"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.
As the guide runs off to fetch the center's director—You gotta see this kid!—Kenneth feels the weight coming down on him again. What he doesn't understand just yet is that he will come to look back on these days as the uncomplicated ones, when his scary-smart son was into simple things, like rocket science.
This is before Taylor would transform the family's garage into a mysterious, glow-in-the-dark cache of rocks and metals and liquids with unimaginable powers. Before he would conceive, in a series of unlikely epiphanies, new ways to use neutrons to confront some of the biggest challenges of our time: cancer and nuclear terrorism. Before he would build a reactor that could hurl atoms together in a 500-million-degree plasma core—becoming, at 14, the youngest individual on Earth to achieve nuclear fusion.
When I meet Taylor Wilson, he is 16 and busy—far too busy, he says, to pursue a driver's license. And so he rides shotgun as his father zigzags the family's Land Rover up a steep trail in the Virginia Mountains north of Reno, Nevada, where they've come to prospect for uranium.
From the backseat, I can see Taylor's gull-like profile, his forehead plunging from under his sandy blond bangs and continuing, in an almost unwavering line, along his prominent nose. His thinness gives him a wraithlike appearance, but when he's lit up about something (as he is most waking moments), he does not seem frail. He has spent the past hour—the past few days, really—talking, analyzing, and breathlessly evangelizing about nuclear energy. We've gone back to the big bang and forward to mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter. In between are fission and fusion, Einstein and Oppenheimer, Chernobyl and Fukushima, matter and antimatter.
"Where does it come from?" Kenneth and his wife, Tiffany, have asked themselves many times. Kenneth is a Coca-Cola bottler, a skier, an ex-football player. Tiffany is a yoga instructor. "Neither of us knows a dang thing about science," Kenneth says.
Almost from the beginning, it was clear that the older of the Wilsons' two sons would be a difficult child to keep on the ground. It started with his first, and most pedestrian, interest: construction. As a toddler in Texarkana, the family's hometown, Taylor wanted nothing to do with toys. He played with real traffic cones, real barricades. At age four, he donned a fluorescent orange vest and hard hat and stood in front of the house, directing traffic. For his fifth birthday, he said, he wanted a crane. But when his parents brought him to a toy store, the boy saw it as an act of provocation. "No," he yelled, stomping his foot. "I want a real one."
This is about the time any other father might have put his own foot down. But Kenneth called a friend who owns a construction company, and on Taylor's birthday a six-ton crane pulled up to the party. The kids sat on the operator's lap and took turns at the controls, guiding the boom as it swung above the rooftops on Northern Hills Drive.
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."
At 10, Taylor hung a periodic table of the elements in his room. Within a week he memorized all the atomic numbers, masses and melting points. At the family's Thanksgiving gathering, the boy appeared wearing a monogrammed lab coat and armed with a handful of medical lancets. He announced that he'd be drawing blood from everyone, for "comparative genetic experiments" in the laboratory he had set up in his maternal grandmother's garage. Each member of the extended family duly offered a finger to be pricked.
The next summer, Taylor invited everyone out to the backyard, where he dramatically held up a pill bottle packed with a mixture of sugar and stump remover (potassium nitrate) that he'd discovered in the garage. He set the bottle down and, with a showman's flourish, ignited the fuse that poked out of the top. What happened next was not the firecracker's bang
everyone expected, but a thunderous blast that brought panicked neighbors running from their houses. Looking up, they watched as a small mushroom cloud rose, unsettlingly, over the Wilsons' yard.
For his 11th birthday, Taylor's grandmother took him to Books-A-Million, where he picked out The Radioactive Boy Scout, by Ken Silverstein. The book told the disquieting tale of David Hahn, a Michigan teenager who, in the mid-1990s, attempted to build a breeder reactor in a backyard shed. Taylor was so excited by the book that he read much of it aloud: the boy raiding smoke detectors for radioactive americium . . . the cobbled-together reactor . . . the Superfund team in hazmat suits hauling away the family's contaminated belongings. Kenneth and Tiffany heard Hahn's story as a cautionary tale. But Taylor, who had recently taken a particular interest in the bottom two rows of the periodic table—the highly radioactive elements—read it as a challenge. "Know what?" he said. "The things that kid was trying to do, I'm pretty sure I can actually do them."
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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.
David Hahn had been bored too—and, like Taylor, smart enough to be dangerous. But here is where the two stories begin to diverge. When Hahn's parents forbade his atomic endeavors, the angry teenager pressed on in secret. But Kenneth and Tiffany resisted their impulse to steer Taylor toward more benign pursuits. That can't be easy when a child with a demonstrated talent and fondness for blowing things up proposes to dabble in nukes.
Kenneth and Tiffany agreed to let Taylor assemble a "survey of everyday radioactive materials" for his school's science fair. Kenneth borrowed a Geiger counter from a friend at Texarkana's emergency-management agency. Over the next few weekends, he and Tiffany shuttled Taylor around to nearby antique stores, where he pointed the clicking detector at old
radium-dial alarm clocks, thorium lantern mantles and uranium-glazed Fiesta plates. Taylor spent his allowance money on a radioactive dining set.
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?
As Taylor began to wrap his head around the mind-blowing mysteries at the base of all matter, he could see that atoms, so small but potentially so powerful, offered a lifetime's worth of secrets to unlock. Whereas Hahn's resources had been limited, Taylor found that there was almost no end to the information he could find on the Internet, or to the oddities that he could purchase and store in the garage.
