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?

42 responses so far

42 thoughts on “Boy Genius”

  1. MikeW says:

    One of the videos I saw was of him doing some fairly straightforward high-school level calculus (and not in a very clear way – he’s not a good teacher). However when you have people who struggle with arithmetic looking at this they think he’s a genius. For any kid with mathematical aptitude, it’s really not difficult to get through this stuff by age 12.

  2. A balanced take, Steve. All this hype seems to be another manifestation of the “lone genius” model of scientific advancement, which, while sometimes partially accurate (Newton), is clearly wrong. The best sign that someone is a crank is that they are not embedded in the wider scientific community. (Beautifully satirized by The Onion here). It would be a pity if Barnett’s talents go to waste because he fails to integrate into the scientific community.

  3. superdewa says:

    Your conclusions make sense to me.

    However, as a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome who actually struggles greatly with math, I want to point out that nowhere in the DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Asperger Syndrome is a special aptitude for math mentioned. Some people with Asperger Syndrome do have this aptitude, but it is not a requirement, and many don’t.

    You can read the diagnostic criteria here:

  4. bapowell says:

    I had a similar impression. I’m a physicist and was naturally interested in seeing what the hype was about. From the youtube video alone, it’s virtually impossible to ascertain what Jacob’s abilities are. He does appear to have some mistaken notions about relativity theory — in what little he does mention, it’s likely that his misconceptions stem from an application of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity to cases where instead the General Theory is needed. As you mention, from the viewpoint of Special Relativity, light would indeed appear to undergo acceleration upon changing direction in a gravitational field; however, from the viewpoint of General Relativity we understand that light is always just chugging along at ‘c’, and is just following a path in curved spacetime. General Relativity is an advanced and formidable theory, both conceptually and mathematically, and it is unlikely that Jacob has much familiarity with it. However, it is of course a necessary prerequisite for understanding the universe — an endeavor that Jacob apparently wishes to undertake.

    So, first things first. It’s a bad idea for him make grand claims regarding alleged flaws with the fundamental theories of the universe — this is likely immaturity and might encourage people to dismiss him as a crank or showoff. But we really don’t know anything yet. If he truly does have profound abilities, they will come to be noticed in time.

  5. Adam_Y says:

    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?
    This is horribly inaccurate. Da Vinci did work with other people. Part of the problem is that like most scientists the time people thought Da Vinci was an idiot. It was very hard for people like him to make in roads because science was at the beginning was a very cut throat type of thing that heavily relied upon the argument from authority logical fallacy. The best example I think of is the fact that James Prescott Joule was derided because he was also a brewer.

  6. Adam_Y says:

    Awww… I screwed up my post. Here it is:

    This is horribly inaccurate. Da Vinci did work with other people. Part of the problem is that like most scientists the time people thought Da Vinci was an idiot. It was very hard for people like him to make in roads because science was at the beginning was a very cut throat type of thing that heavily relied upon the argument from authority logical fallacy. The best example I think of is the fact that James Prescott Joule was derided because he was also a brewer who only dabbled in science as a hobby.

  7. locutusbrg says:

    I am asking this due to your expertise.
    A far as it is known, related to neurological functioning, does logical thought and social interaction draw on the same section of the brain?
    It seems to me anecdotally, in interviews, leaders in fields of thought often seem to socially deficient. I have always wanted to ask the question does higher intelligence usually result in social deficits? Does this stem from alienation due to adult treatment at child age, or is it an inherent deficit due to super intelligence? Is it both, poorly understood, or maybe it does not exist? This is beyond the scope of savant discussions. Please forgive the broad non-specific discussion I hope you get my question.
    For example Neil Degrasse Tyson is very intelligent and reasonably charismatic, I wouldn’t say he is as charismatic as lets say Bill Clinton.
    Steve Propatier

  8. HHC says:

    According to the DSMIV, would young agitated smokers qualify for Aspergers?

