The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star
Tom Clynes is a finalist for the 2016 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star. Clynes traces the story of Taylor Wilson, the youngest person in history to achieve nuclear fusion. In telling Wilson’s story, Clynes explores the ways in which parents and teachers can support high-achieving kids—and in what ways the education system needs to change. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Chapter 9: Trust but Verify
One afternoon, Tiffany ducked her head into Taylor’s garage laboratory to call him in for supper and saw her son in his yellow hazmat coveralls watching a pool of liquid as it spread from an overturned container across the concrete floor.
“Tay, it’s time for supper.”
“I’m going to have to clean this up first.”
“That’s not the stuff you said would kill us if it broke open,” Tiffany asked, “is it?”
“I don’t think so,” Taylor said. “Not instantly.”
Tiffany could have done with less of her son’s drama. She had just lost her sister, her only sibling. And now, after years of remission, her mother’s cancer had come back, so aggressively that Tiffany and Nell had flown to Chicago to see a specialist, who immediately started Nell on a regimen of chemotherapy.
Kenneth and Tiffany had other reasons to stress out that summer. Taylor had just graduated from the sheltering environment of St. James Day School, where he’d thrived. But the couple worried about how their quirky and willful son would fare at the public Texas Middle School, where it was unlikely that he’d find a teacher who’d indulge a ninety-minute monologue on nuclear physics or a principal willing to turn over computer monitors to a kid who wanted to disembowel them to make x-ray machines.
And then there was Joey, who seemed more and more overwhelmed by the hubbub that his brother created at home and wherever they went. While Taylor hammered away at radioactive rocks, played loud music, sang, and detonated homemade bombs, Joey increasingly withdrew into his own world. Tiffany and Kenneth had asked Joey if he wanted to go anyplace special during summer vacation that year, but he’d shrugged and said he was fine with going along with the rest of the family to New Mexico to prospect for uranium, a trip that Taylor had researched, suggested, and planned.
That July, Kenneth’s daughter from his first marriage, Ashlee, then a college student, came to Texarkana for an extended stay. “The explosions in the backyard were getting to be a bit much,” she says. “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 outthink you. I was telling my dad and Tiffany, ‘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.”
“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 and Kenneth had thrown themselves behind their sons’ obsessions, enabling and encouraging them. But they were no longer dealing with the foot-stomping demands of a five-year-old who wanted a real crane for his birthday. Their eleven-year-old nuclear physicist might well be getting everything right, but if he wasn’t . . . well, sometimes parents have to draw an unpopular line, especially when the consequences are so extreme. And Taylor had certainly gone far beyond the line most other reasonable parents would draw.
Why not just say no?
That is, of course, what David Hahn’s parents did. And that’s the point where the trajectories of Taylor Wilson and David Hahn began to diverge. When Hahn lost his parents’ support for his scientific endeavors, he pressed on clandestinely, never again letting anyone into the secret world that was becoming an ever-bigger part of his identity. Once he took his hobby underground, there were no mentors to guide him, no one to check on his safety. That turned out to be a big problem.
Would Taylor have continued with his high-stakes collecting and experimenting in secret if his parents had banned his projects? When I put the question to him, he told me he was convinced that he would never have had to go there. He believed that if he made a rational case, he could talk his parents into anything. But I have little doubt that Taylor could have, and probably would have, gone underground with his scientific pursuits if he’d felt that was the only way to continue. Like Hahn, he had a mix of will and curiosity that drove him to find his way around obstacles. And Taylor was ambitious and smart enough—at a much earlier age—to be at least as dangerous as Hahn had been.
Instead of instinctively doing what most parents would regard as common sense—keeping their child away from things that could kill him—Tiffany and Kenneth shifted to what was essentially a “trust but verify” policy.
“We thought, well, if he’s going to get to where he needs to go, we’ve got to give him a little room to pursue it,” Kenneth says. “The trick was to figure out a way to do that and keep everyone safe.”
Though Kenneth was a natural problem solver, he had already run up against his own educational limits. “I was a business major,” he says, “and I had to grit my teeth to get through the science requirements. I had a lot of faith in Taylor, and he could make compelling, data-supported arguments as to why it was safe. But he’d always talked a good game, and to be honest I was out of my league. I had to find people who had more technical knowledge, who could confirm that he wasn’t just talking in circles.”
And so he began reaching out to business, college, and Rotary Club connections.
