Mar 31 2011

Boy Genius

Jacob Barnett, the 12-year old boy genius, has been a hot news item this week, and I have received numerous questions about him. Jacob is clearly a mathematical wiz, mastering algebra, geometry, and even calculus on his own in weeks. At 12 he is attending Indiana University and running out of advanced math classes to take. Jacob also has Aspergers syndrome, which is now considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum (ASD).

Most of the questions I received are from people who want help putting the media hype into perspective – specifically Jacob has some questions about the Big Bang and relativity. Is this kid really as much of a genius as they claim? I can only infer from the media reports, and watching Jacob’s YouTube videos, but I do have some thoughts.

First, the combination of Aspergers and mathematical genius makes sense, and Jacob clearly has a talent for math that is extreme. This combination is sometimes called “savant”, but that term may be redundant when applied to Aspergers. I do question the inclusion of Aspergers in the autism spectrum. The combination makes sense in from a phenomenological point of view in that autism is clinically defined as a decrease in social skills and facility. People with ASD have a hard time connecting with other people – making eye contact, reading social cues, etc.

But our knowledge of the underlying cause of autism is still limited (but not zero) – and it’s possible (I think probable) that autism and Aspergers are different entities that overlap only in the decrease in social ability. The picture that is emerging for autism is that it results from a lack of communication between cortical neurons – the brain does not communicate with itself as efficiently as a typical brain. Whereas Aspergers seems to be a different entity entirely. Aspergers may simply be those people who are at one end of the normal distribution with high math and engineering skills and low social skills. They are more focused inward than outward, which make them great computer programmers but lousy at cocktail parties. Jacob seems to fit this mold.

Even for kids with Aspergers, Jacob’s math skills seem to be off the charts. His brain is wired for numbers. His mother reports that Jacob has difficulty sleeping because his mind is always racing with numbers and mathematical concepts. This sounds similar to those people who can remember every tiny detail of every day of their lives, but are constantly distracted by intrusive memories.

But what about Jacob’s claim that he has found some flaws with the Big Bang theory and relativity? Jacob has clearly learned a lot of astrophysics, but here I think his age and immaturity is showing.

Let me give an example from my own experience. I teach many medical students, and while they are all of high caliber, there is of course a range of various kinds of talent also. Some students have natural clinical savvy, while others have incredible funds of knowledge – but not necessarily both at the same time. One recent student, who clearly had been doing his reading and had an impressive fund of medical knowledge, was presenting a case to me and when it came time for him to analyze the case and give his impression, he went off on some sophisticated but highly implausible tangents. It was almost as if he had more factual knowledge than he could manage – he did not have the clinical experience or maturity to put it into perspective. In the end he came to some highly dubious conclusions. Whereas a student with a more average fund of knowledge would have stuck to the likely and plausible, because that’s what they learned.

I get the same vibe off of Jacob when watching his videos. He has a lot of factual knowledge and can clearly think about the concepts in a deep way as he tries to wrap his mind around some of the greatest scientific concepts humans have developed. But he seems to lack maturity and perspective, leading him to rash conclusions based upon flimsy speculation. For example, he questions the Big Bang because it cannot account for the amount of carbon in the universe. But in reality these are independent questions – how the universe got here and the subsequent lifecyle of stars that generate carbon. He is putting too much emphasis on his calculations, and not enough on the deeper conceptual issues.

Also, listening to him talk about the speed of light, he clearly understands the basics and is thinking about things in interesting ways, but again goes too far from thin speculation. He seems to think that the speed of light is not what we think it is because light can bend – accelerate lateral to its direction of motion. But this does not add up. According to relativity, light is traveling at C just through curved space – which does not require light traveling faster than C in a vacuum.

His ideas were run by a physicist, who is quoted in the article:

“The theory that he’s working on involves several of the toughest problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics,” Scott Tremaine of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies—where Einstein himself worked—wrote in an email to Jake’s family. “Anyone who solves these will be in line for a Nobel Prize.”

This is a non-endorsement of Jacob’s ideas. It sounds polite, but a little condescending also. He does not say that Jacob is on to something, and I think if he did that would be the quote highlighted in the article.

This may also reflect Jacob’s Aspergers. While mathematical pursuits are perfectly suited to an individual working entirely in their own head, wrestling with cutting-edge scientific concepts is better suited to a community effort. If you are going to try to revolutionize astrophysics, you will need to engage with the community, to process criticism and to play off the ideas of others. This is where the social aspect of science (or any complex group endeavor) kicks in, and that is something that a person with Aspergers may find challenging.

This is not the first story of a child genius hyped in the press. Often we don’t hear much about them later in life, and I wonder what happens in most cases. Is the promise typically fulfilled? My concern is that children like Jacob may not reach their potential because their social skills are neglected. You do get a flavor from the videos that Jacob’s parents are showing him off. Of course they are proud – who wouldn’t be – and again I emphasize I am mostly speculating based upon what little is available online. But children with Aspergers have strengths and weaknesses, and it seems that there is a risk that their strengths will be overestimated and their weaknesses ignored. The value of social skills should not be downplayed, and I would recommend to parents of children like Jacob to pay close attention to this. You would hate to see genius wasted because they cannot interface with the scientific community.

Leonardo DaVinci was clearly a genius, but he labored alone with his genius and did not interface with his contemporaries. As a result he contributed nothing to the advancement of human knowledge. His ideas were unknown in his time, and only later discovered when they were already obsolete. Many of his ideas were sophisticated, but ultimately meaningless. Einstein, on the other hand, was deeply embedded with his scientific contemporaries, and he changed the world. Jacob is clearly a genius in some respects, but will he turn out to be a DaVinci or an Einstein?

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