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The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The infinity of chemical knowledge

I have, at times, wondered about the future of my sons. What, for instance, shall Ainan become? What will he do? Will there be anything left for him to do, in his discipline, once he takes his place in it?

Presently, Ainan, 7, looks set to be a chemist. Yet, he is also showing signs of interest in other physical sciences, too: in Physics, Maths, Material Sciences, Geology, Astronomy and Nanotechnology. However, it is true to say that almost all his attention, thus far, has been given to Chemistry, among the sciences. I thought it important, however, to mention the other nascent interests, lest they, one day, become central ones, to him. One never knows on these matters.

So, then my thoughts turned to Chemistry. It is a mature science. It's basic principles are well known - so what is there left to do, for a young chemist, in such an arena? Well, it doesn't take much thought to realize something very, very different about Chemistry, compared to the other sciences. Chemistry is infinite. I mean this in a very real sense. Just think about it. There necessarily must be an infinite variety of possible molecules, since most atoms can, in some way, combine with many others, in structures of unlimited designs. Chemistry is a never-ending subject.

Other sciences, like Physics, have, one supposes, a limited set of possible information. The physical world is describable by physics - but that description is most probably not infinite. I would be very surprised if it was. The physical world is, it appears, reducible to a finite set of laws, applied in a wide, but not infinite variety of circumstances. One day, if Mankind is smart enough (or at least if one genius in the whole of history, male or female, is smart enough - the rest of us can play catch up), then Physics will one day be a fully known subject. We will, at that time, be able to describe the world and its workings in a set of physical laws which, no doubt, would not fill too many pages of too many books. All of physics will then be known. It is possible to conceive of this for physics - and even for biology (there not being an infinite variety of principles at work in life, either - or instances of it (though artificial life might change this to a great degree) and the other sciences - but, for Chemistry, such complete knowledge is, in principle, impossible. No matter how many chemicals are known and understood, there will always be others that can by synthesized, with new properties and possibilities. Chemistry can never be fully known.

Thus, although Chemistry is a mature science, although we think we understand it well - it cannot be said to be complete. It is only just beginning. I recently read one estimate that 19 million chemicals have been synthesized and defined, in Chemistry, so far. Furthermore, the rate at which new chemicals is being synthesized and defined is doubling every 13 years or so. Thus by the end of this century we will know of billions of chemicals. Yet, even then, Chemistry will just be beginning. Set against an infinity of possible chemicals and structures, a knowledge of billions is nothing. The fact is, Mankind, even if it endures for the entire Universe, will never know the fullness of Chemistry. Sure, we will know a lot. The possible things we can do with all these chemicals will be forever increasing, but we will never get to a point where there is nothing more to be done.

I find this heartening. Yes, my son, Ainan, is becoming a Chemist at a time when Chemistry appears mature - but there remains an infinite amount to be done - and this will always be the case.

So, I find myself relaxing on the issue of Ainan's future. There is still, yet, a need for Chemists in this world - and there always will be, for Ainan has chosen one of the few infinite subjects, for his attention - and that is a bit of a relief.

(If you would like to read more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and eight months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and one month, and Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, genetics, left-handedness, chemistry, science, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:40 PM 

3 Comments:

Blogger EbTech said...

A prodigy chemist would have another advantage: uniqueness. Prodigies in math and science most often gravitate towards physics (no pun intended...)

Therefore, a chemistry prodigy is rarer and perhaps more needed. He may one day be in a unique position to make certain breakthroughs. Hopefully he will continue to be interested in foundational subjects such as math and physics at depths well beyond what is typically expected of a researching chemist, for those skills would grant him even more unique insight into real-world problems.

By the way, while you have written about Ainan's progress on the O and A levels, I would be more interested in how he finds olympiad problems, for they are a much better test of a gifted scientist's abilities. Even if he cannot participate officially, the problems are posted on the web. For example:
http://www.icho2009.co.uk/articles/id/13

I would be interested to know if he finds these problems interesting or challenging, or if they are below or above his present comfort zone.

Here are some problems from my favourite high school math contest:
http://www.artofproblemsolving.com/Wiki/index.php/2009_AIME_I_Problems
http://www.artofproblemsolving.com/Wiki/index.php/2009_AIME_II_Problems

These are a step below olympiad level, since math is not Ainan's main subject, but are quite advanced nonetheless. A score of 7 out of 15 (less than 50%!!) would be sufficient to qualify for the USA Math Olympiad, thus ranking in the top 600 in USA/Canada!

4:20 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Thanks for the links. I will let him have a look.

3:27 PM  
Blogger lightage said...

Hi Valentine,

I've been following your blog for some time and recently started to read from the beginning, chronologically. It is fascinating, for me, to find out more about your family.

I am of technical formation, college graduated, 29 years, have two children (2 years and 3 months) and agree with some of your earlier remarks about the joys of parenting.

I think there is more there about the infinity of knowledge. For instance, the principles in chemistry have been discovered already, and saying that it is infinite because of the large number of combinations, though true, is almost like saying that mathematics is infinite because there are an infinity of numbers and combinations (equations) around them.

In contrast, in physics there isn't yet a Unified Theory universally accepted. Quantum physics is still a borderline science, with many things still accepted "as are", without an explanation. Other things are also still puzzling (see Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which Bohr and Einstein argued about).

I also think there is a strong connection between physics and chemistry, when you start looking at sub-atomic level (take electron spin, for example). It is by understanding these things that everything clicks together, because chemical reactions are results of physical laws.

Regarding infinity of science... you know of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem?

With warm regards,
Adrian.

8:16 PM  

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