Review by Renee Webster
An 11 year old boy wants to build a nuclear fusion reactor in his parents backyard shed. Not the kind of thing that occupies the mind of most pre-teens. But as we rapidly become aware in the first few pages of Tom Clynes’ The Boy Who Played with Fusion, Taylor Wilson is most certainly not an ordinary American kid. We are introduced to Taylor when he is visiting the U.S Space and Rocket Center, bamboozling his tour group and guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Saturn V rocket propulsion system. Throughout the rest of the book we follow Taylor and his family through most of his teenage years as he completes his atypical high school education and follows his intense and unyielding passion for nuclear science.
Clynes’ rendition of Taylor is not a stereotyped, Sheldon Cooper-esque caricature of a gifted child. While his outstanding intelligence can’t be ignored, Taylor’s weaknesses are also explored particularly towards the end of the book. Trips into the Arkansas desert to retrieve samples of radioactive uranium ores, sophisticated home pyrotechnics displays, deep technical conversations with veteran physics professors– it’s somehow surprising but also expected at the same time, as the reader comes to terms with the fact that Taylor’s obsession knows no bounds.
The book focuses not only on Taylor and his remarkable determination to become the youngest person ever to achieve nuclear fusion, but also the psychological, parenting, educational and social issues associated with gifted and precocious children. The book’s subtitle “Extreme science, extreme parenting, and how to make a star” is not only a wicked pun (how to make a star… stars run on nuclear fusion… get it?!), but an indication that this book is almost as much about Taylor’s parents, Kenneth and Tiffany, and how their parenting style enabled Taylor to flourish in a world ill-equipped to deal with a nuclear power-obsessed child.
The Wilsons moved states to send Taylor and his brother Joey to a specialised academy for gifted children, and the book covers some of the recent research on education options for “brainiacs” and child prodigies. In a field that appears to be often driven by fads and cultural tendencies, it is satisfying to see scientific research on gifted children included in this book and Clynes has clearly invested a significant amount of time into researching and interviewing experts on this topic.
The book wraps up after Taylor competes in the 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh but it would be naïve to think that this is the end of Taylor’s story. Whatever he accomplishes in his twenties and beyond, it’s not hard to imagine that this is just the first of many books that will be written about The Boy Who Played with Fusion.
Renee graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Chemistry from the University of Western Australia in 2005. Since then she has applied her chemical skills and knowledge to a variety of fields including environmental science, food chemistry, air quality and forensics. Renée specialises in analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis, with particular emphasis on gas chromatography and advanced molecular separation techniques. Renée currently works for the Australian government researching the chemistry of transportation fuels and is also completing her PhD at Monash University.
Renee’s Twitter: @reneewebs