Thursday, February 16, 2012
MUST READ! The Boy Who Played With Fusion
“Propulsion,” the nine-year-old says as he leads his dad through the gates of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “I just want to see the propulsion stuff.”
A young woman guides their group toward a full-scale replica of the massive Saturn V rocket that brought America to the moon. As they duck under the exhaust nozzles, Kenneth Wilson glances at his awestruck boy and feels his burden beginning to lighten. For a few minutes, at least, someone else will feed his son’s boundless appetite for knowledge.
Then Taylor raises his hand, not with a question but an answer. He knows what makes this thing, the biggest rocket ever launched, go up. And he wants—no, he obviously needs—to tell everyone about it, about how speed relates to exhaust velocity and dynamic mass, about payload ratios, about the pros and cons of liquid versus solid fuel. The tour guide takes a step back, yielding the floor to this slender kid with a deep-Arkansas drawl, pouring out a torrent of Ph.D.-level concepts as if there might not be enough seconds in the day to blurt it all out. The other adults take a step back too, perhaps jolted off balance by the incongruities of age and audacity, intelligence and exuberance.
As the guide runs off to fetch the center’s director—You gotta see this kid!—Kenneth feels the weight coming down on him again. What he doesn’t understand just yet is that he will come to look back on these days as the uncomplicated ones, when his scary-smart son was into simple things, like rocket science.
This is before Taylor would transform the family’s garage into a mysterious, glow-in-the-dark cache of rocks and metals and liquids with unimaginable powers. Before he would conceive, in a series of unlikely epiphanies, new ways to use neutrons to confront some of the biggest challenges of our time: cancer and nuclear terrorism. Before he would build a reactor that could hurl atoms together in a 500-million-degree plasma core—becoming, at 14, the youngest individual on Earth to achieve nuclear fusion.
When I meet Taylor Wilson, he is 16 and busy—far too busy, he says, to pursue a driver’s license. And so he rides shotgun as his father zigzags the family’s Land Rover up a steep trail in the Virginia Mountains north of Reno, Nevada, where they’ve come to prospect for uranium.
From the backseat, I can see Taylor’s gull-like profile, his forehead plunging from under his sandy blond bangs and continuing, in an almost unwavering line, along 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 hour—the past few days, really—talking, analyzing, and breathlessly evangelizing about nuclear energy. 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.
“Where does it come from?” Kenneth and his wife, Tiffany, have asked themselves many times. Kenneth is a Coca-Cola bottler, a skier, an ex-football player. Tiffany is a yoga instructor. “Neither of us knows a dang thing about science,” Kenneth says.
Almost from the beginning, it was clear that the older of the Wilsons’ two sons would be a difficult child to keep on the ground. It started with his first, and most pedestrian, interest: construction. As a toddler in Texarkana, the family’s hometown, Taylor wanted nothing to do with toys. He played with real traffic cones, real barricades. At age four, he donned a fluorescent orange vest and hard hat and stood in front of the house, directing traffic. For his fifth birthday, he said, he wanted a crane. But when his parents brought him to a toy store, the boy saw it as an act of provocation. “No,” he yelled, stomping his foot. “I want a real one.”
This is about the time any other father might have put his own foot down. But Kenneth called a friend who owns a construction company, and on Taylor’s birthday a six-ton crane pulled up to the party. The kids sat on the operator’s lap and took turns at the controls, guiding the boom as it swung above the rooftops on Northern Hills Drive.
To the assembled parents, dressed in hard hats, the Wilsons’ parenting style must have appeared curiously indulgent. In a few years, as Taylor began to get into some supremely dangerous stuff, it would seem perilously laissez-faire. But their approach to child rearing is, in fact, uncommonly intentional. “We want to help our children figure out who they are,” Kenneth says, “and then do everything we can to help them nurture that.”
At 10, Taylor hung a periodic table of the elements in his room. Within a week he memorized all the atomic numbers, masses and melting points. At the family’s Thanksgiving gathering, the boy appeared wearing a monogrammed lab coat and armed with a handful of medical lancets. He announced that he’d be drawing blood from everyone, for “comparative genetic experiments” in the laboratory he had set up in his maternal grandmother’s garage. Each member of the extended family duly offered a finger to be pricked.
The next summer, Taylor invited everyone out to the backyard, where he dramatically held up a pill bottle packed with a mixture of sugar and stump remover (potassium nitrate) that he’d discovered in the garage. He set the bottle down and, with a showman’s flourish, ignited the fuse that poked out of the top. What happened next was not the firecracker’s bang everyone expected, but a thunderous blast that brought panicked neighbors running from their houses. Looking up, they watched as a small mushroom cloud rose, unsettlingly, over the Wilsons’ yard.
For his 11th birthday, Taylor’s grandmother took him to Books-A-Million, where he picked out The Radioactive Boy Scout, by Ken Silverstein. The book told the disquieting tale of David Hahn, a Michigan teenager who, in the mid-1990s, attempted to build a breeder reactor in a backyard shed. Taylor was so excited by the book that he read much of it aloud: the boy raiding smoke detectors for radioactive americium . . . the cobbled-together reactor . . . the Superfund team in hazmat suits hauling away the family’s contaminated belongings. Kenneth and Tiffany heard Hahn’s story as a cautionary tale. But Taylor, who had recently taken a particular interest in the bottom two rows of the periodic table—the highly radioactive elements—read it as a challenge. “Know what?” he said. “The things that kid was trying to do, I’m pretty sure I can actually do them.”
Continue reading - Popsci - The Boy Who Played With Fusion
Taylor Wilson: Yup, I built a nuclear fusion reactor