An account of child genius Taylor Wilson’s successful quest to build his own nuclear reactor at the age of fourteen, and an exploration of how gifted children can be nurtured to do extraordinary things
2016 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award Finalist
“The amazing story of an unbelievable boy . . . The world that opens up to us through his story is both fascinating and slightly terrifying . . . but in a good way. You won’t be able to walk away from this tale.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“Imagine if cartoon whiz kid Jimmy Neutron were real and had a brainchild with MacGyver and his adolescence got told as a rollicking bildungsroman about American prodigies and DIY nuclear reactors—well, that’s this book.” —Jack Hitt, author of Bunch of Amateurs
By the age of nine, Taylor Wilson had mastered the science of rocket propulsion. At eleven, his grandmother’s cancer diagnosis inspired him to investigate new ways to produce medical isotopes. And by fourteen, Wilson had built a 500-million-degree reactor and become the youngest person in history to achieve nuclear fusion. How could someone so young achieve so much, and what can Wilson’s story teach parents and teachers about how to support high-achieving kids?
In The Boy Who Played with Fusion, science journalist Tom Clynes narrates Taylor’s extraordinary journey—from his Arkansas home, to a unique public high school just for academic superstars, to the present, when Wilson is designing devices to prevent terrorists from shipping radioactive material and inspiring a new generation to take on the challenges of science.
“Clynes guides us on an engrossing journey to the outer realms of science and parenting. The Boy Who Played with Fusion is a fascinating exploration of ‘giftedness’ and all its consequences.” —Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish and American Catch
“An essential contribution to our understanding of the most important underlying questions about the development of giftedness, talent, creativity, and intelligence.” —Psychology Today
When I first meet Taylor Wilson he is sixteen and busy—far too busy, he says, to pursue a driver’s license. And so he rides shotgun as his father, Kenneth, zigzags the family’s Land Rover up a steep trail in Nevada’s Virginia Mountains.
From the back seat, I can see Taylor’s gull-like profile, the almost unwavering line from his sandy-blond bangs to his forehead to his prominent nose. His thinness gives him a wraithlike appearance, but when he’s lit up about something (as he is most waking moments), he does not seem frail. He has spent the past two hours—the past few days, really—talking, analyzing, breathlessly evangelizing about nukes. We’ve gone back to the big bang and forward to mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter. In between are fission and fusion, Einstein and Oppenheimer, Chernobyl and Fukushima, matter and antimatter.
Kenneth steers the SUV past a herd of wild mustangs as we climb a series of progressively rougher and narrower dirt roads. This is the third time Taylor has coaxed his dad to these mountains so that he can beef up his collection of uranium ore—part of a broader stockpile of radioactive materials that the teenager has built into one of the most extensive in the world. Kenneth steers around a switchback, flushing a pair of quail, then halts the SUV in front of a small hole dug into the side of a mountain.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Taylor says, throwing open his door.
He leaps out and sprints toward the mine entrance, which is barricaded by a shiny new chainlink fence. “This was my mine!” he shouts. “It was my mine, and they fenced it off!”
The Bureau of Mine Safety has hung a sign on the fence: DANGER: UNSAFE MINE—STAY OUT, STAY ALIVE. The smaller print lists some of the dangers in abandoned mines: bad air, rattlesnakes, old explosives, rotten timbers, falling rocks.
“Okay, now, y’all ignore that,” Taylor says, calming. He turns toward the truck to fetch the gear, scoffing. “Like any mine is going to be safe.”
Taylor “discovered” the Red Bluff Mine the previous year while rifling through a 1953 geology thesis complete with fading Polaroid photos stapled to yellowing paper that he’d found in a forsaken corner of a library at the University of Nevada. Though the mine produced ore commercially for just a few years, the dirt that it cuts through still coughs up, Taylor says, “some of the hottest rocks in Nevada.”
