HOW DO YOU BUILD A GENIUS?
It’s Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., and Don Xue has brought his kids to the National Geographic Museum. The prime exhibition space has been given over to a replica of a Spinosaurus, a toothy, hulking creature that was, apparently, bigger than the Tyrannosaurus rex. But Xue’s boys — both wearing glasses as big as their faces — haven’t come to see the dinosaur. They’re here for the geniuses.
All 40 of them.
The geniuses in this case are the high school kind. Their ranks include an 18-year-old who designed a low-cost test for blood and parasitic diseases, and another who built a bioreactor in her garage. (“You just need PVC pipes, sand, gravel and rocks,” she says.) There’s even the proverbial kid curing cancer. While most of their peers are struggling over photosynthesis or — let’s face it — their selfies, these teens are greeting onlookers and fielding questions about machine learning and disulfide polymers. “She made a virus,” says Xue’s son Aaron, 12, describing his favorite of the projects, wire-rimmed eyes rapt.
No one really knows how to make a genius, of course. Indeed, the question remains one of mankind’s enduring mysteries, pondered over the ages, a head-scratcher of cosmic proportions — it may take a genius to find an answer to the question, and we don’t have one yet. And so,parents obsess and worry over the problem themselves. They spend too (oh, how they spend): American parents shelled out a whopping $576 million in 2013 on educational toys tied to science, tech, engineering or math, and $11 billion on preparing their kids for college the year before. Whether they’re playing Baby Bach for their in utero progeny or chauffeuring their kids through endless itineraries of extracurriculars, millions of people are trying to crack the code.
We at OZY wanted to understand the phenomenon ourselves. And we figured a good place to start would be the world’s most prestigious science fair — the Intel Science Talent Search. Over its 73 years of existence, eight finalists have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Another 12 scored MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called Genius Awards. What’s not to learn?
For the mere mortals among us, child geniuses have long held a special fascination. The concept dates back to the 18th century, when 3-year-old Christian Heinrich Heineken — “the infant scholar of Lübeck” — reportedly penned A History of Denmark and recited it to the Danish king. Then came prodigy poster child Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, along with Carl Friedrich Gauss and Évariste Galois, who made their first mathematical discoveries as teenagers.
The modern-day prodigy still exudes a kind of aura. “To have what appears to be a brain of a quite advanced adult within this tiny body inverts our notion of the relationship between the mind and body,” says Sally Shuttleworth, author of The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine. And that’s not necessarily a good thing, Shuttleworth adds: Society has usually viewed prodigiousness as somewhat pathological, she says, freakish. We worry that children who develop so early burn out quickly and perform mostly to please their parents.
To further complicate matters, there’s a whole hotly contested hierarchy of brilliance, one in which “gifted children” are at the bottom of the ladder: They just have to score in the 98thpercentile on IQ tests. Then there are “prodigies,” who achieve professional skill levels in a highly demanding field before age 10. “Geniuses” perch at the top, and though there’s some fuzziness around its definition, most experts agree that genius requires bringing something utterly new into the world: Think Einstein’s E=mc2 or Mozart’s “Requiem.” It’s too early to know how to categorize most of the Intel finalists, but David Henry Feldman, a Tufts University professor who developed the most commonly accepted definition of prodigy, suspects most of them are merely gifted in science.
Whatever it is — giftedness or genius or something in between — parents want a piece of it. They pour their paychecks into the college test prep industry, crowd elite preschool waiting lists and even hire professional, MFA-holding opera singers as babysitters. Their antics have sparked complaints and, it is often alleged, a whole generation of stressed-out teenagers. The product of all that parental ambition, we are told, are red-eyed kids who lose sleep over college admissions and spend their waking hours micromanaged by tiger moms who won’t take no for an answer. “I don’t think it’s a very happy time for a kid’s development,” Feldman says.
We’d steeled ourselves for an atmosphere heavy with anxiety and stress. We’d prepared for bleary eyes, maybe even a teentrum. But back at the Intel competition, surprises awaited. While there were a handful of overly caffeinated, high-strung finalists, the vibe was mostly — well, chill. We searched high and low for a helicopter parent, to no avail — most were pointedly laissez-faire. Their kids, meanwhile, didn’t speak just about needing naps, but about taking them — because, you know, “sleeping is fun,” as one of the whiz kids told us.
Stress is, like, my mortal enemy.