Among those he called was a nuclear-pharmacist friend, David Boudreaux. Boudreaux, who owns Red River Pharmacy Services on the Texas side of the border, agreed to come over and check on Taylor’s safety practices. The materials Taylor was working with required careful and specialized techniques to handle safely, Boudreaux said. He added that radiation worked in quick and complex ways. By the time Taylor learned from a mistake, it might be too late.
During sixth grade, Taylor had become consumed with the concept of nuclear transmutation, an idea that extended back to alchemists’ dreams of transforming base metals into gold. The term transmutation dates to the Middle Ages, but it was first used in modern physics in 1901, when Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford discovered that thorium was converting itself into radium through radioactive decay. Soddy yelled out, “Rutherford, this is transmutation!” and Rutherford retorted, “For Christ’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.”
Taylor’s first attempts to induce artificial nuclear reactions followed the example of the experiments of Rutherford and Soddy, who shot an alpha particle into the nucleus of a light element in order to excite it, transform it, and release a free neutron. Taylor didn’t bother trying americium-241 as a source (“At least that’s one thing I learned from David Hahn,” he says); instead, he skipped right to purified radium. Even then, he found that he couldn’t produce enough neutrons to measurably transmute any of the materials he’d assembled.
Hahn, too, wanted to transmute elements. But shortly after he got his driver’s license, at sixteen, he developed a new obsession; he wanted to build a breeder reactor that would generate more fissile material than it consumed. The resourceful Hahn managed to gather a hodgepodge of materials—radium salts, thorium ash, uranium powder, americium-241—and assemble them into a reactor that, he believed, could breed uranium-233 from thorium-232.
But Hahn’s piecemeal scrounging left him far short of the critical mass of fissionable material necessary to create a chain reaction. (The inability to acquire sufficient quantities of these materials, rather than any technical roadblock, is what has thus far kept terrorists and madmen from making their own nuclear bombs.) Held together by duct tape, his so-called breeder reactor looked even less sophisticated than the model of a conventional reactor he had built for his merit badge using coat hangers, soda straws, and a juice can.
In the days after completing his reactor, Hahn noticed that each time he entered his shed laboratory, his Geiger counter clicked faster than it had the day before. Was the reactor actually working? The radiation levels were climbing; clearly, something was going on. One day, he took his Geiger counter outside and realized that radiation was detectable through the concrete foundation. Hahn began to worry that his reactor was heading toward an uncontrolled chain reaction of the type that had felled Ouchi, the Japanese technician, and the Los Alamos physicists.
More likely, the shed was getting increasingly contaminated with loose radioactive particles; he had far too much unshielded radioactive material in one place, and there was no question that there was a very real danger. When the detector began picking up radiation five doors away from his house, Hahn said, “I started to freak out.” He quickly disassembled everything; he stored some of the materials in the house and shed and put the rest into a toolbox that he padlocked, sealed with duct tape, and placed in the trunk of his car.
A few hours later, Hahn was in jail, his car was impounded, and the police bomb squad had been called in, as had the state radiological experts. The discovery of radioactive materials in the trunk of Hahn’s car had automatically triggered the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan. By the next day, the police and officials from two state agencies were joined by teams from four federal agencies.
“After that,” said Hahn, “my life became a nightmare.”
True to his Cajun heritage, David Boudreaux is easygoing and typically ready with a joke for just about any occasion. An avid duck hunter, he moves deliberately—a trait that serves him well in his business, which demands careful and accurate measuring. A nuclear pharmacist by training and an entrepreneur by nature, Boudreaux began building a chain of compounding pharmacies in and around Texarkana that now employs more than a hundred people. He grew his company by specializing in the sorts of things that most pharmacies don’t have the expertise—or desire—to touch.
Red River Pharmacy Services supplies medical-imaging centers with radiopharmaceuticals. “We tag radioactive tracers to drugs, and those drugs carry them to the designated organ,” Boudreaux says. “Then a gamma camera picks up that radioactivity coming out of the body and computer-enhances it into an image to show how an organ is functioning.”
Boudreaux had come to visit Taylor at Kenneth’s request. The two walked toward the garage, and Boudreaux asked Taylor about his most recent experiments. Taylor told him he’d been attempting transmutation, with disappointing results. He’d used a plastic-and-metal cylinder wrapped in paraffin to bombard beryllium, oxygen, and boron with alpha particles in an attempt to produce neutrons. He’d set up three detectors to measure different types of radiation.