    Anyway, I went to school with a 12 year old genius at Champaign-Urbana. He lived in the guys half of my dormitory. He was a socially adjusted young man,;spoke well about concepts too. But living in a dorm makes you become more connective than hanging around mom with a video cam.

  9. superdave says:

    On a broader level, I think this partly relates to the science education conversation we were having in a different post. There are clearly multiple skills required to be an effective scientist. How well does this child know how to read the scientific literature? At that age I didn’t even know what scientific literature was. Does he understand the scientific method? How to setup an experiment correctly? Again, at that age I have a very poor working knowledge of what the day to day activities of most scientists actually are. Writing is a crucial skill of science and engineering and we know nothing of his ability in that regard either.

    Also, I do think that the difficulty of calculus is part hype. I think it can be introduced earlier than it typically is in the US, but that is another story. I mention this on another thread but there is a very good TED talk on that topic by Wolfram.

  10. Adam – I disagree. da Vinci never published his scientific works, never engaged with the community. He may have worked with individuals, but did not engage the community or broader society. He did not do what Galileo or Newton did.

    I am also not suggesting there was a simple cause, and that other external factors were not at play. But his lack of engaging seems to have been a major factor.

  11. Watcher says:

    Again, at that age I have a very poor working knowledge of what the day to day activities of most scientists actually are.

    Exactly. He needs a mentor, not just his parents, helping him understand the concepts and thoughts behind these insanely complex theories and how to become a good scientist.

  12. Watcher says:

    Wtf is up with wordpress today …

    That second quoted paragraph is my own.

  13. Enzo says:

    I have to say I detect a little bit of intellectual vanity, especially in the comments. I know that is not the intent, but there really is no need to make light of this early developing talent. And it’s just nonsense to say a 12 year old grasping calculus is trivial. There are plenty of college students that can’t do calculus, let alone intuitively.

    I, for one, am glad that some intellectual superstar is getting credit for his ability. Tons of praise is heaped on young athletes, why not intellectuals? I think we should just be impressed that the youngling can even vaguely grasp concepts like relativity and even put himself out there to debate the subject. So what if he trash talks the physicists a little? I’m sure they can take it…And hey, maybe if they respond to him he will learn something about how the science community works.

    The worst thing is to attach a ASD label to him and dismiss his talents with “well he has no social skills.” He should be encouraged as much as possible. Though I’m not in favor of sticking him with a bunch of graduate students for the rest of his education — which is, in my opinion, socially crippling. He should attend school with kids his age and supplement his education on the side.

  14. I am getting tired of these “Genius Kid” stories coming out every couple of years.

    Like Steve said, “Where are they now?” Probably smoking pot and working in a research lab somewhere. I have not heard of any new positions being named for them, as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics.

    Are we flying to other planets, yet? Do we have 100% renewable energy?

    Enzo: he is not an intellectual superstar… yet. He is a smart kid, for sure, but is merely following known mathematical paths with acuity. If he invents a new form of math as did Newton, I will prostrate at his feet. I don’t think the physicists care about a browbeating, because he has not proven himself to be a peer whose comments are worth suffering over.

    My point here is the hype. The kid is smart, and it looks like his parents are going to try to capitalize on it. Making YouTube videos? Really? If he is the next Einstein, they won’t need to push their case to the Internet crowd. He will prove himself out.

    I agree with SuperDave that someone at age 12 with sufficient proficiency in mathematical theory could grasp calculus.

  15. McWaffle says:

    I agree with a commenter above. My younger brother has been diagnosed with Asperger’s and I’m clearly on the spectrum myself (though not diagnosed since it wasn’t quite as well-known when I was a kid) and neither of us has a great aptitude for math. Not lousy, but not exceptional. However, we both do very well at reading and writing, so perhaps there’s some other factor here.

  16. Purple says:

    Part of the problem with heaping praise on him, Enzo, is that it may very well be bad for HIM. This has nothing to do with society valuing science over sports and everything to do with media liking a spectacle. They are viewing him as an anomaly and the story is so attractive because it plays out exactly the kind of narrative that gets written into movies. “Brilliant young man discovers fundamental flaw in the universe… saves mankind.” That’s what they’re going for.

