Another adoring story about Taylor Wilson. Rory Carroll also links to earlier ones, if you want more. But none of them tell us what science Wilson has actually done.
Carroll gives a great deal of evidence that the prodigy’s talents lie in soundbites and theater. Unfortunately, he fails to distinguish that from science and seem unable to do simple research via Google. And the prodigy is getting a little long in the tooth at 21.
Geiger counter on wrist. Check. Presumably these counters, like the larger ones, have settings for audible clicks and a range in which the clicks will occur. The few clicks reported by Carroll are about what I’d expect from background, depending on the range that Wilson set his for.
“Original atom smasher.” Hard to know what this means, or what original and early in Wilson’s spiel refer to. Probably his own history, since that’s mostly what he talks about in later quotes. It would be a shame to have an accelerator from, say mid-twentieth-century tossed in a corner of his garage, and the early cyclotrons would definitely be larger.
The “working nuclear fusion reactor” that Wilson built at fourteen plays a central role in all the articles. OMG, controlled fusion! Even the scientists can’t do that! But the reporters never seem to wonder why this great step forward hasn’t been snatched up by those scientists who have spent their careers trying to develop this potentially enormous and clean source of energy. Strange, no?
Let’s go to a reliable scientific source on that. Oh, Wikipedia has an article? Well, let’s check that out first.
Philo Farnsworth, a pioneer in television, came up with the idea of this little apparatus, called a fusor, in the 1930s and built some through the 1950s. It turns out that the fusor has intrigued many people, including Bob Bussard, a mentor of mine at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Like other approaches to nuclear fusion, it’s never been scaled, but people continue to try.
But Wilson actually built one! And FUSED ATOMS! From the first page of my Google search, amazingly, other people have done exactly that. Or decided not to run it at such a high voltage, just enjoying the light show. And it looks like there is a group of people who talk together about their fusors on the internet. The Nuclear Reactor High-School Project? And a couple more articles (one, two) on how to build a fusor. The directions are sketchy, the most complete being here, but Wilson’s mentors presumably were able to help him fill out the details.
An ambitious science fair project, but no indication that Wilson did more than that. Much of Carroll’s article takes place in the garage, making use of the “I invented it in my garage” origin tale so beloved of Silicon Valley. Toward the end of the article, Carroll tells us that in fact Wilson built his fusor in a university laboratory, under the supervision of faculty. But Carroll finds the exaggeration charming rather than an indicator that Wilson is inclined to embellish his life story.
A science fair win for a device to detect nuclear materials in shipping containers. Wilson’s own site offers little information, and what may have been a photo or schematic of the detector is missing. A brightish student could have written the piece by relying on easy-to-read sources, and most of it is introductory material rather than a description of his project. The Wikipedia page about him has not much more. That page reports that Wilson has given up this project to go on to others, a pattern in his activities.
His plan for small nuclear reactors, as given in his TED talk, is equally thin on content and unoriginal. “Small, self-contained underground nuclear fission reactors that use decommissioned nuclear weapons to fuel power”? NuScale and other companies have been working on small fission reactors that could be placed underground. Not clear what Wilson means by self-contained. And commercial nuclear reactors across the United States have been using uranium from Soviet nuclear weapons for more than a decade now.
“Some yellowcake I made.” Like the fusor, recipes exist for refining uranium ore into yellowcake. No particular understanding of chemistry or innovation is needed to work through the steps; only how to handle the reagents needed and simple apparatus, all of which are easily acquired, especially with help from professionals.
Recipe is a word scientists use for a step-by-step instruction without explanation of the science involved. Scientific recipes are very useful; procedures work even if the full science is not known. But following a recipe is not innovative.
Medical isotopes, cancer – even less content there. A great many people would like to make progress in those fields. No indication that Wilson is offering anything new.
Carroll’s article then proceeds to a description of the Wilsons’ home and Taylor’s thoughts on nature and nurture and life, an extended humblebrag. “His ambitions are sky-high.” Why not – any 21-year-old white male from a prosperous background who has received as much press attention probably would have sky-high ambition. We then are treated to an abbreviated life story of how Wilson’s parents have given him what every child wants – real traffic cones, a real crane. The desire for those things isn’t extraordinary, but being able to satisfy it is.
“Wilson was safety conscious.” But he played on the reporter’s fears of radiation with a show of ignoring his Geiger-counter watch.
He received a Thiel fellowship from the libertarian billionaire who wants to encourage bright young people not to go to college. That fellowship has ended. No word about what was accomplished with $100,000. Nor is there anything about what Wilson is doing now. He doesn’t plan to go to college, but he does plan to be a wealthy businessman like Elon Musk. He is living alone in his parents’ “handsome, hacienda-style house tucked into foothills outside Reno” and driving their Land Rover.
What baffles me is the lack of detail from Wilson on what he’s done. A schematic of his fusor and some results from experiments? Or from his Cherenkov detector? What is being done to patent the new ideas? Or have they been rejected by the patent office? (The patent process can be used as an excuse not to talk about those ideas, too.) How does he plan to pursue his ideas about cancer? Why doesn’t he pursue any of his enthusiasms past an initial burst that impresses poorly-informed reporters?
What Wilson has done so far is to educate himself, with the generous help of his parents and others, in a quirky way. He has not yet become a scientist. That would require understanding the recipes he’s followed. He also needs to understand that his imagining a thing may not be the first time that thing has been imagined or researched. It’s not possible to jump into a field like fusion or building fission reactors or producing medical isotopes absent that kind of understanding. The easiest way to acquire it is college and graduate school.
The story so beloved of reporters – young genius leapfrogs scientists to make great discovery – reinforces erroneous conceptions of how science works and doesn’t seem to be true in this case. The equipment needed goes beyond the garage, and all science is collaborative. Even Philo Farnsworth worked in an organization. Wilson has had plenty of help – there’s nothing wrong with that. A number of people recently have written on the collaborative nature of genius and innovation in music, physics, even the digital revolution. And a scientific study has shown that expecting genius in a field disadvantages those who are not, like Taylor Wilson, white men.
Even if a person could seclude herself with books and learn all the science she needed, she would still be relying on those in the past who discovered and systematized the science – Davy for the gas laws, Carnot for thermodynamics, Mendelev for the periodic chart, Perkin for the manipulation of carbon-containing molecules, Curie for radioactivity, Bohr for his model of the atom, many more scientists, and the people who wrote those books.
Twenty-one-year-olds are doing research in nuclear matters, cancer, and many other areas (more here and here). They publish that research, so that we can know what it is and others can build on it. (Google “student research” and related terms – you’ll be amazed!) Some of them will go on to create their own businesses or win Nobel Prizes. And they come in all colors and genders. Let’s hear from those who have something to report.
Photo of a Gustavus Adolphus College undergraduate doing research at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Probably about 21 years old.