On top of tables crowded with chemicals and microscopes and germicidal black lights, an expanding array of nuclear fuel pellets, chunks of uranium and "pigs" (lead-lined containers) began to appear. When his parents pressed him about safety, Taylor responded in the convoluted jargon of inverse-square laws and distance intensities, time doses and roentgen submultiples. With his newfound command of these concepts, he assured them, he could master the furtive energy sneaking away from those rocks and metals and liquids—a strange and ever-multiplying cache that literally cast a glow into the corners of the garage.
Kenneth asked a nuclear-pharmacist friend to come over to check on Taylor's safety practices. As far as he could tell, the friend said, the boy was getting it right. But he warned that radiation works in quick and complex ways. By the time Taylor learned from a mistake, it might be too late.
Lead pigs and glazed plates were only the beginning. Soon Taylor was getting into more esoteric "naughties"—radium quack cures, depleted uranium, radio-luminescent materials—and collecting mysterious machines, such as the mass spectrometer given to him by a former astronaut in Houston. As visions of Chernobyl haunted his parents, Taylor tried to reassure them. "I'm the responsible radioactive boy scout," he told them. "I know what I'm doing."
One afternoon, Tiffany ducked her head out of the door to the garage and spotted Taylor, in his canary yellow nuclear-technician's coveralls, watching a pool of liquid spreading across the concrete floor. "Tay, it's time for supper."
"I think I'm going to have to clean this up first."
"That's not the stuff you said would kill us if it broke open, is it?"
"I don't think so," he said. "Not instantly."
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."
"Looking back, I can see that," Ashlee concedes. "I mean, you can tell Taylor that the world doesn't revolve around him. But he doesn't really get that. He's not being selfish, it's just that there's so much going on in his head."
Tiffany, for her part, could have done with less drama. She had just lost her sister, her only sibling. And her mother's cancer had recently come out of remission. "Those were some tough times," Taylor tells me one day, as he uses his mom's gardening trowel to mix up a batch of yellowcake (the partially processed uranium that's the stuff of WMD infamy) in a five-gallon bucket. "But as bad as it was with Grandma dying and all, that urine sure was something."
Taylor looks sheepish. He knows this is weird. "After her PET scan she let me have a sample. It was so hot I had to keep it in a lead pig.
"The other thing is . . ." He pauses, unsure whether to continue but, being Taylor, unable to stop himself. "She had lung cancer, and she'd cough up little bits of tumor for me to dissect. Some people might think that's gross, but I found it scientifically very interesting."
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.
The problem, as he saw it, is that isotopes for diagnosing and treating cancer are extremely short-lived. They need to be, so they can get in and kill the targeted tumors and then decay away quickly, sparing healthy cells. Delivering them safely and on time requires expensive handling—including, often, delivery by private jet. But what if there were a way to make those medical isotopes at or near the patients? How many more people could they reach, and how much earlier could they reach them? How many more people like his grandmother could be saved?
As Taylor stirred the toxic urine sample, holding the clicking Geiger counter over it, inspiration took hold. He peered into the swirling yellow center, and the answer shone up at him, bright as the sun. In fact, it was the sun—or, more precisely, nuclear fusion, the process (defined by Einstein as E=mc2) that powers the sun. By harnessing fusion—the moment when atomic nuclei collide and fuse together, releasing energy in the process—Taylor could produce the high-energy neutrons he would need to irradiate materials for medical isotopes. Instead of creating those isotopes in multimillion-dollar cyclotrons and then rushing them to patients, what if he could build a fusion reactor small enough, cheap enough and safe enough to produce isotopes as needed, in every hospital in the world?
At that point, only 10 individuals had managed to build working fusion reactors. Taylor contacted one of them, Carl Willis, then a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate living in Albuquerque, and the two hit it off. But Willis, like the other successful fusioneers, had an advanced degree and access to a high-tech lab and precision equipment. How could a middle-school kid living on the Texas/Arkansas border ever hope to make his own star?
When Taylor was 13, just after his grandmother's doctor had given her a few weeks to live, Ashlee sent Tiffany and Kenneth an article about a new school in Reno. The Davidson Academy is a subsidized public school for the nation's smartest and most motivated students, those who score in the top 99.9th percentile on standardized tests. The school, which allows students to pursue advanced research at the adjacent University of Nevada–Reno, was founded in 2006 by software entrepreneurs Janice and Robert Davidson. Since then, the Davidsons have championed the idea that the most underserved students in the country are those at the top.
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. "After that," Tiffany said, "we didn't think it would go anywhere. Kenneth and I were a bit relieved."
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."
Phaneuf invited Taylor to sit in on his upper-division nuclear physics class and introduced him to technician Bill Brinsmead. Brinsmead, a Burning Man devotee who often rides a wheeled replica of the Little Boy bomb through the desert, was at first reluctant to get involved in this 13-year-old's project. But as he and Phaneuf showed Taylor around the department's equipment room, Brinsmead recalled his own boyhood, when he was bored and unchallenged and aching to build something really cool and difficult (like a laser, which he eventually did build) but dissuaded by most of the adults who might have helped.
