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 +

Friday, February 06, 2009

Of memory power and interest.

There are some people who think that the gift of a child like Ainan consists of nothing more than "memory power" and "interest". They think that to be a prodigious child and achieve at an adult level before the primary years are over, that nothing more is needed than a good memory and a liking for a subject. Clearly, such people are unfamiliar with the requirements of the subject Ainan is dealing with.

To be a chemist, one needs to be competent in spatial skills (the spatial arrangement of molecules is important); verbal skills (lots of complicated words and naming systems); mathematical skills (there are numerical problems to solve); memory skills (yes, there is a lot to know); logical skills (for the problem solving, some types of problem can be quite tricky); conceptual skills (understanding the physical concepts involved in Chemistry). Now, to be competent in Chemistry, a child needs to be good at ALL those areas. Memory, note, is just one of those areas. Of course, an interest in Chemistry is necessary too...but without a good level of native skill in all the areas, the child will not succeed in Chemistry, no matter how "interested" they are, or how good their "memory power" is.

I wonder, sometimes, at the lack of reasoning powers of some people that I have encountered on the internet. They think that the sum total of gifts required to be a young scientist is a good memory and an interest in science. I can tell you now that those two attributes alone will not get anyone very far at all in science. Primarily, science is not about memory, but about REASONING. Without highly developed powers of reason, no child, or adult, can expect to do well in science. Of all possible disciplines, the scientific ones tax reason above all other attributes. It is possible to be a savant, and know everything about a science - but such a person would most probably fail any and all exams that they are asked to do, because savants usually lack the ability to apply their knowledge with reason. Thus, knowledge alone (that is, memory alone) is not the answer. Memory alone, in science, is, in fact, nothing at all. It is basically a textbook - for a book is pure memory - but when is the last time a book passed an exam?

The other thing I observe in some of the comments I receive is that people are no longer familiar with the O level exam. It used to be taken by the upper 20% of students in the UK and all around the world. About twenty years ago, the UK dropped it, in favour of a much easier exam - the GCSE. Now, Ainan took his O level Chemistry when other children were still learning to read. This is not the product of "memory power" and "interest"...for those two characteristics do not satisfy the demands of the O level. Only a comparatively few of the marks go to knowledge alone, most of them go to what would be categorized as REASON. Almost all the children who now take GCSE would fare very badly in O level. Most of them would, in fact, fail. This is because it demands both more knowledge and more reasoning power, than the newer exam.

Since April last year, Ainan has been studying tertiary level Chemistry at Singapore Polytechnic. Again, those who characterize this as "memory power" and "interest" are being rather ignorant. Memory and interest will not even allow a student to grasp what is going on in the classroom. There is a good deal of reason and insight required just to have the faintest idea of what it is all about. Knowledge alone, will not allow anyone to cope with the demands of the situation. This should be obvious to anyone who knows what science is like at a tertiary level.

The real question behind all of this, however, is: why do some people try to characterize the gifts of children like Ainan as nothing more than "memory power" and "interest"?

The answer is probably that they feel threatened by such children and seek to diminish them. They seek to recast them not as gifted and intelligent, but as some variety of automatic recording machine devoid of intelligence. To my mind, that indicates either that the person who so characterizes them is jealous - or that they, themselves, genuinely have no understanding of what the demands of a scientific subject are. So, we are left to conclude that they are either jealous, or ignorant...perhaps both.

It is important to speak out against this characterization of gifted children as little more than pocket tape recorders, because this view of them, diminishes them to such an extent that they are no longer worthy of support or consideration. If such views are allowed sway, then more gifted children will go unsupported and will not receive the resources they need to blossom.

Ainan does have a good memory, but he has a better imagination, a better intuition, a better intelligence, than all the powers of his memory can muster.

Memory is not the answer to genius or giftedness of any kind - but it is a tool that the gifted use. Nikola Tesla was a great genius - but he also had a great visual memory, able to capture things in the finest detail. Mozart was famously able to recall long pieces of music at a single hearing and write them down. Charles Dickens when working as a young journalist, took notes only in his head (if I remember rightly). These three men were all geniuses - and they all had good memories. However, it would be entirely wrong to characterize them as a product of nothing but memory. A good memory was the LEAST of their gifts. It was their REASON and CREATIVITY that made them geniuses. Their memories were just tools to enable the other two faculties to have something to work on.

So, it is with certain gifted children. They have able memories, but these are just tools to allow their other gifts to have something to work with. If you want to know their true gifts - look to their capacities to reason and be creative.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight 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, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 5:07 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is shocking to see such jealousy on a young child but why do you think there are any jealous people? all the comments i see here are in a positive light of Ainan.

3:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Valentine,
i was interested to know the answer to a question but was not able to find it anywhere and thought your son may be able to answer it. Why does hydrogen bonding not occur with chlorine?

4:12 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It shocks me, too.

