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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Boy Who Played With Fusion

Glenn Reynolds linked to this article at Popular Science about Taylor Wilson, a young genius that became the youngest person to achieve fusion. However, it must have been difficult being his parents. From the article:
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.”

... 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.
 Taylor eventually was enrolled in the the Davidson Academy, a school in Nevada for the extremely gifted where he was able to pursue his dream of developing small fusion reactors to produce neutrinos to detect weapons. The article indicates that he has even received a DHS grant.

Anyway, it is an interesting read. Check out the whole thing.

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