Rummaging through storerooms crowded with a geeky abundance of electron microscopes and instrumentation modules, they came across a high-vacuum chamber made of thick-walled stainless steel, capable of withstanding extreme heat and negative pressure. "Think I could use that for my fusor?" Taylor asked Brinsmead. "I can't think of a more worthy cause," Brinsmead said.
Now it's Tiffany who drives, along a dirt road that wends across a vast, open mesa a few miles south of the runways shared by Albuquerque's airport and Kirkland Air Force Base. Taylor has convinced her to bring him to New Mexico to spend a week with Carl Willis, whom Taylor describes as "my best nuke friend." Cocking my ear toward the backseat, I catch snippets of Taylor and Willis's conversation.
"The idea is to make a gamma-ray laser from stimulated decay of dipositronium."
"I'm thinking about building a portable, beam-on-target neutron source."
"Need some deuterated polyethylene?"
Willis is now 30; tall and thin and much quieter than Taylor. When he's interested in something, his face opens up with a blend of amusement and curiosity. When he's uninterested, he slips into the far-off distractedness that's common among the super-smart. Taylor and Willis like to get together a few times a year for what they call "nuclear tourism"—they visit research facilities, prospect for uranium, or run experiments.
Earlier in the week, we prospected for uranium in the desert and shopped for secondhand laboratory equipment in Los Alamos. The next day, we wandered through Bayo Canyon, where Manhattan Project engineers set off some of the largest dirty bombs in history in the course of perfecting Fat Man, which leveled Nagasaki.
Today we're searching for remnants of a "broken arrow," military lingo for a lost nuclear weapon. While researching declassified military reports, Taylor discovered that a Mark 17 "Peacemaker" hydrogen bomb, which was designed to be 700 times as powerful as the bomb detonated over Hiroshima, was accidentally dropped onto this mesa in May 1957. For the U.S. military, it was an embarrassingly Strangelovian episode; the airman in the bomb bay narrowly avoided his own Slim Pickens moment when the bomb dropped from its gantry and smashed the B-36's doors open. Although its plutonium core hadn't been inserted, the bomb's "spark plug" of conventional explosives and radioactive material detonated on impact, creating a fireball and a massive crater. A grazing steer was the only reported casualty.
Tiffany parks the rented SUV among the mesquite, and we unload metal detectors and Geiger counters and fan out across the field. "This," says Tiffany, smiling as she follows her son across the scrubland, "is how we spend our vacations."
Willis says that when Taylor first contacted him, he was struck by the 12-year-old's focus and forwardness—and by the fact that he couldn't plumb the depth of Taylor's knowledge with a few difficult technical questions. After checking with Kenneth, Willis sent Taylor some papers on fusion reactors. Then Taylor began acquiring pieces for his new machine.
Through his first year at Davidson, Taylor spent his afternoons in a corner of Phaneuf's lab that the professor had cleared out for him, designing the reactor, overcoming tricky technical issues, tracking down critical parts. Phaneuf helped him find a surplus high-voltage insulator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Willis, then working at a company that builds particle accelerators, talked his boss into parting with an extremely expensive high-voltage power supply.
With Brinsmead and Phaneuf's help, Taylor stretched himself, applying knowledge from more than 20 technical fields, including nuclear and plasma physics, chemistry, radiation metrology and electrical engineering. Slowly he began to test-assemble the reactor, troubleshooting pesky vacuum leaks, electrical problems and an intermittent plasma field.
Shortly after his 14th birthday, Taylor and Brinsmead loaded deuterium fuel into the machine, brought up the power, and confirmed the presence of neutrons. With that, Taylor became the 32nd individual on the planet to achieve a nuclear-fusion reaction. Yet what would set Taylor apart from the others was not the machine itself but what he decided to do with it.
While still developing his medical isotope application, Taylor came across a report about how the thousands of shipping containers entering the country daily had become the nation's most vulnerable "soft belly," the easiest entry point for weapons of mass destruction. Lying in bed one night, he hit on an idea: Why not use a fusion reactor to produce weapons-sniffing neutrons that could scan the contents of containers as they passed through ports? Over the next few weeks, he devised a concept for a drive-through device that would use a small reactor to bombard passing containers with neutrons. If weapons were inside, the neutrons would force the atoms into fission, emitting gamma radiation (in the case of nuclear material) or nitrogen (in the case of conventional explosives). A detector, mounted opposite, would pick up the signature and alert the operator.
He entered the reactor, and the design for his bomb-sniffing application, into the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The Super Bowl of pre-college science events, the fair attracts 1,500 of the world's most switched-on kids from some 50 countries. When Intel CEO Paul Otellini heard the buzz that a 14-year-old had built a working nuclear-fusion reactor, he went straight for Taylor's exhibit. After a 20-minute conversation, Otellini was seen walking away, smiling and shaking his head in what looked like disbelief. Later, I would ask him what he was thinking. "All I could think was, 'I am so glad that kid is on our side.' "
For the past three years, Taylor has dominated the international science fair, walking away with nine awards (including first place overall), overseas trips and more than $100,000 in prizes. After the Department of Homeland Security learned of Taylor's design, he traveled to Washington for a meeting with the DHS's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which invited Taylor to submit a grant proposal to develop the detector. Taylor also met with then–Under Secretary of Energy Kristina Johnson, who says the encounter left her "stunned."
"I would say someone like him comes along maybe once in a generation," Johnson says. "He's not just smart; he's cool and articulate. I think he may be the most amazing kid I've ever met."
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.