Entering the garage, Boudreaux turned on one of the radiation survey meters he’d brought and asked Taylor what he was using as his alpha-radiation source. “When he said radium, I got what we Cajuns call a frisson,” Boudreaux says. “My industry has moved away from radium because it’s so dangerous. But here was an eleven-year-old experimenting with the stuff that had killed some of the pioneers of nuclear physics.”
Boudreaux managed to mask his reaction. “Tell me about your work plan for that experiment,” Boudreaux said.
Taylor took Boudreaux through his process. “For radiation safety, there are three things to pay attention to,” Taylor began. “Time, distance, and shielding.” Taylor told Boudreaux that he organized his tasks to reduce the time of possible exposure. He had his radioactive sources well shielded, and he understood the inverse-square law (intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source). Boudreaux asked Taylor why such a detailed work plan was important.
“Because,” the boy replied, “it keeps you from needing to worry later whether you got it right.”
“Right then, I knew I wasn’t dealing with a normal eleven-year-old,” Boudreaux says.
Taylor had straightened up his lab for Boudreaux’s visit, arranging the usual chaotic jumble into half-organized piles. Boudreaux unpacked his own set of hypersensitive radiation detectors and made his way through Taylor’s lab swabbing surfaces, testing, asking questions about protocols for storing and handling materials. Taylor showed his visitor the gloves he used to handle certain materials, the surgeon’s mask he wore while working, the thermoluminescent dosimeter ring he placed on his finger during experiments.
“If anything, it was overkill for what he was dealing with at the time,” says Boudreaux. “But it would turn out to be good practice since, as we know now, he had more ambitious plans.”
They walked back to the house, where Tiffany and Kenneth were waiting in the kitchen. “No contamination,” Boudreaux announced. He told them he was impressed by the way Taylor was handling himself and that they had nothing to worry about.
After that, Taylor and Boudreaux became good friends. Boudreaux would stop by from time to time to give Taylor spare equipment, and Tiffany or Kenneth would call him for advice on Christmas gifts for Taylor. “Whenever we got worried about something Taylor was doing,” Tiffany says, “we’d ask David to come over again and check things out.”
During dinner that night, Taylor and Boudreaux talked about how isotopes for diagnosing and treating cancer were made, shipped, and administered. “Some of it went over my head,” Tiffany says, “but it turned out to be one of the rare conversations about nuclear stuff I could actually participate in, because of my mom’s cancer and her radium implants.”
In the 1960s, radium implants were still a fairly common approach to treating cervical cancer. Now, cesium-137 (which Taylor had used in his classroom demonstration) is much more common. Kenneth added that in the 1950s, his grandmother’s thyroid goiters were treated with radioactive iodine-131 that, her doctor had told her, “came direct from Oak Ridge.”
Taylor, who had recently read an article about the growing incidence of cancer in the developing world, asked how doctors in Africa got the isotopes they needed for their cancer patients.
“Unfortunately,” Boudreaux said, “they usually can’t.” The expense of making isotopes, the special handling, and the high cost of just-in-time delivery systems have put diagnostic isotopes beyond the reach of much of the world’s population. Even in North America, Boudreaux said, supply crises have developed because of the lack of backup capacity to produce some isotopes.
“I remember,” Tiffany says, “that Taylor seemed upset that some people couldn’t get the isotopes they needed to save their lives. He said it was sad. And then David said something that I didn’t think much of then, but when I think of it now, I get a chill.”
“Maybe,” Boudreaux said, “Taylor will figure out a new way to do it and make all the stuff we’re doing now obsolete.”
Chapter 10: Extreme Parenting
Boudreaux’s willingness to take on the dual role of supportive uncle and expert mentor gave Taylor a new and nearby source of advice and camaraderie. For Tiffany and Kenneth, Boudreaux’s involvement gave them the peace of mind they needed to allow Taylor to continue to collect and experiment. And it marked another milestone in what was an evolving parenting strategy that centered on finding opportunities to help their sons “grow and succeed and discover who they really are,” as Tiffany puts it, “rather than controlling them and telling them who we think they should be.”
On the spectrum of indulgence versus control, the Wilsons and Hahns were at opposite ends. Tiffany and Kenneth approached their sons’ interests as opportunities to intensify their engagement with their children. Ken and Kathy viewed David’s scientific pursuits as challenges to their authority that had to be thwarted, even though Ken and Kathy were, as engineers, more intellectually equipped than the Wilsons to support their young scientist and guide him toward his dreams. Instead, David’s hands-on science interests became a wedge that widened the gulf between the generations.