    I’m going to argue that kind of attention is not good for a person. Being told that you are amazing, the best, no one is more awesome than you, does not encourage you to look into working with others or expanding the sorts of things you know. Things that you find hard to learn, you will stop trying to learn, because you get so much praise for learning the things which you’re “gifted” in. That’s the danger and that’s why the poor kid is going to fail to become the real shooting star he could be as an adult.

  17. Enzo – comments aside, I certainly was not dismissive of his talents in my post. I think it’s interesting to put it into perspective. I did not get into this in the post – but at least some child prodigies get too wrapped up in their area of talent, encouraged by proud parents, and neglect other equally important aspects. They also may buy into their own media hype, which cannot be good at that age. We have to recognize that a 12 year old genius is still 12 years old.

    Kids like this do need a mentor to keep them grounded and give them some balance.

  18. geoff says:

    Weird that a respected scientist can be condescending to a 12 year old boy.

    Not sure if even said boy’s intellect even accounts for much. The unstated premise of being condescending is that you have to have something worthy to condescend to.

    Smart does not equal wisdom.

  19. Enzo says:

    Steve –

    I really should have stressed that I disagreed with a lot of the comments and their attitude rather than the post. But I still think there is a hint of premature assumption. Being socially awkward now/later doesn’t mean he will end up being a poor scientist because he cannot interface with the scientific community (I know you are not arguing this).

    The fact that he is 12 years old is exactly my point; I don’t expect him to be brushing elbows with physicists now. I think the story is newsworthy and I just don’t see the need to hold him to the same standards as a doctor with years of experience as if he will be ready to take a faculty position tomorrow. You can’t blame him for the way the media sensationalizes his story. It’s good that he is already trying to get into scientific debate, even if we could chose to view it as cocky or whatever.

    @Baltimore- You prove my point for me. Compared to 12 year olds, he IS a superstar and I’m glad he is getting credit for it. How many mothers post YouTube videos of their children scoring touchdowns and home runs? Also, the statement that a 12 year old proficient in math can grasp calculus makes no sense. It’s the fact that he is proficient in math that is impressive. Most kids that age have barely gotten used to simple algebra and geometry.

    @Purple – I would argue saying things like “That’s the danger and that’s why the poor kid is going to fail to become the real shooting star he could be as an adult” is just as if not more harmful than praise.

    I’m just arguing that he should be encouraged and that comments like “psh, he will eventually fail” seem egotistical.

  20. nybgrus says:

    I agree with Dr. Novella. When I was 11 I started taking courses at my local community college at night. Physics, biology, mathematics. In fact, when I was 12 I set the curve in my physics class and on one midterm missed only 1 question. By the time I was a sophomore in high school (13) I had already been doing calculus and when I took it as an AP class then next year I breezed through it. I didn’t have any camera crews or youtube videos (well, youtube didn’t exist back then). And I certainly was very socially awkward. However, I also was very cocky and didn’t know how immature I was. I couldn’t apply what I had learned in any meaningful ways.

    Now, 15 (eek! 16 in 3 days!) years later with two bachelor’s degrees, post-grad research, and 1.5 years of medical school under my belt I can say that I am now starting to understand the scientific method, how to apply my knowledge, how to interface with others (and not have them hate me), how to teach, and how to truly integrate my learning.

    My point is, it is fantastic that a kid his age is so into math and is clearly academically inclined. I don’t think it is that much of an outlier, I don’t think it is that uncommon, and I think that a 12 year old is still a 12 year old. Period.

    I remember a 10 year old taking the MCAT in the same room as me. And I thought to myself “Any medical school would be insane to give him a spot even if he got a 45 (perfect score)”

  21. Enzo,

    “The fact that he is 12 years old is exactly my point; I don’t expect him to be brushing elbows with physicists now. ”

    The point is that this is how the article is hyping the story, “Einstein’s wrong, so says boy genius.”