After about an hour of searching across the mesa, our detectors begin to beep. We find bits of charred white plastic and chunks of aluminum—one of which is slightly radioactive. They are remnants of the lost hydrogen bomb. I uncover a broken flange with screws still attached, and Taylor digs up a hunk of lead. "Got a nice shard here," Taylor yells, finding a gnarled piece of metal. He scans it with his detector. "Unfortunately, it's not radioactive."
"That's the kind I like," Tiffany says.
Willis picks up a large chunk of the bomb's outer casing, still painted dull green, and calls Taylor over. "Wow, look at that warp profile!" Taylor says, easing his scintillation detector up to it. The instrument roars its approval. Willis, seeing Taylor ogling the treasure, presents it to him. Taylor is ecstatic. "It's a field of dreams!" he yells. "This place is loaded!"
Suddenly we're finding radioactive debris under the surface every five or six feet—even though the military claimed that the site was completely cleaned up. Taylor gets down on his hands and knees, digging, laughing, calling out his discoveries. Tiffany checks her watch. "Tay, we really gotta go or we'll miss our flight."
"I'm not even close to being done!" he says, still digging. "This is the best day of my life!" By the time we manage to get Taylor into the car, we're running seriously late. "Tay," Tiffany says, "what are we going to do with all this stuff?"
"For $50, you can check it on as excess baggage," Willis says. "You don't label it, nobody knows what it is, and it won't hurt anybody." A few minutes later, we're taping an all-too-flimsy box shut and loading it into the trunk. "Let's see, we've got about 60 pounds of uranium, bomb fragments and radioactive shards," Taylor says. "This thing would make a real good dirty bomb."
In truth, the radiation levels are low enough that, without prolonged close-range exposure, the cargo poses little danger. Still, we stifle the jokes as we pull up to curbside check-in. "Think it will get through security?" Tiffany asks Taylor.
"There are no radiation detectors in airports," Taylor says. "Except for one pilot project, and I can't tell you which airport that's at."
As the skycap weighs the box, I scan the "prohibited items" sign. You can't take paints, flammable materials or water on a commercial airplane. But sure enough, radioactive materials are not listed.
We land in Reno and make our way toward the baggage claim. "I hope that box held up," Taylor says, as we approach the carousel. "And if it didn't, I hope they give us back the radioactive goodies scattered all over the airplane." Soon the box appears, adorned with a bright strip of tape and a note inside explaining that the package has been opened and inspected by the TSA. "They had no idea," Taylor says, smiling, "what they were looking at."
Apart from the fingerprint scanners at the door, Davidson Academy looks a lot like a typical high school. It's only when the students open their mouths that you realize that this is an exceptional place, a sort of Hogwarts for brainiacs. As these math whizzes, musical prodigies and chess masters pass in the hallway, the banter flies in witty bursts. Inside humanities classes, discussions spin into intellectual duels.
Although everyone has some kind of advanced obsession, there's no question that Taylor is a celebrity at the school, where the lobby walls are hung with framed newspaper clippings of his accomplishments. Taylor and I visit with the principal, the school's founders and a few of Taylor's friends. Then, after his calculus class, we head over to the university's physics department, where we meet Phaneuf and Brinsmead.
Taylor's reactor, adorned with yellow radiation-warning signs, dominates the far corner of Phaneuf's lab. It looks elegant—a gleaming stainless-steel and glass chamber on top of a cylindrical trunk, connected to an array of sensors and feeder tubes. Peering through the small window into the reaction chamber, I can see the golf-ball-size grid of tungsten fingers that will cradle the plasma, the state of matter in which unbound electrons, ions and photons mix freely with atoms and molecules.
"OK, y'all stand back," Taylor says. We retreat behind a wall of leaden blocks as he shakes the hair out of his eyes and flips a switch. He turns a knob to bring the voltage up and adds in some gas. "This is exactly how me and Bill did it the first time," he says. "But now we've got it running even better."
Through a video monitor, I watch the tungsten wires beginning to glow, then brightening to a vivid orange. A blue cloud of plasma appears, rising and hovering, ghostlike, in the center of the reaction chamber. "When the wires disappear," Phaneuf says, "that's when you know you have a lethal radiation field."
I watch the monitor while Taylor concentrates on the controls and gauges, especially the neutron detector they've dubbed Snoopy. "I've got it up to 25,000 volts now," Taylor says. "I'm going to out-gas it a little and push it up."
Willis's power supply crackles. The reactor is entering "star mode." Rays of plasma dart between gaps in the now-invisible grid as deuterium atoms, accelerated by the tremendous voltages, begin to collide. Brinsmead keeps his eyes glued to the neutron detector. "We're getting neutrons," he shouts. "It's really jamming!"
Taylor cranks it up to 40,000 volts. "Whoa, look at Snoopy now!" Phaneuf says, grinning. Taylor nudges the power up to 50,000 volts, bringing the temperature of the plasma inside the core to an incomprehensible 580 million degrees—some 40 times as hot as the core of the sun. Brinsmead lets out a whoop as the neutron gauge tops out.
"Snoopy's pegged!" he yells, doing a little dance. On the video screen, purple sparks fly away from the plasma cloud, illuminating the wonder in the faces of Phaneuf and Brinsmead, who stand in a half-orbit around Taylor. In the glow of the boy's creation, the men suddenly look years younger.