According to dozens of gifted-education specialists I spoke with, Tiffany and Kenneth’s approach was precisely on target in terms of talent development. The couple seemed to hit nearly all the right marks, at least in their children’s early years, recognizing and engaging with Taylor’s and Joey’s gifts, staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allowed them to follow and extend their interests.
Psychologists and educators are quick to point out the difference between this sort of responsive parenting, in which a child’s chosen interests are supported and encouraged, and “helicopter parenting,” in which overcontrolling and overperfecting parents hover over their children’s every move.
“So often what we see with these bright kids,” says Ellen Winner, who chairs the Department of Psychology at Boston College, “is these very competitive parents steering their children toward things the parents have chosen.” Far better to let children pilot their own helicopters and then get on board with the fuel—time, supplies, mentors, encouragement, and other resources—that can help children explore and extend their interests, whatever they may be.
What was evolving organically in the Wilson family was a remarkable climate of intellectual spoiling. And yet, if you ask Kenneth or Tiffany how they hit on the secret to raising smart kids, they’ll tell you that they really don’t know. Actually, Tiffany will first joke that the magic formula was “health food and Baby Einstein videos.” Then she’ll say that, in all seriousness, she and Kenneth didn’t, at first, put a whole lot of thought into how they’d raise their children. They paid no attention to parenting books; they ignored the advice of other parents; they resisted the often reflexive inclination, which most parents have to some degree, to respond to their children in the ways their own parents had.
“Looking back, the way we parented was almost totally influenced by the kind of first child we had,” Tiffany says. “Taylor was born and we took off on a crazy ride. A lot of the time we were just hanging on, winging it, following our instincts.”
Although teachers, mentors, and others may influence how fully a talented child develops his or her potential, parents are usually the prime architects of a child’s environment and are essential to bringing a young person’s talents—whether common or uncommon—to fruition. “For things to go well depends more than anything on the actions of these crucial early catalysts,” says David Henry Feldman, who directs the Developmental Science Group at Tufts University. “And of all the variables a gifted child faces, that’s the hardest one to get right.”
Feldman began studying profoundly gifted children and their cognitive development in the 1970s and spent ten years tracking six extraordinarily gifted children, whose stories he tells in his 1986 book Nature’s Gambit. Though the body of knowledge about prodigiousness is still thin, Feldman’s research convinced him that, in terms of supporting the development of a prodigy’s talents, a parenting strategy like Tiffany and Kenneth’s was ideal. “Taylor’s parents may not have felt they knew what they were doing, but as luck would have it, their intuition was appropriate for the situation, and they had the wherewithal and the motivation. They were willing to take some risks and to spend time and energy enabling their son’s very unusual pursuits.”
But just as Taylor’s talent for science and Joey’s knack for math seemed to spring from nowhere, so did Tiffany’s and Kenneth’s responses. Where did their effective but counterintuitive reactions come from?
“I don’t actually believe in reincarnation,” says Feldman, “but I do believe that just as intellectual capacity is inherited to a certain extent, so too are parenting responses.” Though Feldman stresses that he is speculating—very few prodigies have been intensively studied, and in any case his hunch would be almost impossible to test and prove—he believes that parents unknowingly bring a lot with them from previous generations. “If there was another science prodigy somewhere in the family history—and I’m willing to bet my thirty-year career that there was, in Taylor’s case—then there were parents who reacted to that prodigy,” Feldman says. “Generations later, when children exhibit a certain behavior, it triggers certain reactions in parents that are part of their own DNA.” What happens next to that child depends to a great extent on what those responses are. “Some parents get it right, some just get it wrong. And some respond in ways that may have been appropriate in 1716 in Bologna but not here and now.”
Were Tiffany and Kenneth drawing on some sort of transgenerational experience as they learned how to parent their gifted children? Kenneth believes there might be something to Feldman’s idea. “At least, I can’t think of another way to explain it. Looking back, I can see that our gut reactions to Taylor grew into a more conscious approach. But at first, honestly, we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time.”
What Tiffany and Kenneth did understand, almost from the beginning, was that they had two boys who were, as Tiffany puts it, “not your normal kids in most ways.” It was clear that both Taylor and Joey were very smart, but Taylor asserted his intelligence with an extreme willfulness and obsession that was by turns confusing, entertaining, and exasperating. Kenneth in particular was baffled by his son, who was so profoundly different than him. Kenneth loves to watch and play the all-American games; Taylor has zero interest in team sports. Kenneth enjoys polishing off a plate of barbecued pork; Taylor, when he can be coaxed into eating, picks at vegetables and an occasional bit of organic free-range chicken breast. As Taylor grew older, he was drawn toward center-left politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, while Kenneth tended to be more conservative politically.