    “You can’t blame him for the way the media sensationalizes his story”

    You can possibly blame the parents a little bit. They seem to be actively promoting their son and encouraging the hype.

    Besides, I believe the main thrust of Steven’s post was the media’s hype. The point of his comments regarding the boy seemed to me to be to provide a grounded contrast to what the media are presenting. Success and the Nobel Prize in physics are not guaranteed just because this child is exceptionally gifted at math.

    “How many mothers post YouTube videos of their children scoring touchdowns and home runs?”

    How many mother post videos of their children saying they think Joe Montana had fundamental flaws in his game? Let’s see that kid excel in the NCAA and the NFL before we take any comments about flaws in Joe Montana’s game seriously.

  22. Enzo,

    Some may be saying so, but I don’t get the impression Steven is saying the kid will fail, just that genius ability in mathematics does not guarantee success, so much of the story is over-hyped.

    Pitfalls exist in life even for those that it superficially seems are perfectly set up for success- sometimes especially for those people.

  23. Mlema says:

    It makes me uncomfortable to see adults criticizing a 12 year old’s intellectual and social skills as though he were a contemporary. I watched the video, and the only thing I see as abnormal for this kid is his “stage mom”. i was reminded of kids who display musical genius at an early age. The way they are raised is critical.
    But no kid should be criticized or labeled. Kids need encouragement.
    I had no social skills OR great math ability at age 12! (I guess maybe i still don’t) But i could draw. i was praised and encouraged. Today I’m a professional artist. I think “publicizing” my early talent, or judging it against DaVinci’s, would have been detrimental to my further development.

  24. Enzo says:

    It still seems to me that the predominant attitude is that the boy does not deserve praise because he has not proven himself relative to mathematicians and physicists. Also that a twelve year old with this ability is not remarkable. This is all just an undertone of the response to the story that I find interesting.

    Of course there are pitfalls and dangers for him — this is no different for anyone. I just wanted to point out that right now, as a 12 year old, his situation is interesting and newsworthy. We don’t have to speculate about his current worth based on his future as a genius, and we don’t have to paint him as flawed because he is a little bit immature about his view on modern physics problems. He’s 12.

    It may very well be that he has no interest in pursuing a career in science. I’m just glad right now that he is interested enough to read and think critically about this stuff.

    The media is not pitching this as a 12 year old smarter than Einstein, his parents seems encouraging if maybe a little eager to show him off and he seems to have a developing social structure

    Jacob Barnett is just like any other 12-year-old kid. He plays Guitar Hero, shoots hoops with his friends, and has a platonic girlfriend.

    Sounds good to me.

  25. nybgrus says:

    I just wanted to point out that right now, as a 12 year old, his situation is interesting and newsworthy.

    That is where we differ in opinion. My post was to demonstrate that it is not newsworthy. But it is most definitely praiseworthy. His family, friends, school, etc should be actively encouraging him and finding new challenges for him, offering him more advanced material, perhaps supporting trips to symposia, or academic competitions, etc. When he starts winning those and/or writing articles that are published in peer reviewed journals then he can start being newsworthy. Until then, he is just a talented kid with potential. Not “Einstein’s wrong, so says boy genius.”

  26. eean says:

    I agree with Mlema. but more to the point, really I think kids this sort of age shouldn’t be posting videos on youtube. we should all be allowed to be young and stupid without it being recorded forever. I hope as we develop some taboos againist posting videos of children.

  27. Jeremiah says:

    Newsworthy at age 12:
    >At this point, Jake’s math IQ — which has been measured at 170 (top of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) — could not get any higher.
    “You could tell right off the bat, his performance has been outstanding,” said Ross, who, at age 46 with a Ph.D. from Boston University, has never seen a kid as smart as Jake.>

  28. thequiet1 says:

    Enzo, I think you are misinterpreting ours concern about the boy. We are not talking him down and saying we expect him not to live up to expectation. We are concerned about the fact that many child geniuses in similar circumstances have not reached expectations, and we are worried the attention they receive may have something to do with that.

