Copyright Dennis Mitton
In The Boy Who Played With Fusion Tom Clynes writes an interesting, albeit somewhat creepy, biography of young Taylor Wilson. Taylor is different. He is an obsessive child except obsessive doesn’t capture the bonfire of his drive. He is immovable. He is an arrow shot that never quits until it hits its target. He is single-minded to the point of forgoing food, safety, and friends. He is the youngest person to have built a nuclear fusion reactor. To say that he would be a handful to raise is an understatement.
Clynes braids together three stories. One is the biography of an agonizingly obsessive and catered-to youth, another is a story about ‘extreme parenting’, and another is a story about academic giftedness. Strewn throughout the book is the breadcrumb trail of Taylor’s brother Joey. Joey is gifted, too, but is overshadowed in almost every way by the loud light of his brother. This book is about Taylor and not Joey, but any exploration of parenting and giftedness should have included more on the younger brother who was continually lost in his brother’s shadow.
The story of Taylor is a good one. It’s well written and interesting. The boy is demanding and obsessive from the womb. As a child, he jumps from interest to interest like most kids do except that Taylor jumps in with both feet and drags the family with him. Any boundaries that he bumps into are punctured by his parents for their own sanity. That he is catered to is understandable. I have a child like this myself. You give in or the entire family pays the price. At around ten, Taylor finally settles into nuclear physics and begins collecting gadgets and throw-aways and builds a makeshift ‘lab’ where he conducts experiments. From here Clynes details the story that leads to Taylor developing a fusion reactor in the basement of the University of Nevada. I applaud Taylor for much. When other kids were putting playing cards in their bicycle spokes, Taylor was collecting radioactive rocks and selling them on eBay to support his habit. If an equation stood in the way of his next step he hunkered down and learned the math. Though there is some darkness to the story, Taylor deserves what he has earned.
Interspersed within the story of Taylor’s fusion project are the other threads of the story and they aren’t as bright. Taylor finally lands at an experimental high school in Nevada (The Davidson Academy) for exceptionally intelligent children where he has the same struggles as every high schooler. He stumbles a bit with girls and friends. He crosses lines that he hasn’t been held to in other schools where he was given free reign to roam. But normal teen angst seems exaggerated here where every child is exceptional, preened, and hand-selected. For most of the kids attending this is the first time that they have had to compete for excellence or for attention.
‘Extreme parenting’ is another theme drawn out through the book. If ‘extreme’ means excellent then I’m not sure that I’m on board. From Taylor’s first interests, the Wilson family becomes a business enterprise for keeping Taylor happy. Dad or mom spend weekends driving around the country to placate Taylor and family life revolves around talks, experiments, and the budding celebrity of their oldest child. The younger boy, at least in this book, is left almost entirely in shadows and is often found alone in his bedroom. Gifted too, his interests nor his personality are as loud or spectacular as his brother’s. There is an imbalance here fraught with potential for future problems.
I don’t know Taylor and am guessing that as a young adult he is adjusted and kind. He seems to have a genuine sweetness and is incapable of guile. His effusive love of science, and especially of physics, overrides any boasting or childhood pettiness. The book closes with Taylor’s decision to accept a Thiel Fellowship that comes with a $100,000 grant and the requirement to drop out of school to pursue ‘other work’. It’s not the decision I would have made. There are things he would learn in a university setting that he won’t otherwise. Living at school, reading Spanish peasant lit, competing and collaborating with other people as accomplished as you are, and befriending people from outside your culture and habits are things we rarely pursue on our own. And each is as valuable for health and happiness.
A good weekend read with lots of food for thought. 7e(-0.693(10)/20) stars.