In early May of this year, a Canadian teenager sparked a global frenzy with the news that he had located a previously unknown Maya city in the Mexican jungle—while never leaving his home country.
According to the initial report, William Gadoury of Québec was able to align more than 100 Maya cities to maps of modern constellations. When one constellation appeared to be missing its corresponding city, Gadoury turned to specialists to interpret satellite images of the area in an attempt to find the "lost" site.
When the announcement that a Maya city, which Gadoury named K’aak Chi, or "Mouth of Fire," had indeed been located where it was expected to be, international media stumbled through its own Kübler-Rossian stages of coverage: unquestioning acceptance, sensational headlines, emerging naysayers, critical backlash, and then…silence. (Read the original National Geographic report on Gadoury's research.)
So what's happened to 15-year-old William Gadoury since his 15 minutes of Internet fame? While much of the archaeological community has rejected his conclusions, there's also wide admiration for the creativity and technical ability he's applied to his research. Gadoury's gone on to win a gold medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair for his project on K'aak Chi, and he has received an invitation to participate in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in September.
Gadoury recently took a school trip to Washington, D.C., where National Geographic had the opportunity to talk to him about the coverage that his scientific theory has received, as well as his plans for the future.
You received a lot of criticism from scientists about your theory that Maya cities were built in alignment to modern constellations. One prominent Maya scholar even called it "junk science." How did you handle that?
Just OK, I guess. I know it's not very good when I'm not accepted by critics, but it just helps me advance my research.
When reports of your research hit the news, you must have had a lot of journalists trying to contact you, no?
Oh yeah, people were constantly calling. And I got maybe 400 or 500 emails. My mom helped me to manage everything.
So this very public critique of your work won't stop you from continuing your research?
What field of science do you want to specialize in?
Astronomy or archaeology—I'm not sure yet.
Will you make your research public and open to scientific review?
I want to publish my research in a scientific journal so I can share it with archaeologists and scientists. Right now I'm talking to one [journal] about writing for them.
You've been working on this project for three years. What's your next step?
I have to go to Mexico and locate this city on the ground to prove it is there. Maybe this summer.
How long do you think such an expedition will take you?
Maybe two weeks, I'm not sure. I'm not an expert on this.
And how much money will you need to conduct this research?
You conducted this research in Canada using computer software and satellite imagery. Have you ever visited a Maya site in person before?
Last summer I visited Ek Balam and Chichen Itza in Yúcatan. They're amazing sites, and even better in person.
So you're confident that—despite what most scientists say—people all over the world, for thousands and thousands of years, all saw the same exact configuration of constellations we identify today?
Yes, we've all seen the same patterns. There are Aztec cities that align with the constellation of Orion, and Inca sites that align with Sirius.
Do you have a favorite constellation?
Cassiopeia. It's shaped in a W, like my name.
When our story ran, we received a lot of comments from readers who claimed that scientists debunked your theory simply because they are jealous of your research. Do you think this is correct?
Yes, I think scientists are jealous. Sometimes they are scared of new ideas. They're afraid to have their established ideas criticized.
So you think scientists should be more open to people with scientific ideas who may not yet have a degree in science?
I do really want them to have more open minds and to listen to other ideas.
What would you say to other young students who have their research criticized by established scientists?
I'd tell them to push their limit and never stop working. Follow your dreams!
Maya archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Francisco Estrada-Belli invited you to come to the jungle and find Maya sites with him. Will you take him up on his invitation?
Oh yes. Definitely!
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This interview includes translation from French and was edited for space and clarity.