“I figured out a long time ago that Taylor wasn’t interested in what I was interested in,” Kenneth says. “We did expose him to everything normal kids do: T-ball, soccer, skis, Scouting, tennis. He’s agile and he would have made a good athlete if he’d applied himself. But it was all too regimented for him. I tried to get him into golf, but he had no time for that either. He was all focus; he knew exactly what he wanted to do. And I just had to accept that and adapt and do things differently.”
Most significant, Kenneth and Tiffany adapted by opening up opportunities that were outside the mainstream of what’s available to most kids in southern Arkansas. Plenty of parents support their offspring’s interests by buying things for them or dropping them off at the best schools or art centers that money can buy; far fewer put real time and effort into creating customized, hands-on opportunities that meaningfully expand their children’s—and often their own—range of experiences.
Linda Brody, cofounder of the Diagnostic and Counseling Center at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, says that “the first trick is to give kids a lot of exposure to things in their younger years and then to notice what they’re picking up on.” “Taylor and Joey weren’t asking for baseball gloves or electronic gadgets like the other kids,” Tiffany says. “So we introduced them to a lot of things to find out what they were interested in—in Taylor’s case, he let us know in no uncertain terms—then we looked for ways to open doors that brought them in deeper.”
It didn’t hurt that they had a lot of community connections, such as Kenneth’s friend who was willing to bring the crane over for Taylor’s birthday or another family friend who arranged for Taylor to ride along in the helicopter that delivered Santa to a Christmas shopping-center event. When Taylor was researching nuclear reactors, Kenneth called an Arkansas senator who was then pushing for funding to decommission the Southwest Experimental Fast-Oxide Reactor, and the senator arranged for a tour of the shut-down facility, during which officials invited the eleven-year-old to climb inside the nuclear reactor’s core.
Kenneth invited Taylor to a Rotary Club meeting to talk about the experience and about his interests in nuclear power and radioactivity. Kenneth, like teacher Angela Melde, had picked up on the learning-by-talking trait in Taylor, and he wanted to encourage it. As the date for the Rotary presentation approached, though, Kenneth began to get nervous. “I kept asking Taylor if he was going to practice, but he didn’t prepare at all, he winged it. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but he pulled it off; he brought down the house.”
As their sons’ interests expanded, the couple looked beyond Texarkana for ways to open up learning opportunities. When Joey expressed an interest in cooking, Tiffany found a class in southwestern cooking in Santa Fe. While Joey and Tiffany explored the possibilities of poblano peppers and green-chile salsa, Taylor and Kenneth drove to Los Alamos and visited the Bradbury Science Museum. Then the family reconnected to ski and visit the ancient adobes in Taos Pueblo.
“Take your kids places,” say talent-development experts, who can now rely on an extensive and growing body of evidence that suggests that a lasting capacity for creativity is enhanced by early exposure to unusual and diverse situations. Such exposure inspires kids to connect the dots and recognize that “there are a lot of different ways of looking at different things,” says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who has written widely on genius and creativity. Early novel experiences, new psychological research suggests, play a substantial role in shaping the healthy development of brain systems that are important for effective learning and self-regulation, in childhood and beyond.
“We never had qualms about pulling the boys out of school for family trips that fed their interests,” Kenneth says. “Even if they might go down a few points on a test, they’d learn something they otherwise wouldn’t, something that might inform something else down the road.”
Supporting Taylor’s scientific adventures at home would prove to be a much bigger challenge both practically and emotionally. It’s one thing to feed the talents of a kid who’s into geology or horses. It’s quite another to appropriately support a child who wants to experiment with the kinds of materials that keep the world’s leaders awake at night.
People like Dodds, Boudreaux, and later mentors could doublecheck on Taylor’s safety protocols and would eventually reach out to their own networks to help Taylor access the material and intellectual support he needed. As Taylor’s nuclear ambitions grew, Tiffany and Kenneth struggled even more to resist their urge to rein in their son. “It wasn’t easy,” Kenneth tells me, “but we realized that some kids come into this world with a special gift, and we couldn’t keep that from him.”
“Sometimes,” Tiffany says, “the hardest part is to not stand in their way.”
It was about to get a whole lot harder.
Excerpted from The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star by Tom Clynes. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Clynes. Used by permission of Eamon Dolan Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.