Taylor keeps his thin fingers on the dial as the atoms collide and fuse and throw off their energy, and the men take a step back, shaking their heads and wearing ear-to-ear grins.
"There it is," Taylor says, his eyes locked on the machine. "The birth of a star."
Tom Clynes is a contributing editor at Popular Science.
Not jealous at all, but I can understand how you'd misunderstand my comment.
Let me make it clear: 90% of everything I did when I was his age was garbage, too. 90% of what all of us prizewinning wonderkids did was garbage. No surprise: we were kids, we'd spent maybe a few years playing in some area of science, and our heads were full of nonsense as well as a bit of knowledge. Yet we were encouraged to think we were, actually, geniuses; that our accomplishments were way above those of ordinary teenagers; and that we would surely prosper with our extraordinary talents.
We were used by educators with elitist notions, by the promoters of competitions and their corporate sponsors, and by the media, for whom this kind of story is a staple.
I know that this story is hype because I remember and still have the clippings of stories about young me. And I know the truth.
Teenage kids essentially never come up with something unique, new and important in science. There is no evidence here that Taylor Wilson has. Teenagers are also essentially never competitive at the top of any scientific field. They may be way ahead of their peers, but that's a long way from meriting "genius" laurels.
"Genius" is mainly just another kind of hero worship, and it properly goes to those who actually make great contributions, not to people who are just smart, or ahead of the curve while still young.
A lot of smart kids and smart adults never accomplish much of anything. Part of the reason for this is that the real world can be a very harsh place, and basically, nobody cares how smart you are, or were; they only care if they can use you for their own purposes. It's pretty important to understand this if you want to actually get ahead, and getting so much hyped-up praise at a young age can cause you to have some very unrealistic expectations.
The work for Taylor Wilson lies ahead, and so do lots of pitfalls. Believing that by building a plasma neutron generator and being featured in stories like this one, he has accomplished something great, is one huge trap which I sincerely hope he does not fall into.
He /has/ already done something useful. From Wikipedia:
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Energy offered federal funding to Wilson concerning research Wilson has conducted in building inexpensive Cherenkov radiation detectors; Wilson has declined on an interim basis due to pending patent issues. Traditional Cherenkov detectors usually cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (USD), while Wilson invented a working detector that cost a few hundred dollars. In May 2011, Wilson entered his radiation detector in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair against a field of 1,500 competitors and won a $50,000 award. The project was entitled “Countering Nuclear Terrorism: Novel Active and Passive Techniques for Detecting Nuclear Threats” and won the First Place Award in the Physics and Astronomy Category, Best of Category Award, and the Intel Young Scientist Award.
I'd say that's fairly 'unique, new and important'.
Tremendous article, wonderful stuff. Tom Clynes is a writer's writer, a master craftsman. My gratitude is darn near unbounded.
While the young man in the article is really smart and very surprising to all of us as we read the article, sorry if I do not enjoy the same bowl of corn flakes you are eating.
Did you ever consider in life, you will get or receive exactly what you believe in life, at the end? So at the end, we may both be correct. I hope you enjoy your journey of science and have a complete understanding of science and biology of worms as they devour your body bit by bit. I choose to see life and its journey much further. Take care.
Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses.
This is one of the best articles I have seen lately on PopSci. Indeed my faith in mankind has been replenished. Taylor Wilson is the child I had wished I grew up to be when I first started reading Popular Science.
Cerenkov radiation is light which is created when high-energy massive particles pass through some material medium in which the speed of light is lower than the speed of the particles. It is detected with any photosensor; to make a high-sensitivity radiation detector one uses a high-sensitivity photosensor such as a photomultiplier tube or avalanche solid-state sensor. I do not doubt that Wilson was able to build one for a few hundred bucks. Any competent experimental physicist could do as well. I also don't doubt that commercial units have prices that range much higher, although "hundreds of thousands" is either wrong or refers to a system which is much more than a single detector and also much more than anything Wilson could possibly have built. As for the government "offer" of funding, you know, DHS among all government agencies is especially notorious for ripoffs and money thrown at bad ideas, and even so, I doubt that the story is being accurately reported here. More likely the bureaucrats told him he could probably get a grant if he had a company and submitted a proposal, but he doesn't have the company, doesn't have the patent rights cleared, and so he hasn't submitted a proposal. The bottom line is, maybe Wilson did come up with a nice detector design, but that's just the sort of thing someone his age might be able to do. The rest of this is just more hype. It always is.
Hah! I looked at Wilson's website; he didn't even come up with any particularly efficient detector design; he just bolted a photomultiplier on top of a can of water. No wonder there is a patent issue. What is praiseworthy here is to have recognized that such a detector would be a low-cost alternative to DHS's since-shelved plan to deploy hundreds of giant portal monitors with detectors based on He-3; a boondoggle which was going to dry up the nation's supply of a rare isotope which is much more valuable for other uses. Wilson is not the only person to have criticized this, and I doubt he was the first to recognize Cerenkov/H2O as a possible alternative. If he was, where is the peer-reviewed journal publication? Nice science fair project.
I see what you're saying and your comments have a lot of truth to them, but Taylor looks like the kind of person who will be capable of doing something important. Just because he hasn't done anything world-changing yet doesn't rule anything out, and there's no denying that he has a strong interest in the field of nuclear physics and has made plenty of steps in the right direction to pursue a life of work in that field. The hype might even do him some good; who wouldn't want to make the most of their abilities when they have the support of researchers, scientists, and the media?
