

Image via Wikipedia

This question is on my mind as I read about the boy who played with nuclear fusion: Who is truly qualified to measure a child’s true potential as a learner? On what scale or under what metric system do we assess the potential that can arise from the curiosity of a toddler? Under what permissible level of hubris do adults presume to create barriers around a student to “guide” and “correct” and “protect” him or her?

From the story:

To the assembled parents, dressed in hard hats, the Wilsons’ parenting style must have appeared curiously indulgent. In a few years, as Taylor began to get into some supremely dangerous stuff, it would seem perilously laissez-faire. But their approach to child rearing is, in fact, uncommonly intentional. “We want to help our children figure out who they are,” Kenneth says, “and then do everything we can to help them nurture that.”

I can’t help but think that the U.S. would have an education system that would be the envy of all the world, even above Finland’s, if this parent’s statement were made into a pedagogical prime directive.

A rational society would know what to do with a kid like Taylor Wilson, especially now that America’s technical leadership is slipping and scientific talent increasingly has to be imported. But by the time Taylor was 12, both he and his brother, Joey, who is three years younger and gifted in mathematics, had moved far beyond their school’s (and parents’) ability to meaningfully teach them. Both boys were spending most of their school days on autopilot, their minds wandering away from course work they’d long outgrown.

English: nuclearfusion.jpg

A nuclear fusion reaction

Some would say that Taylor Wilson is a unique accident of sorts, for that is how we define “prodigious” today. But, what if every child is like this, and we just don’t realize it. What if our modern sensibilities about “education” and who is qualified to dispense it are completely backwards? What if what we believe about what kids are not capable of at various ages–our most dearly held assumptions–are the problem?

Drawn in by what he calls “the surprise properties” of radioactive materials, he wanted to know more. How can a speck of metal the size of a grain of salt put out such tremendous amounts of energy? Why do certain rocks expose film? Why does one isotope decay away in a millionth of a second while another has a half-life of two million years?

Surprise is the first element on the periodic table of learning. We never forget surprise birthday parties, or unexpected gifts or compliments. We never forget those times when some unit of knowledge burst upon our minds so suddenly and unexpectedly as to make us gasp in wonder at it. The questions only follow. They rarely precede.

That summer, Kenneth’s daughter from a previous marriage, Ashlee, then a college student, came to live with the Wilsons. “The explosions in the backyard were getting to be a bit much,” she told me, shortly before my own visit to the family’s home. “I could see everyone getting frustrated. They’d say something and Taylor would argue back, and his argument would be legitimate. He knows how to out-think you. I was saying, ‘You guys need to be parents. He’s ruling the roost.’ ”

“What she didn’t understand,” Kenneth says, “is that we didn’t have a choice. Taylor doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘can’t.’ ”

“And when he does,” Tiffany adds, “he doesn’t listen.”

Good. The word “impossible” ought to be the only word erased from our vocabularies as we develop from embryo to elderly.

What no one understood, at least not at first, was that as his grandmother was withering, Taylor was growing, moving beyond mere self-centeredness. The world that he saw revolving around him, the boy was coming to believe, was one that he could actually change.

That’s what knowledge does. Ignorance teaches us that we are powerless–that there are others smarter than us who will take care of us and move us to the next level. Knowledge, especially when organically obtained, liberates the individual and opens his eyes much in the same way that Neo’s eyes were opened in “The Matrix”.

On the family’s first trip to Reno, even before Taylor and Joey were accepted to the academy, Taylor made an appointment with Friedwardt Winterberg, a celebrated physicist at the University of Nevada who had studied under the Nobel Prize–winning quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg. When Taylor told Winterberg that he wanted to build a fusion reactor, also called a fusor, the notoriously cranky professor erupted: “You’re 13 years old! And you want to play with tens of thousands of electron volts and deadly x-rays?” Such a project would be far too technically challenging and hazardous, Winterberg insisted, even for most doctoral candidates. “First you must master calculus, the language of science,” he boomed.


Z-IFE Power Plant

Unfortunately, this is a prescribed path for 99.9% of students entering higher education. There is a well-defined maze constructed, with rewards and merits handed out at various checkpoints, with the erstwhile noble intent of operationalizing, regulating, and optimizing everything to a predictable standard. But does the acquisition of new and groundbreaking knowledge conform to such paradigms?

But Taylor still hadn’t learned the word “can’t.” In the fall, when he began at Davidson, he found the two advocates he needed, one in the office right next door to Winterberg’s. “He had a depth of understanding I’d never seen in someone that young,” says atomic physicist Ronald Phaneuf. “But he was telling me he wanted to build the reactor in his garage, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my lord, we can’t let him do that.’ But maybe we can help him try to do it here.”

Utah State University

The official seal of Utah State University

This is the kind of open-mindedness and, well, risk taking that universities ought to be engaged in as a rule, not as an exception. As a freshman undergrad at Utah State University in 1992-1993, I had been given a scholarship to work with a small team of students in designing, building, and putting into orbit a Get-Away Special payload containing a functioning artificial heart. The purpose of the experiment, which was conducted in partnership with Bellarmine University, was to model, monitor, and measure a human heart in weightlessness to better understand the effects of zero-gravity on human physiology. As part of our research, we were permitted to stand directly over the shoulder of a chief surgeon at the University of Utah and watch first-hand as he performed a four hour heart transplant on a cow.

I had transferred to another university, and to another career path, by the time our headliner experiment was finished and launched on STS-95 (the same flight on which John Glenn returned to space). But I will never forget and will always be grateful to USU for taking a chance on me and letting me in on an open teamwork environment, where we were all treated like the scientists we all wanted to be.

And yet Taylor’s story began much like David Hahn’s, with a brilliant, high-flying child hatching a crazy plan to build a nuclear reactor. Why did one journey end with hazmat teams and an eventual arrest, while the other continues to produce an array of prizes, patents, television appearances, and offers from college recruiters?

The answer is, mostly, support. Hahn, determined to achieve something extraordinary but discouraged by the adults in his life, pressed on without guidance or oversight—and with nearly catastrophic results. Taylor, just as determined but socially gifted, managed to gather into his orbit people who could help him achieve his dreams: the physics professor; the older nuclear prodigy; the eccentric technician; the entrepreneur couple who, instead of retiring, founded a school to nurture genius kids. There were several more, but none so significant as Tiffany and Kenneth, the parents who overcame their reflexive—and undeniably sensible—inclinations to keep their Icarus-like son on the ground. Instead they gave him the wings he sought and encouraged him to fly up to the sun and beyond, high enough to capture a star of his own.


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