    The ‘condescending’ criticisms of his theories have simply pointed out that there are skills learnt in life that are required in order to apply his genius effectively to the real world, and he needs those around him to foster those skills as well. This is true of anyone, Asperger’s or not.

    He is used to picking up everything he tries very quickly, and has had the extent of his genius reinforced to him by the attention he gets. This, combined with the universal arrogance of youth, will leave him overconfident in his theorising and prevent him from developing the skills to be self-critical and willing to receive helpful criticism from others. I think this may be why many people in his situation retain their youthful arrogance into adulthood and never become truly productive.

    He is a genius and I wish him all the best. The world is better off for every working genius it gets. But if he doesn’t learn how to apply his skills to the real world he will be nothing more than a show pony parading his tricks. That would be tragic.

  29. klox says:

    I haven’t had a chance to see the videos, but what is exactly meant by mastering calculus in a week? You need a lot more than calculus to start even arguing if general relativity is correct or not. You need a rather comprehensive knowledge of abstract algebra, differential geometry, tensor calculus, topology, and you generally need someone to teach it to you since there isn’t a one-makes all book.

  30. sbg says:

    Disappointed with this post, your discussion of ASD vs. Autism, and in light of savantism, lacks sophistication (and proper factual support).

  31. tmac57 says:

    If the facts in the article are accurate,Jake had learned calculus,algebra,and geometry before the age of 8 (not 12),and more remarkably had taught himself in only 2 weeks:

    A few years later (than the age of 3*), he taught himself calculus, algebra, and geometry in two weeks. By 8, he had left high school, and is currently taking college-level advanced astrophysics classes—while tutoring his older classmates.

    Again,stressing, “if the facts are accurate” that is a bit more remarkable than what some of comments are reflecting.Having said that,I think Steve’s points still stand.

    *My edit.

  32. Watcher says:

    Pot, meet kettle. It’s a blog post SBG. You want a dissertation about the in’s and out’s of this complex subject? Go look for something on pubmed.

  33. Colin says:

    Hi i am wondering if you have some input on our families situation?
    We have a 12 year old son. At the age of 2 he was diagnosed with ASD. He presented in the typical way, issues with hearing, behaviour , loss of language and associated rages, obsessional behaviours, sensory sensitivities etc.
    We were lucky enough to have him start ABA therapy and speech and social therapy by the age of 2, this fit him very well and he was able to “assimilate”fairly successfully into mainstream school to the point where except for his social diffiulties, you would not be able to identify him as having an ASD.
    The confusing thing is that initially he came across as a typical child with autism but now would probably be more consistent with having Aspergers, to the point of being aware that he has differences and experiencing some depression and anxiety.
    I have always been under the impression that aside from some common aspects, ASD and Aspergers are not the same.
    Do you have an opinion at all?
    thank you

  34. ccbowers says:


    I understand that you like the idea of intellectual ability getting some attention for a change, but this really isn’t a positive sort of attention from my perspective.

    Throwing kids in front of a camera to show off their skills/abilities, be it athletic (“musclebound toddler”), or intellectual (“boy genius #357”), or asthetic (beauty pagents) always has a freak show vibe that is distasteful to me. These are children and throwing them in front of a camera like this is really not fair, and I’m not sure how this attention can be a good thing (for the kid or anyone else).

  35. SARA says:

    I read a story (I can’t remember where or I would link to it) about a young man who was very high IQ. I think the claim was that he had the highest recorded IQ.
    But he could not stay in college. He was kicked out of one school and then couldn’t manage to get organized about funding etc.
    Essentially his issues were all around the fact that he couldn’t manage social interactions. He couldn’t navigate in our world.
    I wonder how often this happens?
    Where genius people are just turned into social outcasts and their potential and societies potential benefit from their intellect is just lost.
    It seems like we should have way to create some inclusiveness for their way of life. I don’t have any idea how, but even some practical help would be beneficial.

    As Steve says, if you cannot communicate with the world around you, the benefits of your intellect are lost.

