Xconomy Bookclub: A Child Genius Makes His Mark in Nuclear Physics

Xconomy Texas — 

Are innovators born or made? In Tom Clynes’ book on young genius Taylor Wilson, the answer seems to be both.

Clynes begins with Wilson as a precocious 9-year-old, one who had already mastered the science of rocket propulsion, giving an impromptu lecture before a gaggle of fellow tour-takers at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama. His expertise is so good, the guides cede the floor to him.

“The Boy Who Played With Fusion: Extreme Parenting and How to Make a Star” chronicles the young genius’ growth into adulthood. Along the way, Wilson explores a more efficient way to make medical isotopes for cancer treatment (inspired by the illness and death of a beloved grandmother), hunts nuclear sites in Nevada and New Mexico for “hot rocks” and other radioactive souvenirs, and builds a nuclear fusion reactor—in his garage—becoming the youngest person ever to do so.

While the book makes it clear Wilson is a naturally gifted child, the author also makes the case that Wilson was able to take full advantage of those natural abilities because of the extraordinary support his parents and other adults gave him. Clynes is a science journalist who writes for major national magazines, and originally wrote about Wilson for Popular Science. Obviously, the book features a lot of technical science, diving into the deep end of nuclear physics, but Clynes doesn’t write over your head—a good thing for those of us not steeped in nuclear physics.

Some of the situations Wilson gets into give you pause. Scouring the web for nuclear paraphernalia, he builds a collection that includes water samples from Fukushima, Soviet Geiger counters, a plutonium fuel pellet from the Kerr-McGee plant in Oklahoma. (Think “Silkwood.”) Clynes quotes Wilson as saying: “I’ve got a more advanced operation than Iraq ever had right here in my garage.”

Wilson’s stubborn determination wins him other fans from a community of nuclear science enthusiasts he meets online, most of whom didn’t know they were communicating with a teenager.

Clynes also writes that Wilson’s parents’ nearly unconditional support was also key to his success. A Coca-Cola bottler and a yoga teacher in Texarkana, AR, the Wilsons admit to understanding very little of the … Next Page »

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