Why This 14-Year-Old Kid Built a Nuclear Reactor
In his quest to better the world,Taylor Wilson captured the interest of Homeland Security and ended up with radioactive pants.
Author Tom Clynes doesn’t do optimistic. The contributing editor for Popular Science is usually attracted to stories about Ebola epidemics or eco-mercenaries. But when his life and family began to fall apart and he found himself in the middle of a messy divorce, he met Taylor Wilson, a boy who had just become the youngest person on Earth to build a working nuclear fusion reactor.
Fired by this young genius’s optimism and desire to make the world a better place, he decided to devote himself to telling Taylor’s story in his new book, The Boy Who Played With Fusion. (Read Clynes' profile of Taylor.)
Talking from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he describes how meeting Taylor made him rethink his relationship with his own children; why we are ignoring gifted children in favor of under-achievers; and why it is crucial to give our brightest and best the support they need.
The book opens with you accompanying Taylor and his father down an abandoned mineshaft in search of “hot rocks.” Set the scene for us.
We went into an abandoned uranium mine in the Virginia Mountains in Nevada, just north of where Taylor now lives in Reno, to find uranium rock. On the way, he’s talking my ear off. He’s the total opposite of the science fair introvert sitting in the corner staring at his naval. He loves to evangelize about everything nuclear.
Eventually we will make yellow cake out of the ore we collect in Taylor’s garage. We have to pop this chain link fence to get into the mine. We have a pickaxe, shovel and flashlight and go down a few passageways where we find some veins of radioactive water running down the side of the mine. It literally glows. [Laughs]
When we go back over the fence Taylor’s Geiger counter brushes against his thigh and he realizes that his pant legs are radioactive. So, he rips off his pants and sits there in his boxer shorts, trying to figure out what kind of radiation it is. “It’s not loose contamination, “ he says, “so it makes me think it’s been on the pants for a while. But, how? My jeans are generally not radioactive at the start the day!” [Laughs]
Tell us about Taylor and how you first heard about him?
I’m a contributing editor of Popular Science. In 2010, I started nosing around this community of high-end nerds who were not working in billion dollar research labs like a lot of nuclear researchers but doing crazy things in their garages—tinkering with nukes, transmuting elements and building atom-smashing machines.
Someone mentioned this 14-year-old kid from Texarkana, Arkansas, which is not exactly a hotbed of science in this country. But he’d just become one of only 32 people to build a nuclear fusion reactor themselves. So, I decided to get in touch with him. I was drawn in by his audacity, enthusiasm and optimism, and the fact that he just goes out and does things that everybody else thinks are impossible.
His scientific discoveries were spurred by a painful, personal event. Tell us about the “star in a jar.”
When Taylor was 11, he found out that his grandmother was dying of cancer. He and his grandmother were extremely close. She was his biggest supporter and had allowed him to use her garage as his laboratory for a long time.
He had been experimenting with radioactive materials for over a year and he had this epiphany in his garage. He asked his grandmother if he could have some of her urine to test while she was going through nuclear medicine procedures.
He tested it with a Geiger counter and also dissected bits of her tumors and lungs, which she had coughed up, and threw them in a petri dish. He knows this is weird but this is the kind of kid he is. Then, he started thinking about how people around the world get these medical isotopes. He learned that they’re made in these multi-million dollar cyclotrons and they’ve got to be shipped by private jet to the points of distribution, and then moved very quickly because they have such short half-lives. They’re also extremely expensive.
So Taylor started thinking, what if there’s a cheaper, better way to do this, so that these kinds of treatments could be brought more within reach of places like sub-Saharan Africa?
How did his parents cope with his extreme science?
Taylor’s parents were basically terrified. Both his dad and his mom were not scientists. His dad is a Coca-Cola bottler. His mom is a yoga instructor. So they found themselves facing some really big challenges. You can imagine what, as parents, you would do if your 10- or 11-22year-old started bringing home these glow-in-the-dark, scary materials.
But Taylor’s parents took a counterintuitive approach to nurturing his talents. They brought in educators and mentors, they even moved across the country so that he could go to a school that supported his educational needs. What he was achieving wasn’t just due to the fact that he was innately intelligent. He also had gifted parents who went to extraordinary lengths to bring out his talents.
What does Taylor’s story teach us about gifted children?
It’s become very clear through several decades of tracking data that a lot of the people who are reinventing our society are in the top one percent in terms of their intellectual ability. And a lot of them were identified as top performers by the time they were teenagers.
Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Lady Gaga all scored in the top one percent on standardized tests when they were about 12 years old. We knew right then that they had these talents.
They got help and were given support to develop their talents. As a result, they grew into creative, high-achieving adults. Anecdotes about the kid who overcame everything and became a superstar without any help don’t have a lot of scientific basis. Gifted kids need support.
Tell us about Davidson Academy, “ a Hogwarts for brainiacs,” as you call it.
The Davidson Academy was founded by two software millionaires, Janice and Bob Davidson. They realized that the most under-served students in America right now, and maybe the world, are the highly gifted. In the U.S. so much funding goes to support the low performers.
I don’t argue that we shouldn’t do that – we should. But the Davidsons decided create a series of programs for gifted children. They then established an actual bricks and mortar school, which they parked on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, and opened to the top 1/10th of one percent of scorers on standardized tests.
These are the profoundly gifted children: math whizzes, violin prodigies, physics kids—the very, very top of the nation’s gifted children. It’s the opposite of what Ken Robinson calls the industrialized model of education, which demands that the students fit into the system.
The Davidsons created a system to fit the students. If they burn through all the math courses at the school, they can go next door to the university and get higher-level math classes. If they want to pursue grant based higher engineering projects and get mentors at the university, as Taylor did, they’re free to do that.
When you first walk in, the kids look normal, laughing and horsing around. But when you start talking to them you realize these are very special kids. They’re extremely imaginative, smart, witty, and the teachers are extraordinary.
Taylor’s “Fission Vision” project caught the eye of Homeland Security. Why?
Taylor was thinking about an application for his nuclear fusion reactor when he had another epiphany of sorts: that the shipping containers entering the U.S. to the tune of 10,000 a day are the soft underbelly of security. We don’t inspect them very well because of the sheer number.
Taylor’s idea was to create a drive-through system that could see inside these containers before they are loaded onto trucks and railcars. His idea was to use neutrons from a fusion reaction to create a weapons-sniffing detector. You could drive through and if there were weapons inside, the device would pick up the signature and alert the operator. It could also detect explosives by activating nitrogen nuclei that would then emit gamma rays.
Homeland Security and the Department of Energy got wind of what Taylor was up to and invited him to Washington so he could submit a grant proposal to develop the weapons detector.
You call this an “Icarus-like story.” Things didn’t end too well for Icarus. What’s Taylor up to now?
The Icarus myth is an interesting metaphor, but it’s not totally fitting because Taylor rewrote that myth. His parents gave him the wings and he flew up and put the sun in a box.
But being a super-gifted kid isn’t always great. Taylor went through some rough times, especially in his late teenage years. You can imagine what would happen if everyone was calling you Einstein every day. Taylor went through a narcissistic phase as a lot of teenagers do, but it was rather extreme in his case.
That created a lot of problems for him, his family, and other people who loved him. But he got through that. In addition to developing his own business, which is nuclear security and medical isotopes, Taylor has become a first class science communicator. That’s where his biggest impact is going to be, I think: as an educator and mentor, someone who inspires people.
Top physicists in the nuclear fusion world all say that Taylor has done wonders for the discipline by getting a lot more people into not just nuclear fusion, but science in general.
How did spending time with Taylor change your own life and your views about parenting?
I was very affected by the time I spent with Taylor. One of the things I realized is that we need to not stifle that healthy disregard for the limits and conventions that say you can’t do this or that. We have gotten very cautious about parenting. We believe that more money will make us better parents.
But our kids really don’t need a lot of money. They need our time. We also don’t let our kids roam the way we used to. And when I say roam, I don’t mean just physically, but also intellectually.
Parents have got to be able to take risks and that means letting your kids do things that may not make sense to you and that you may also find risky as a parent. Taylor’s parents taught him to believe that he can do anything.
The other thing is the idea of our own kids as mentors. I dedicated the book to my sons, Charlie and Joe, though, ironically, writing a book that’s largely about parenting severely diminished my own capacity as a parent, because I was often distracted and sleep-deprived and absent. But one of the things that I discovered is that our children can and should be our mentors.
Taylor’s experience opened my eyes to what my own kids could teach me about how important enthusiasm and raw curiosity can be. Enthusiasm, playfulness and curiosity aren’t just for kids. We adults can claim them and use them, if we choose to do so. Being around kids like Taylor and my own kids opened my eyes to that.
Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter.