Would You Let Your Kids Play With Fusion?

The boy who played with fusion,
Taylor mixing methanol and sodium hydroxide in a biodiesel production experiment. (image permission: Wilson family)

Science is basic to who we are. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “I can’t think of any more human activity than conducting science experiments… every child is a scientist. And so when I think of science, I think of a truly human activity—something fundamental to our DNA, something that drives curiosity.”

Some kids are driven to push that curiosity ever farther. Or maybe their parents and other adults foster curiosity in a way that lets them take it as far as it will go. That’s a central theme in The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star, a book by Tom Clynes about physics prodigy Taylor Wilson. At age 14, Wilson became “one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor.”

The book is alarming, especially with the danger inherent in Taylor’s early pyrotechnic and, later, radioactive projects. But it’s more alarming to consider how many children are unable to explore their gifts as Taylor and his brother did through their growing up years. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three to five million gifted school-aged children in the U.S., that’s about 6 to 10 percent of the population. And even in prestigious gifted programs, the emphasis is on college prep, affording very few young people the freedom to explore unusual interests. As Clynes warns,

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential.

The book is also inspiring. That’s not limited to Taylor’s accomplishments. It includes his parents and many other adults who have done everything possible to advance his interests. It’s true, few of us have the business and social connections Taylor’s father was able to access. He made a few calls to have a full-sized construction crane brought for Taylor’s sixth birthday party and spoke to a senator in order to get his 11-year-old son a tour of a shut-down nuclear reactor.

Taylor’s parents were also able to connect him with expert mentors. That’s pivotal when most high-achieving adults say having a mentor was vital, yet meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today’s educational environments.

The overall approach Taylor’s parents took is exactly what gifted education specialists prescribe. As Clynes writes, this has to do with “staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allow them to follow and extend their interests.”

Most pioneering and high-achieving adults say that having a mentor was important to their development - but meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today's educational environments. (image permission: Deanne Fitzmaurice/National Geographic)
Most pioneering and high-achieving adults say that having a mentor was important to their development, but meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today’s educational environments. (image permission: Deanne Fitzmaurice/National Geographic)

We’ve found that supporting a child’s fascination with science (and every other subject) is about saying yes. It has little to do with spending money, more to do with putting time into expanding on a child’s interest without taking over. Clynes agrees, reminding parents that they play a pivotal role.

…We parents believe our own children deserve exceptional treatment. And the latest science actually supports our intuition that our children are gifted. A growing body of academic research suggests that nearly all children are capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise and that the processes that guide the development of talent are universal; the conditions that allow it to flourish apply across the entire spectrum of intellectual abilities. Parents, the primary creators of a child’s environment, are the most important catalysts of intellectual development. While there’s no single right way to rear a gifted kid, talent-development experts say there are best practices for nurturing a child’s gifts in ways that lead to high achievement and happiness.

Here are some of those best practices.

  • Starting young, expose children to all sorts of places. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shaping the brain systems that enable effective learning, creativity, self-regulation, and task commitment.”
  • Pay attention to signs of strong interest, then offer the freedom to explore those passions. Studies show strong interests are often fleeting windows of opportunity for talent development that may fizzle if the child doesn’t have opportunities to cultivate them. “Don’t be afraid to pull your kids out of school to give them an especially rich and deep learning experience, especially when it relates to something they’re curious about.”
  • Don’t worry if strong passions don’t develop early on. The learning process has a way of taking off on its own whenever kids find a passion.
  • The major role for parents of children with intellectual or other passions is to facilitate, not push, by connecting them with resources that continue to expand on that interest. In Taylor’s case, most of these resources that gave him hands-on experience.

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector for use in securing borders against nuclear terrorists. He is now 21 years old and a recipient of a 2-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualized education and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.

How comfortable would you be with radioactivity?  (image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
How comfortable would you be with radioactivity?
(image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

GeekMom received a sample for review purposes

Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.