It’s Friday so time for something fun.
I came across this story on Popular Science about a young boy named Taylor Wilson. At age 14 he was able to build a reactor that achieved nuclear fusion, becoming only the 32nd person in the world to do it. So how did this happen?
I’ve talked about the pieces of this extensively on this site so I’ll keep it simple. First, he had an interest in science from a very young age.
“Propulsion,” the nine-year-old says as he leads his dad through the gates of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “I just want to see the propulsion stuff.”
A young woman guides their group toward a full-scale replica of the massive Saturn V rocket that brought America to the moon. As they duck under the exhaust nozzles, Kenneth Wilson glances at his awestruck boy and feels his burden beginning to lighten. For a few minutes, at least, someone else will feed his son’s boundless appetite for knowledge.
Then Taylor raises his hand, not with a question but an answer. He knows what makes this thing, the biggest rocket ever launched, go up. And he wants—no, he obviously needs—to tell everyone about it, about how speed relates to exhaust velocity and dynamic mass, about payload ratios, about the pros and cons of liquid versus solid fuel. The tour guide takes a step back, yielding the floor to this slender kid with a deep-Arkansas drawl, pouring out a torrent of Ph.D.-level concepts as if there might not be enough seconds in the day to blurt it all out. The other adults take a step back too, perhaps jolted off balance by the incongruities of age and audacity, intelligence and exuberance.
That is how the article opens on Popular Science. I suggest reading the whole thing because it is a model of one way to deal with maximizing the development of children.
The ability of children to learn is at it’s highest level at birth. It then begins to decline throughout a person’s life. Naturally you can’t just push nuclear fusion on a child at age 3 but you can nurture interests at that age.
This is world class bass player Victor Wooten. He comes from a musical family and they started him playing bass (actually a guitar with one string removed) at age 3.
He never stopped playing and it shows. Tiger Woods started learning golf at a very young age.
Back to Taylor. One section in the piece really jumped out at me.
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.”
What struck me is his parents did everything they could to help him learn what he wanted to learn. They didn’t steer him towards anything they wanted. As a result he was able to keep exploring and learning at a rapid pace.
So far we see supportive parents and the Internet. His parents eventually sent him to a very special school called the Davidson Academy to nurture him further. Eventually he made friends with actual nuclear researchers who mentored him further.
This last section sums this up nicely.
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.
With all the problems in the world today we need more people like Taylor. If we were able to create a way of learning that helped each child reach their full potential, how much better would the world be?