  36. Nullifidian says:

    At the risk of sounding condescending, I’m bothered by these “genius child” stories, particularly when they deal with mathematical aptitude, because it reinforces the myth that there is just something “special” about math and you either have the aptitude for it or you don’t. Now, there may be something to this kid’s intuitive grasp of math, and the parents may have picked up on it, then the kid decided to apply himself to this subject that got him all this agreeable attention. It is the application of effort that is primarily responsible for musical aptitude, mathematical aptitude, etc.

    Fundamentally, there is no reason why a 12 year-old of average intelligence cannot understand Calculus. The main reason people have problems with Calculus is just that they haven’t properly been taught the underlying concepts. Leonhard Euler had the solution over a century ago when he said that problems in Calculus were most often due to a weak grasp of algebra. And I would extend his insight by saying that problems in algebra are due to a weak grasp of basic arithmetic. The problems rarely manifest themselves immediately, but poor early training in these subjects will cause problems later on when, thanks to government-mandated standards of ‘progress’, it is impossible to remediate the students. Ideally, we’d have people whose mathematical expertise is beyond question to teach elementary school children, but instead we direct the least intelligent of education majors to elementary education under the delusion that “anyone” can properly teach the basics of math and English grammar.

  37. Woody says:

    I would echo superdewa’s and others’ comments about not expecting mathematical prowess solely based on a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome – like any group of individuals I am sure there is a range of aptitudes (and deficits). Perhaps the “Restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities” included in the diagnostic criteria promote remarkable accomplishments in some narrow area, but it wouldn’t necessarily have to be mathematics.

    I would also point out that aside from the impairment in language development, the clinical criteria for Asperger’s and Autistic disorders are very similar:

    I therefore think it is a bit hasty to assume that Asperger’s disorder is a distinct entity neurobiologically from autism, as Steve suggests. A quick Pubmed search suggests that in the rare situations where a genetic basis for an ASD is known, you can see family members presenting both with an Asperger’s and autistic phenotype:

    PMID: 20162629

    Hopefully this “boy genius” will be able to develop his mathematical abilities into a fruitful career, despite whatever social difficulties he has related to his Asperger’s diagnosis.

  38. MikeW says:

    @ Enzo: “And it’s just nonsense to say a 12 year old grasping calculus is trivial. There are plenty of college students that can’t do calculus, let alone intuitively.”

    There are plenty of college students and adults who can’t do a lot of things. Some of that is due to raw ability, some aptitude, application and the quality of the education.

    The typical US student does a lot of math at a much later stage in high school than occurs in other western countries – much of it even deferred to college level. If you’ve got aptitude and willing teachers better than average, you can easily tackle this material 5 years ahead of the (non-US) curriculum slated for the average student. Even that does not automatically place you amongst the front-runners of a tertiary mathematics class.

  39. kaller says:

