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 +

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Of curiosity and criminality

Which is worth more: a tree or a PhD? Have a think about it and come to a decision.

Which did you choose, the tree or the PhD? (You can say in the comments if you like).

Well, I think the tree is worth more, when you know a little bit more about the tree. In 1964, a young geographer, Donald R. Currey, was working his way towards his doctorate, and was interested in gathering evidence for Ice Age glaciers, in the Southwest USA. He was on Wheeler Peak with a colleague when he came upon some bristlecone pines at the timberline. They started drilling cores into them, to determine their age. They found one that was over 4,000 years old, which rather excited them. Then their only corer broke.

They had, before them, an even bigger tree than the others. It was known as "Prometheus". Without the corer, there was only one way to find out its age: kill it. Shockingly, this impatient young man called the U.S. Forest Service to ask permission to cut down the tree, just so he could find out how old it was. Even more shockingly, some dimwit at the Forest Service said yes to his request. So, Mr. Currey (as he then was) and some Forest Service personnel duly cut down this magnificent ancient tree 8 foot up from the base. Then they settled down to count the rings. They got to 4,844. (Later dendrochronologists determined that it was actually over 4,950 years old). Donald R. Currey had just killed the oldest living thing on Earth, known, at the time, simply to find out how old it was.

I really had to share this incident with you, because I was stunned by the stupidity of the attitude that would allow such a wonderful multi-millenial life to be snuffed out, just to find out how long it was.

It was completely unnecessary to kill the tree. All they had to do was come back another time, with a new corer and get their answer that way. However, this young man had no patience for that: getting his PhD pronto was more important than the life of the oldest living thing on Earth.

No-one should put short term personal gain, over the long term health of the world - or the existence of a magnificent life, such as the nigh-immortal tree that Mr. Currey killed that day.

That tree had stood from the dawn of human civilization, right up until the modern world: from the time of the Ancient Egyptians to the time of the 20th century Americans and the hippies of the sixties - until one young man put his immediate career and personal curiosity before its undying life. Think of the sadness of that trade: he killed it just so he could write a number on a piece of paper - the tree's age. (Oh, and make some observations about the Little Ice Age - which most regard as being just 600 years ago: so there was no need to gather information from such an old tree, at all).

How many of you, now, think a PhD is worth more than a tree? Comments please.

By the way, Donald R. Currey went on to earn his doctorate five years later. He had a successful academic career primarily studying a single lake - Bonneville. His papers on geomorphology of lakes, paleolakes, lake basins, and coasts; geotectonics (paleolimnology) and geochronology and geodynamics of quaternary lakes; geoarchaeology; and environmental change in desert, mountain, Arctic areas were highly cited.

Personally, I would swap his entire career for the grand tree he murdered in the name of it.

As a direct consequence of Mr. Currey's tree killing action, Bristlecone Pines have become a protected species - and the areas in which they grow are now part of a national park. (Something for which Currey, in perhaps a fit of late-arriving guilt, lobbied for.)

Rather pointedly, despite all his academic ambitions, Dr. Don Currey is most famous for the day he killed the oldest tree in the world. Or should I say, infamous.

So, if curiosity ever leads you to a course of action with irrevocable harmful consequences, please pause to think again. Don't do as Mr. Currey did - for the sake of us all.

Dr. Don Currey, himself, didn't have the lifespan of a tree, though: he died at 70 in 2004. I hope he came to understand what he had done, before his time was up.

Prometheus, the ancient tree, would still be alive, today, if Mr. Currey hadn't killed it, for career advancement.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and four months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and nine months, and Tiarnan, twenty-six months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:30 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

When I first read your question, my immediate reaction was this: "Of course the tree is worth more!"

There is a saying in Chinese: 十年树木,百年树人。 It means that it takes only decades to grow a tree, but it takes centuries to establish a civilisation. My assumption was that a person with a doctorate degree - who must presumably be very knowledgeable and erudite - will probably have something lasting to contribute to the civilisation of mankind which will benefit intellectual development in time to come. Of course, this is only a generalisation. Some people do not live up to expectations.

I continued reading your entry, realised that Dr Currey was one of those who did not live up to expectations (even though he had an outstanding career, his desire to cut down such a precious tree indicated a moral failing), and decided that the tree was definitely worth more when I found out that it was almost 5000 years old. Its age has given it a beautiful aura of holiness and sanctity. I felt overwhelmed just imagining how it had witnessed the entire course of history. It was an indescibable feeling. I was, simply put, completely in awe. The tree was just priceless and inviolable.

Like you, I was stunned by Dr Currey's desire to cut it, and even more shocked by the authority's consent on this matter. I thought that the staff working at the Forest Service would be able to appreciate the fact that nothing could ever justify chopping down such a magnificent tree. It was really equivalent to blasphemy.

Why hire people who do not love trees (or, in general, features of nature) to work in environmental agencies like the Forest Service? I don't understand.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Miao for your comment. It is to your last thought that I wish to draw attention: yes - why work in the Forest Service if nature is not your first love? Sadly, I think many people see it as just a job - and don't have the right feelings for it (just like any other job).

There are almost always ways to gather data without killing that which you are gathering data about. Another example of this is the Japanese killing whales to "study" them (ie. serve them in restaurants). That is another appalling practice. There is no excuse for it. A whale does not need to be killed to be understood. How about watching?

Thank you for all your comments. I will try to respond to them over the next few days: there are so many that I haven't had time to give them individual responses. They are, however, much appreciated.

Thanks and best wishes.

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Currey was an idiot. An arrogant idiot. But our mentality as a species still hasn't changed. I especially like the hunter that shot and killed the first known grizzly-polar bear cross several years ago.

And as a wildlife biologist my opinion is that scientists have killed more things (for ego-based reasons) than most people have a right to. We shouldn't be able to kill anything that we can't create.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree. Scientists should do their best to avoid killing in the pursuit of knowledge...try to acquire that knowledge without the death of the subject. It shows a certain god-like arrogance to go around killing, just to find out about things.

I am glad you agree with my view on Currey. I was appalled to learn what he had done in the name of a PhD. That tree had stood for essentially the whole of civilized history...until he came along. It is very sad.

Thanks for your comment. Good luck with your work in is an important area.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Cuestiones personales said...

Current, an idiot, arrongant man.

4:04 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, he most certainly was, "Cuestiones personales". We will now never know how long that tree would have lived had he let it alone...indeed, it might have outlived human civilization...who knows?

11:01 AM  

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