This kid has plenty of potential, and being cynical about stories like this gets nobody anywhere.
For those ready to accuse me of putting down young Mr. Wilson, I'm really not. My beef is more with popsci, et al., for this over-the-top publicity hype which I don't think is healthy either for its subject or for other kids (and adults) left feeling that they can't possibly compete with such natural brilliance. Especially rhetoric like "someone like him comes along maybe once in a generation" and inflation of his achievements as already representing important contributions to science and to national security.
What is clearly outstanding about Wilson is his energy and determination in pursuing his interests, bearing in mind that he has also benefited from an extraordinary amount of help. If he keeps that up, and doesn't turn into a publicity freak, I expect that a productive and rewarding career lies ahead of him.
The biggest difference between this kid and David Hahn is that this kid comes from money. I'm not disparaging that he has resources, but he didn't get these connections or his grasp of social politics from natural disposition. His dad is / was president of the Coca Cola bottling of Arkansas -- this is a high 5 figure - 6 figure salary ATM. You can google Kenneth Wilson Arkansas Coca Cola and you'll find his manta.com profile.
And for those who think it's so progressive to rent a crane for your son's birthday, it was probably as much of a difficulty as it is for Steven Spielburg to buy a pony for his daughter just because she 'wanted' one.
Let's put things in persepective here -- Land Rover, Coca Cola President, just picks up and moves from AK to Reno for the kid to go to school. Obviously this kid is a genius, but the reason for success is more obvious than just 'supportive parents' it's 'really rich and socially rich supportive parents.' There is nothing we can learn from this that hasnt been shown for thousands of years of feudalism -- smart kids who have the means will come to the top, sometimes Horatio Alger will surface. The odds are stacked for geniuses like this, and stacked against someone like David Hahn. We should lionize someone like David Hahn, but unfortunately he's in jail now last I heard.
I went to one of those high schools where football was first, baseball or basketball second and academics were several rungs below that. High school was awful. The jocks got too much leeway.
However in my junior year I started to meet a few people for whom academics were a priority and a few teachers that supported them above all else. I wrote computer programs that my teacher didn't even understand. I still got a low 'C' in the class. I wasn't a genius, just a kid who was interested in anything but football, baseball or basketball.
College offered a bit more opportunity to explore science and so did my Dad's garage and now my own garage. I went on to get an engineering degree, spent six years in the Navy (Electrician, Nuke program), do well for my family today.
We need to celebrate these kids more than we do. They need to be encouraged as much as the kids who run around carrying or chasing a ball on a field or court. THIS is the reason that the Asian and Indian kids do so well in school. They get alot of pressure yes, but they also get alot of encouragement.
I worry about this family's garage. I wouldn't want to risk my family's health sharing walls with the toxic mess shown in the pictures. As a parent I am not going to allow my child (a novice) to make promises he may or may not be able to back up with real facts. As a parent I get the final word on what goes on in my house or on my property. Would I work extra hard to get this kid into classes and programs so he could mix with professionals to learn and experiment? Absolutely.
It's amazing what we can accomplish without the TV on... ;)
I know of Great Inventor-Scientist, Dr. Nicholas Tesla, Father of Modern Technology & Particle Physics.
He Patented many of his Inventions & started a revolution in the Technology of AC, Radio, Robotics, Digital Computer, etc.,
that has not stopped & is being reapplied it's use now & in the Future of Mankind. He had a 4 dimensional mind that is
a gift from his ancestor, the primates that had a photographic memory.
N. Tesla most fascinating technology was the Tesla Coil, that can generate millions of Volts & produce an
electrical output called: Longitudinal Magneto Dielectric Wave, that can travel faster than the speed of light(1.53)
with time & can produce all the Plasma you need for Fusion. A Russian Engineer was able converted it to regular A/C output.
Is 99.99 o/o efficient. N. Tesla was definitely the Man Out Of Time.
An Engineer Eric Dollard explain it all of in youtube.
Myself I used one of his Patent, the Ozone(O3) Machine to cure cancer of my mother, daughter, puppy dog after she ate some
Castor Beans, my friend's dying fish that was lain on his side & barely breathing & came back to life in 5 minutes & used it on
What the Ozone(O3) does it builds a person's Immune System & gets rid of toxic in the body.
You are very lucky to have parents so understanding & are on your side of your achievements.
Only one word of advice is Safety First on your work!
I hope you will be called: The Father of the Future Innovations of Science & Technologies.
Take Care & the Best of Luck in Your Future.
Oscar A Ros
OMG... get this kid the money and research facilities he needs ... he probably can have a usable Fusion reactor that produces an abundance of surplus of power in 5 years.... give him free reign... challenge him to give us independence from fossils fuels... this is a diamond in the rough but a true science Gem... heck how about fusion powered space shuttle, mars, and beyond
"Science sees no further than what it can sense."
I believe Einstein would beg to differ.
"Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses."
No. Science is when dreams become reality.
Religion is when dreams are mistaken for reality.
Amazing stuff! This guy's managed to get all the pieces in place (and I'm not talking about his fusion reactor). The capacity of the mind is awe-inspiring....
I'm just as fascinated with the comments, though (well, *almost* as fascinated).