Thankfully, the vast majority of the comments I receive are pleasant, interesting, thoughtful, kind, helpful or otherwise positive. A few comments are unpleasant however. I tend not to post these because Ainan might read them - and I don't think that is fair on him, or right for me to allow. Thus, there are jealous comments, but no-one else gets to read them, apart from me.

Thank you for your implicit support.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Hydrogen bonding for Chlorine.

Ainan points out that there ARE in fact hydrogen bond type interactions for Chlorine but that they are very much weaker than for N, O, F so are not infrequently ignored. Perhaps that is why you got the impression that they don't exist: they do.

He hopes that helps, somewhat.

Thanks for your question.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

Does Ainan keep a blog of his own? It would be interesting to read his thoughts.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi. Ainan does not keep a blog presently, though he did start one when he had just turned five, but let it go after a few posts.

We are thinking of ways in which he could express his thoughts. A blog may not be the format though. It is something that is being attended to...


12:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i really dun understand with those people, why must jealous to a child prodigy. im really glad to hear if there another genius kid appears in newspaper etc. i really admire them.

hope ainan and his brothers doing well always:)

3:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your supportive words.

I agree...there is no need for jealousy. Such children need a lot of support/opportunities if they are truly to become what they could be.

Best wishes to you

3:51 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

Merely having a powerful memory would only make Ainan a rote learner (and at best a savant), but it is obvious that Ainan has demonstrated very advanced skills in actually understanding problems, so I do agree that people who think that Ainan's achievements can be solely attributed to powerful memorisation have a very superficial view of what it truly means to be a prodigy.

Yesterday morning I watched the prime-time morning programme on ChannelNewsAsia, and it featured an 11-year-old local prodigy who is able to paint extremely well. If I am not wrong, she is selling her paintings and all the profits will be donated to charity. It is very heartening to see gifted people contributing to society using their talents.

I hope Ainan will continue to pursue his academic interests, and I know that one day he'll be able to do something for humankind as well. There will always be people who are jealous of him because they don't want him to succeed, because they want him to be as mediocre as they are, because they are selfish. There will always be people who want to make him feel bad, who want to exclude him from their circle, who want to force him to change himself for them. Ignore these comments. There is so much beauty in this world for us to appreciate, and genius is a form of beauty in itself.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Miao, for your poetic view of genius. You are right, it is a form of beauty - one that the enlightened appreciate.

What was the name of the 11 year old? I haven't heard of them.

Yes. As long as Ainan maintains and continues to grow his academic interests, then he will become a contributing thinker (he already is one, in the privacy of his own home).

Unfortunately, your description of the trials of the gifted ring true. I will try to teach him to overcome such opposition and shield him from it whenever I can.

Best wishes.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

about the hydrogen bonding question. SHouldnt chlorinie exhibit a stonger hydrogen bonding than Nitrogen because it is slightly more electronegative?

6:03 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re H bonding.

No. You forget that Chlorine is larger than Nitrogen...this counteracts the issue you mention, by spreading the electrons across a larger volume.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Miao said...


The young artist's name is Dawn Kwan.

I agree that keeping a blog is not the best way for Ainan to share his thoughts... Nasty people would leave really hurtful comments.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks, Miao, for her name. I will look out for her.

Yes. There are dangers in keeping a blog. There are always a few people who are unpleasant, and some who are even insane, and insist on commenting on other people's blogs. He can't be exposed to that kind of disturbing nonsense at his age.

We will find a way for him to express his thoughts that doesn't involve the kind of hassle that a blog can sometimes generate. It is bad enough dealing with such people as an adult...but as a young child, I hesitate to consider the effects.

Best wishes Miao.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think ainan was wrong he has confused permanent dipole interactions with hydrogen bonds . What grade did ainan receive in his chemistry gcse? countries like india have a harder syllabus which has significantly more chemistry that the gcse and older o level. What do you have to say about this?

9:03 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have just had an amusing thought. Perhaps you ARE an Indian Chemist. If so, this would be hilarious, since it would be proof that Indian chemistry is not so good after all, despite what you say about it.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The probable Indian, above, tried to post again, but I have decided not to post it, because I find his/her words rather immature and off the mark.

I will, however, make some observations. They still believe that they are right and Ainan is wrong, despite the fact that I have pointed out that Ainan understands the origins of hydrogen bonding very well and was able to predict the relative strengths of the hydrogen bonds in various substances in the correct order. Ainan understood this, immediately.

Since, my Indian correspondent still doesn't believe that Ainan was right I checked one of his textbooks. It is a Chemistry degree text called: "Chemistry: The Molecular Nature of Matter and Change", 4th edition. It is by Silberberg and published by McGraw-Hill International. At the bottom of page 439 the following words are to be found:

"H-bond type interactions occur with the larger atoms P, S and Cl, but those are so much weaker than the interactions with N, O, and F that we will not consider them."

So, if you don't take Ainan's word for it - despite him being absolutely right - perhaps you will take Silberberg's and McGraw Hill's word for it.