    My heart went out to his incredulous mother who posted a short question from Jacob out of sheer exasperation. Of course they knew he was brilliant, but if you look at interviews they have kindly given, they just knew in their hearts that he was special. The original post from his mother was a heartfelt plea for help. It was like she was saying “What on earth is he talking about? It sounds important. We know he is special but can someone just give us some feedback?” They already knew that he talk himself Braille just for fun, at age one. The museum anecdote where he answered correctly a question about the shape of Phobos and Deimos by reasoning from first principles. From first principles I repeat. This is a three year old with the crystal clear physical intuitions of Richard Feynman. Maturity be damned, this is incisive clear simplicity with a faithful attention to accuracy and thoroughness. Well it was important, and it remains so. The popular press picked up on that Einstein nonsense, but that was not Jacobs interpretation, if you look closely at the facts. He was simply commenting on feasible extensions of special relativity math. He was simply saying that tachyons are such are easily accommodated into special relativity by some trivial extensions, it was a throw away comment, you can see from the way he said it that he was not committing to it as a new theory, perhaps he was put up to that anyway. He could not have realised the full import and potency of comments in that arena in the public imagination, but there are adults who do. Hence when you Google Jacob now all that Einsteinian cr*p comes up. But his comments on Big Bang theory brought tears to my eyes. I love the simple clear and insightful way he reasons about carbon abundances. He did that himself, he did not read that in a book. This is not a fellow who tosses symbols around carelessly, this is a young man who loves the numbers, knows and trusts exactly how he uses his math, and has a real feel for physics as well. If Jacob says that the carbon doesn’t add up, then it is because he calculated it and the carbon didn’t add up. If he is wrong it is only because there is something else that he doesn’t know, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it will take a university professor to help with that. Because he is young, he does not have the emotional commitment to a life time of work on wrong theories. He is uniquely qualified to take a fresh look. Kudos Jacob. I hope he keeps posting. I like the way he broke down multiplication into grids of intersecting lines, and reassembled the multiplication visually using an algebraic approach. That one Youtube video alone should help me to help scores of adult learners to improve their numeracy tests. Well done Jacob. Keep posting. I loved your post on Eigen theory too. You went quite fast for mere mortals but that’s what is so great about having it on Youtube. Anyway I followed it OK, and I hope that you can find time in the future to discuss more stuff with us as time goes on, not just ripping through the math.
    As far as Aspergers, well if that is what you get with it, then I want some. If Jacob has a unique mutation that concerns the way that his brain and especially memory operates, then bring on the X men. Aspergers is related to ion channel gating in synapses, whereas Jacob seems to have more than just exceptional memory, his brain has a more sophisticated computational capability than most of us, and also a much better intuitive capability for science. Any fool can see that, but it takes an exceptional fool to put that down.
    What I love about him most is his humble middle class origins and God fearing loving and home schooling parents. I love the fact that the mark of true genius is that you teach yourself. Everything. I feel honoured to have Jacob explain stuff to me, as we all should. I for one hope he continues.

  40. lisahere says:

    OK, the reason we have aspbergers is because of authors insistence that one must be social according to a norm. I guess the ideas about freedom and personality mean nothing here. Who determines what normal social behavior is? I dont think this is doable except in extreme cases, genuine resistance to social interaction, not people who have established connections with family but are insular. Almost all people establish connections with family. deeply autistic people have trouble doing even this. the classical autism. I think half of all scientists would be diagnosed on the spectrum, its arbitrary. theres no neurological or genetic test. its like an astrological classification system, groupings of traits. I consider it garbage. Yes its useful to work in teams but some of the best scientists of all time were renegades and paid dearly for it and its groupthink people that advocate the need to work with other scientists. collaboration is great but if you believe in your ideas you pursue truth. there are just as many people collaborating in wrong ideas as there are renegades with wrong ideas. in the end has no bearing on truth. I took advanced math my whole life and I wasnt like this at 12 so give the boy some kudos. I have extreme skepticism about what his parents have said because where would a one year old hear about volume??? especially with nonmath parents. doesnt mean he wasnt doing calculations in his head at one but this idea that he could verbalize what he was doing at one, this I meet with skepticism. that they didnt know he was special? thats silly and incredulous. from piecing together what he said, how he was (mis)treated by teachers, he was a very bright kid who showed his intelligence early on but whose true talent emerged later. Creativity and intelligence and perserverance takes you far, sounds like he has at least two, good luck to him.

  41. Captain Quirk says:

    Kids and teenagers are often arrogant and fanciful, so it’s no surprise he may perceive himself as on the threshold of a revolutionary breakthrough. I know when I was 12, I thought I could lick a TOE and devise a practical way of a human traveling at 0.9c by age 30 even though I’d only taught myself basic calculus and calculus-based physics from old cheap textbooks and MIT OCW lectures/problems (hooray for dial-up!). What can I say? I’m a science fiction afficionado and wanted to help pave the way for warp drive and practical time travel. I realized how unrealistic I was by the time I was about 14.