I'm struck by the idea of people second-guessing this kid's parenting. One contributor wrote: "Shouldn't we draw our conclusions based on the methods instead of the result?" [marcoreid] There *_are_* no methods for raising kids like this (come to think of it, there may not be 'methods' for raising kids at all!). Every person is a context unto him- or herself, and each has to be addressed individually. If a kid has an appetite for knowledge, feed it! If that puts him or her in a situation that requires added safety, make sure that those features are there. All you can ever do - with any kid - is wing it.
It's also astounding how many people claim they are just as bright as this guy, but something held them back. I'm not in a position to say, one way or the other - that's between you and your gods, your conscience, and/or your psychiatrist. But if you had a crappy upbringing that didn't allow you to reach your potential, welcome to humanity... all of us hit limits at some point, and all of us have baggage. The thing is, we also have this remarkable capacity to heal (it's what we do best - we've been doing it since the first cell division), and that includes the ability to go back and 're-parent' ourselves where needed. People do it all the time. Get out of the self-justification and complaining mode, and get on with becoming who you're meant to be. We'll all be better off (including you), if you do.
Unusually smart kid and compelling story. Know a few people like that, and they almost blew themselves up a few times.
There should be more schools for the gifted. Public schools tend to be more machinated these days, because of their size, political correctness, and bureaucracy, so these kids don't get much out of it or can actually be stifled by it. These parents certainly weren't stifling.
But something about the article bothered me. Maybe it was the way the parents were letting their kid run things while playing with chemicals that could blow up the whole town.
It just seems careless, and kind of egotistical and selfish on their part. I am all for nurturing gifted kid's abilities, but not at the behest of harming innocent people. Send the kid to a university lab FIRST, where he can be protected. That is the parent's duty, at least until 18. Honestly, I'm surprised the cops didn't call out the bomb squad!
Their argument was that they couldn't stop him even if they tried. This is a highly gifted kid, but still a kid,and the parents are responsible for his behavoir. Instead, they brought him up indulging his every whim. Sure, teenagers will get around rules if they want to, and get into trouble,or even get themselves killed. Teenager's like to test authority, to know the limits of their power. Teenage years are rough years for parents. It's a give and take, for sure.
But allowing him to handle something that not even Einstein fully understood seems presumptuous and irresponsible. Just because my kid can communicate with sharks, doesn't mean I should throw him in the tank.
What if the kid had blown himself up? A very different article would have been written.
Also, kind of disturbing that any smart kid could find on the internet the ingredients to build something that leveled Hiroshima is scary. Pandora's box has been opened.
Regarding the negative comments: I'm one of the neighbors. Taylor would knock on our door wearing his lab coat and teach us about things going on in the neighborbood. He has the most incredible, responsible parents you could ever meet and we were never worried about his experiments. I suggest you don't judge his parents considering you don't know them.
Awesome kid. Congrats Taylor on what you have accomplished so far. I'm not talking about the nuke stuff, but the attitude toward learning and doing on your own. You will need that later in life when you choose to actually do something good for the world.
I encourage you to take full advantage of the perks that society has blessed you with while you can. They don't last and in fact, they get much harder. These days, if you're under 18 and you "accomplish" something outstanding (even proving that you can learn faster than the rest of the pack), people will shower you with praise. Once you turn 21 or graduate college, you can only get support if you have credentials behind you. (19-20 yr olds are a gray area.)
As someone in the same group as many commenters (gifted but not privileged enough to get anything praised beyond family and friends), I can tell you that there is literally no way besides pure luck to get something big accomplished without that socially accredited credibility. Everything you do comes off like whining and complaining or it goes the other way and appears as arrogance. If you're like most of us, you'll go learn other related subjects quickly and on your own and return for another try. The more you learn, the worse it gets. The more you create, the worse it gets also. You'll find yourself dumbing down how you act just to fit in. And should you be stricken with morals guiding what you do, you won't even do well in the science field. No one wants a scientist to tell them they can't use your creation to rape society of more money. You're only hope is to get a high paying research job at a university lab and hope they let you study what interests you. That's the path my HS rival took and while he makes a ton of money, I wouldn't want to be him!
Should you want to create things that genuinely change the world for the better, (and this offer includes the other gifted commenters), take a look at the facebook group "Occupy Prosperity". We're gathering and coordinating the talent it takes to bring the tools to market that people need in order to solve every one of today's 20 biggest problems. We have most of them theoretically solved and are working on implementation but we could always use some additional help. It's amazing what a group of people can do together with a common set of goals!
Wow, all I can say is this makes me think that if the world ends up blowing apart, he might have a hand in it. Im not talking on purpose, but no doubt completely by accident. On a serious note, this kid needs to harness all that brain power and get this nation running back where it should be scientifically. I believe he could do it by himself!
More power to you Taylor!
Your comments are less than helpful. You may have had a different experience with the work you did and how you perceived your work and yourself, but you cannot speak for or judge Mr. Wilson.
You claim 90% of the work, interests, thoughts Mr. Wilson has are "garbage". Relative to what? You seem to compare a student's work to some absolute standard of usefulness that really has no bearing. What Mr. Wilson has done has merit now, regardless whether he pursues it further with success or not and regardless of what he may or may not achieve in the future. Gaining knowledge and exploring the world around you with passion is not 90% garbage in any sense.
WOW, I,...just,..ah,...WOW !!!!
I used to ride my Dirt Bike and had some summer party's in Bayo Canyon when I was in Middle School...aahh the fun of living in Los Alamos.