Taylor unloads a pickax and a shovel, flashlights, and three types of Geiger counter. He chides his dad for forgetting his radiation-detecting wristwatch and his ore-collecting buckets—“Looks like we’ll have to be resourceful,” he says—and heads for the fence.
He hoists himself lightly over the top, and Kenneth and I hand the gear to him and then clamber over the chainlink ourselves. When we enter the mine, the Geiger counter’s ticking quickens slightly. It’s late autumn and unseasonably warm—a good thing, since on warm days uranium mines tend to “exhale” radioactive radon gas generated by uranium’s natural decay. In cooler weather, mines “hold their breath,” as Taylor puts it, keeping more radon inside.
Taylor fills me in on mine terminology. The Red Bluff opening is an adit, meaning it enters the side of the mountain roughly horizontally (as opposed to a shaft, which enters a mountain at a vertical or steep incline). The darkness pulls in around us as we duck our heads and step inside; I can sense the weight of the mountain above. Swinging our flashlights, we see bats hanging on the support timbers, and rat feces scattered on the ground. (Unmentioned on the sign is the potentially fatal hantavirus, spread via rodent urine and droppings.)
We reach a winze, a side tunnel that angles steeply downward. Though winzes can drop hundreds of feet, Taylor’s light follows a sloping plywood chute to another adit only six feet below. He reaches down with his Geiger counter’s probe, and the ticking picks up considerably.
“Something interesting down there,” he says, already handing his light and radiation detector to his dad. He hops onto the wooden chute and slides down; Kenneth passes the gear to Taylor and we slide down after him.
Taylor quickly finds the radiation source. It’s a yellow vein of uranium running diagonally along the brown wall of the tunnel, crossed by a greenish trickle of water. When we move our lights away from the stream, it continues to glow faintly. “Ooh, man, radioactive water,” Taylor says as he shifts his flashlight beam from side to side, studying the tiny green-gold river from all angles, transfixed. I find myself watching his fascination with a fascination of my own.
“Liquid uranium,” the teenager says. “I wonder if it’s coming off some autunite up above. It’s a fluorescent mineral, hydrated calcium uranyl phosphate; pretty rare ’round here.”
We continue deeper into the tunnel until we reach a frail-looking brace. Taylor inspects the rotted wooden beams and cross brace, then shines his light down the curving passageway; the tunnel’s end is out of sight.
“We might-could go back farther,” Taylor says, using one of the double-modal expressions that attest to his Southern roots. “But it looks unstable to me.” Kenneth gratefully concurs, and we retrace our path toward the blast of daylight that meets us at the mine’s entrance. Once outside, Taylor climbs the fence and hoists his leg over. As he does, his Geiger counter probe brushes his thigh and emits a loud squawk.
“Huh?” he says. “What’s going on with my leg?” He hops down and runs the probe up and down his jeans. The detector shrieks. He looks worried.
“My pant legs are highly radioactive,” he says. “This is actually scaring me.” He climbs down the other side of the fence and quickly unbuckles his belt. “Uh, Dad, can you run and get the pancake probe real quick?” he says, yanking his belt from its loops and quickly pulling off shoes and jeans. He’s standing in his boxer shorts when Kenneth trots back from the Land Rover with the more sensitive instrument. Taylor snatches it from his father’s hands and runs the large, flat disk along his bare leg. When it doesn’t bleep, Taylor looks relieved. He goes over to the SUV and tests the seats, which are clean. Then he gingerly lifts his jeans and scans them. Halfway down the right thigh, the detector picks up the contamination, an invisible oval patch three or four inches long.
“It’s not alpha radiation, which should rule out the mine as a source,” Taylor says. “But it also rules out my pants shielding me. I could have absorbed a significant dose. That’s kind of embarrassing.” He holds the pants up to the sun. “I don’t get it. They were clean this morning when I put ’em on. My skin’s not radioactive, so it’s not loose contamination, which makes me think it’s been on the pants for a while. But—how? Generally, my jeans are not radioactive to star...
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