    While his judgement may be that typical for a child his age (or perhaps slightly younger due to AS), he is clearly profoundly gifted in math/science. While my IQ isn’t as high and I wasn’t achieving as much at that age, I was doing college freshman level math, science, reading, and writing and denied a grade skip or academic accleration of any kind (apart from AP in high school, which was kind of a joke since they only had the algebra-based physics and the easy calculus at my school) on the basis of social skills deficits due to Asperger’s. The frustration and boredom led to my losing the motivation to achieve in school, and doing the bare minimum to get an A (then B, then stopped caring about grades altogether in junior year). I spent all my class time socializing or writing science fiction novels and poetry.

    According to the article, he even has a girlfriend. That doesn’t say too much about his social skills, but at that age I was a pariah in my school, with only a handful of people who would engage me in conversation or respond to my initiation, and the one who people would frequently ask me out as a joke (I always saw through the charade before they finished, but that did not deter them a bit). Personally, I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 17 while taking classes at community college, and until I switched schools at age 15 and made a bunch of long-time friends the first day, I had only had two close friends, both between ages 12 and 14. Provided he has psychological guidance and interactions with social peers (such as through organized group activities and ASD social skills groups), it probably won’t be much of a problem.

    It’s important that kids who get into college early and do so well are not pressured into keeping in the same field, or moving directly to grad school, or whatever. Many kids with such precocious abilities are internally motivated to keep going on that path, but it’s important for them to know they always have the option to change course, that it isn’t failing, and that it isn’t their obligation to humanity to use their brains for important discoveries. No matter how capable and motivated, that is too much of a burden for a child. Hopefully his parents are taking this sort of approach.

    As for autism and Asperger’s being different entities, I would tend to agree, except that the lines between what is technically defined as Asperger’s and what is technically defined as HFA are not terribly accurate way of differentiating. There are plenty of people with Asperger’s who are not better at math, for instance – many, in fact, have much stronger verbal abilities than mathematical, and both areas may be in average or somewhat below average IQ range (but not too much lower, by definition).

    A good chunk of people who meet the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s probably have a condition more in common with the majority of cases of HFA or PDD-NOS in terms of the genetic cause and/or general features in how the brain is different, but get the Asperger’s label because they didn’t have a speech delay (I have read of many people diagnosed with Asperger’s as adults even when they had a significant speech delay as a child, and would more properly be classified as HFA according to DSM-IV-TR – someone with the “classic autism” picture may grow up to strongly resemble the “classic Asperger’s” picture). There are adults with AS who can’t function independently, despite good verbal skills.

    That doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same condition, of course – far from it. Most probably we should draw the lines in different places, but we don’t have enough data to draw the lines in the write places most cases (apart from specific, defined syndromes, but the subtypes documented by genetic/brain function patterns are dwarfed by those we cannot classify except as idiopathic, at least in the clinical setting).

    So while I support considering different forms of autism under the ASD umbrella, there are, almost without question, different definable subtypes (we already know of a few but they’re rare, though genetic patterns indicate there are probably some more common subtypes), but we don’t know enough to reliably divide and categorize people into the different subtypes, even though we know enough that there are different types. More genetic and neuroscience studies should sheld light on this in future time.

    Since a label is only as good as it is practical to be useful, a group of ill-defined conditions are probably best described at this time by an umbrella label. Until then, treatment/services really need to be based on the individual difficulties/strengths (which it is supposed to be now in theory, and I’m not too optimistic that the change will do as much in practice as it should). In any case, research definitely is needed in defining subtypes, which would help determine if any totally unrelated conditions are being lumped together, as I suspect is likely.

  42. Yoron says:

    Been reading you all. First of all, he’s a child, not a grown up. Secondly, he’s doing good:). Thirdly, he need to be integrated in a ‘normal’ social life, as being on the local football team etc, but that may already be too late? I don’t know if he ever got that chance? Small kids are much cooler than half grown juveniles so to speak. Not so ‘adapted’ to their parents, and others, social views of other people. That fast gets worse, becoming judgmental as we get older. Social skills are more than just a subterfuge, it’s what gets you accepted.

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