I wish I was that smart......but it would be pretty deadly to be that smart! LOL
the term for a lost nuke is "empty quiver". "Broken Arrow" is a call for an airstrike.
Seems like fun, until an accident occurs and we read about criminal charges. What about the bomb making materials and the formula for a dirty bomb? But its all in fun, say the editors of Popular Science. Not to mention the fact nuclear safety and security has been relegated to sophomoric expression of fun in the garage. The size of an event situation is only a matter of the quantity/mass of the materials to be utilized.
"Let’s see, we’ve got about 60 pounds of uranium, bomb fragments and radioactive shards,” Taylor says. “This thing would make a real good dirty bomb.”In truth, the radiation levels are low enough that, without prolonged close-range exposure, the cargo poses little danger. Still, we stifle the jokes as we pull up to curbside check-in. “Think it will get through security?” Tiffany asks Taylor.
“There are no radiation detectors in airports,” Taylor says. “Except for one pilot project, and I can’t tell you which airport that’s at.”
We land in Reno and make our way toward the baggage claim. “I hope that box held up,” Taylor says, as we approach the carousel. “And if it didn’t, I hope they give us back the radioactive goodies scattered all over the airplane.” Soon the box appears, adorned with a bright strip of tape and a note inside explaining that the package has been opened and inspected by the TSA. “They had no idea,” Taylor says, smiling, “what they were looking at.”
Such security at airports, but lets take the shoes off of grandma and strip search her as obviously she's a threat. The idiocy of government's officials never ends.
Having been assigned at various military assignments where the "ranges," current and old, were strewn with ordinance exploded and unexploded I am surprised by this statement and wonder about the credibility of the article or the effectiveness of security in an area which should be off limits. (Refering to a lost thermo nuclear device} "Willis picks up a large chunk of the bomb’s outer casing, still painted dull green, and calls Taylor over. “Wow, look at that warp profile!” Taylor says, easing his scintillation detector up to it. The instrument roars its approval. Willis, seeing Taylor ogling the treasure, presents it to him. Taylor is ecstatic. “It’s a field of dreams!” he yells. “This place is loaded!”
The moral to this story is obvious to this old soldier, "Homeland Security" is a joke. This article, if true, exposes at least 2 serious lapses in preventive security measures.
I feel that I agree with those whom state that this may be an incident of another 'radioactive boyscout' that was simply contained by indulging the child. I think the author of the article goes into a bit of creative imagination trying to make it appear as if the selfishness of a child was really just the higher intellect of a superior being. If he hadn't been indulged he might have been quite dangerous with his little explosive, or perhaps I should say not so little explosive experiments.
And certainly, one accidental fire or violent weather event could have spelled disasterous with his garage filled with such materials. The 'amusing' little story about him spilling radioactive liquid on the dirveway was not funny to me in the least. Not to mention the almost gleeful story about how they illegally transported uranium from a site the army had claimed was cleaned up. Regardless of any lack of signs, there are laws about the transport of hazardous materials, and this is an admission that they were broken.
This child, most likely, has been very lucky. And that he eventaully ended up with adults helping him reduced the chances of accidents. yet they also have taught him that rules do not matter, rather it's what he desires and can get away with that is what is truely important.
Also, as someone who usually tested in the top 15%-20% of america's students, I was appalled at the comment that the top one percent of americas students are the least served. I ran my schools computers for them in the sixth grade, I was interested in psychology, physics, military history and reading far, far beyond my level for years at this point, but I was continuously being pulled from school programs that ran out of money, or were cancelled because of policy changes. I was from a poor family in a small southern city. I have met several people who run the entire line of student profiles, rich, intelligent students that recieved good educations but lacked the motivation to do anything, relying on their inheritances to support themselves, as well as I've also had friends, just as bright or smarter than myself, who have floundered in life due to a lack of education that brought out their skills and talents. So how can the top one percent have these opportunities before them, in alot of caces perhaps not everything they deserve, yet HOW can you compair this to other students, still bright and desiring to learn, yet they fall totally out of the school systems entirely?
This article makes me think we still have the same ages old problem of those who live in the ivory towers of intellectual society are detacted from the reality around them, sheltered too much by campus life and the coddled environment of researchers who are more comfortable confronting the mysteries of science than facing the realities of the world they live in and the people they share it with.
At some point everyone is a risk. From the extremely dangerous Da Vinci with his radicle ideas, Einstein playing god or Curry trying to peer through our skin.
The fact is this young man has been found, is able to publish and is now supervised. Instead of taking a negative look at what could have been.....i.e. (if the Manhattan Project would have evaporated the earth) and let's use this and other new Eisteins and figure out the worlds issues.
There will always be those resistant to change; who needs a light bulb when we can run gas lamps? The nay sayers help create restraints that are necessary for the truly innovative to overcome and better the brillant ideas they fester.
@Midoman, advanced propulsion _is_ the means to simulated gravity.
Think of the nose of the craft as 'up', not 'forward'; continuous thrust - even at ~0.1g - would simultaneously radically reduce flight duration and provide a (relatively) hospitable environment for the crew/passengers.
Of course, in order to not blow past the destination at galactic escape velocity, the vehicle would need to 'flip' at midcourse, and decelerate continuously for the remainder.
Great Story. Those who say can't need to get out of the way of those of that are doing it.
Great Story. Those who say can't need to get out of the way of those of us that are doing it.