Charles Gulian, 18, Intel Science Talent Search finalist
Charles Gulian, for instance, maintains he gets six to seven hours a night, despite the late hours he spends building a computer program to comb the Kepler data set for white dwarfs (it’d be useful for studying the universe’s expansion). As he shuffles into the Baroque-style lobby of the hotel where the Intel finalists are staying, Gulian, 18, is the picture of teenage nonchalance. Now and then, a lank of blond hair falls across his brow; now and then, a smile flickers across his cool expression. “Stress is, like, my mortal enemy,” he says in a hazy monotone. He eschews “high-achieving types.” At another science competition, he says, he met finalists who claimed to thrive under stress. “I’m like, ‘You’re insane.’ I try my very best to not get stressed about anything.” He credits his equanimity to years spent pondering the heavens — “how small our struggles are compared to the universe.”
For the parents, meanwhile, the most difficult parts of their jobs seem to involve surrendering parts of their households to dubious-smelling experiments — algae cultures, in Kriti Lall’s case. Everyone in the house could smell the putrid hydrogen sulfide gas for weeks. Lall, though, seems pressure-proof. Her parents, software engineers who struggle even to grasp her research, say they’ve adopted a philosophy of letting their daughter take the lead. “If there is anything Kriti wanted to do, I said OK, even if I didn’t understand her,” says her father, Vinish. “I don’t question ‘Why this? Why that?’ I trust she often has a good reason why she wants to do something.”
Joanne Ruthsatz, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, sees something similar among the child prodigies she studies. Most people assume that prodigies are the product of ardent parenting, “stage parents pushing these kids into areas they’re interested in,” she says. But the opposite holds. “In fact, it’s the child pushing the parents,” she says — pushing for more books, tougher classes and other outlets for their talent. When Johnny ends up taking calculus in the eighth grade, it’s not usually because mom pushed him into it. Instead, it’s because Johnny got bored in fourth-grade math and complained to mom, who in turn took it up with the school administrator.
Prodigies tend to keep it playful, Ruthsatz says. She vividly remembers one 6-year-old who, after stepping offstage after a major piano performance amid thunderous applause, approached her to ask: “Ms. Joanne, you want to go play in the sandbox?” Most prodigies remain oblivious to their talent. “They’re pretty stress-free,” she says. “They get up there and do what they do.”
To be sure, so much depends on the opportunities kids have. Making a genius, at least the kind with a shot at a national science competition, is nearly impossible in schools without resources. At the Intel Science Talent Search, most of the finalists came from private schools or prestigious magnet schools, like Hunter College High School in New York City, or from wealthy public school districts. (Intel says it doesn’t track the ethnicity of finalists.) Such schools offer independent research programs, or even require their students to take on independent scientific research. They partner with neighboring universities, which often agree to provide lab space and mentorship.
Intel says kids from less monied schools still stand a shot. Wendy Hawkins, the foundation’s executive director, told of a past finalist raised by a single mother who worked as a hairdresser — “poor as church mice.” His teacher mentored him as he worked on his project in a broom closet turned makeshift laboratory. Good old perseverance can go a long way too. Even if it took hundreds of emails to professors, a few finalists managed to find lab spaces on their own.
One thing is for certain. Cramming kids into the prodigy mold almost inevitably backfires. “Can you take a child with an average IQ and make them a genius? You’d be the first,” Ruthsatz says. While prodigies might breezily surpass their parents’ expectations, “you feel really sorry for kids who achieve at natural levels.”
Or, as Feldman puts it, “There’s as much genius in the parenting part. It’s extraordinarily challenging to do it well.” Which might explain why kids made miserable by the pressure don’t seem to end up at Intel.
And the winner is … ? After nearly a week of rigorous judging, field trips and even a dance, all that the Intel finalists have left to do now is wait. The night the prizes are awarded — $150,000 each for first-place winners in three categories, $75,000 for second place and $35,000 for third place — the National Building Museum has been transformed into a banquet hall. Spotlights illuminate its giant marble columns, and blue and white balloons festoon the stage. A string quartet plays the Game of Thrones theme and the finalists stream in, a parade of pressed suits and gauzy evening gowns. This is how we celebrate genius.
One of the finalists, Emily Lorin Ashkin, has been elected to speak for all of them. At the podium, Ashkin reminisces about the finalists’ debates over how to pronounce “apoptosis,” or cell suicide. Was the second “p” silent? (For the record, yes.) Everyone seems a winner as Ashkin describes what they’ve all gained. It wasn’t just the extra line on their résumés, or the chance at a six-figure prize, or getting to meet President Obama. The gathering represented the opportunity to “bond over Bananagrams and Despicable Me minions — while understanding the significance of the word, ‘apoptosis.’”