I find myself somewhat surprised to learn, however, that the Indian commenter is not actually a chemist but now claims to be a mathematician. Thus, the level of arrogance required is much greater than at first thought. Despite being completely wrong in his view that H bonding does not occur in, for instance, HCL, the correspondent believes Ainan to be wrong, in the face of being told otherwise - and in the face of not actually being a chemist and not actually knowing much about it.

Apparently, in the eyes of this particular: "I am not an Indian chemist, I am a mathematician", doing maths fits one to understand the universe better than anyone else, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

This exchange has convinced me of one thing, though, it may very well be a waste of time to try to correct people who are wrong, because even when corrected, they may still hold to their erroneous beliefs.

Ainan is studying Chemistry at college and has been doing so since he was 8 years old. To most sane people, this would be proof enough that he understands it well. However, nothing can be proven to those who are not sane enough to be convinced by reality.

The real world says the Indian correspondent is wrong. However he/she still persists in arguing with it. I suppose only a mathematician could be persuaded enough of their own merits, not to be swayed by reality.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

For the Indian "mathematicians know everything" non-Chemist: Ainan points out that your objection is a very strange one, anyway. You see Hydrogen bonding does depend on fixed dipole-dipole interactions. So, your objection seems meaningless and confused - but heh, of course, mathematicians always think clearly don't they?

7:49 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

NO. I will try to make this as clear as I can. Ainan is right. You are wrong. You are also noted above, because hydrogen bonding DOES involve dipole to dipole interactions.

IF you doubt him, I suggest that you study Chemistry at any University in the world. You see this little known fact that Ainan has pointed out is a footnote found in good University chemistry textbooks. If you don't know this, might I suggest that you are not a chemist, but simply a reader of the often inaccurate Wikipedia?

Ainan didn't do GCSE he did O level. His Chemistry is just fine. He did very well.

What I find interesting is that you, who presumably are not actually a Chemist (otherwise you would know that Ainan was right, if you were any good as a Chemist), can assume him to be wrong.

You praise Indian chemistry...does that mean you are Indian?

Arrogance, as you seem to display, is a rather great failing. I suggest that you correct it.

Personally, I think it is very funny, and very revealing of your own personality traits that you are so quick to try to assume that Ainan is wrong. Ainan is a child, yes...but you know what: he is also a competent scientist.

Send my regards to India.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment is for the Indian mathematician.

From your most recent comment, which I am not going to post, it is clear that you are rather obsessive on the issue of Ainan. You have spent a lot of time on the internet studying him. What I find most puzzling, therefore, is that you clearly don't understand him. You are also very unfamiliar with what prodigies are and can do, or what the signs of such development are. My question is: why are you so intensely interested in him when you have completely failed to understand him?

It seems that Ainan makes you insecure, in some way, or defensive about your nation and nationality. That should not be so. Ainan's abilities and achievements are Ainan's...they have no bearing on India, at all.

As for your assertion regarding Ainan's O level fact, he went through the entire book on the first night he received it, before falling to sleep. There was not much time involved in grasping it.

It is abundantly clear that you have, despite all your reading, no idea at all who Ainan is or what he is like. It would seem to me, from that, that you DON'T WANT to understand what you are reading. You clearly wish to misunderstand what you read because you don't want to believe what it means.

Obviously, you have some personal issue at work here. Now, Ainan didn't put that personal issue in you really shouldn't make him part of it. He isn't. He is just a child with scientific abilities who happens to enjoy thinking. He shouldn't bother you in the way that he does.

Why don't you relax and enjoy the fact that India has prodigies too...? I understand that India is quite good at producing maths type prodigies...well, take pleasure in that then.

Have a good day.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I offer an alternative explanation for the knee jerk oh-it's-just-memory reaction that people have?

While it's doubtless true that a number of people feel threatened by Ainan's achievements and thus seek to undermine their significance, it's practically certain that another portion of his detractors are simply incapable of understanding what higher reasoning is.

Just as one who has never seen a cat could not be made to accurately visualize one from a verbal description alone, a person who has limited cognitive faculties must explain the actions and abilities of more gifted others using his own mental resources as building blocks and therefore necessarily completely misses the point when asked to analyse their successes.

And then we have folks like the "mathematician" from India who uses Wikipedia as his authoritative scientific source. That choice alone throws up a red flag large enough to swaddle the Taj Mahal in. Couple that with his hostility and we have a person who is clearly both stupid and jealous. Not a pretty sight.

5:05 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Anon at 5.05 am for your insightful understanding of the situation re. perception of the gifted, by the not so.

Yes, it is true that in not being what they seek to understand, they cannot truly understand it: they can only suppose it to be more of what they already know...and so, as you note, miss the point.

Re. The Indian...his unposted postings were very obsessive, and showed that he had invested much time in tracking down minutiae about Ainan...but then still had missed the point. It was a little perturbing actually. It was as if he took personal affront at the existence of a child like Ainan and went out of his way to attack him...very strange.

Thanks for your comment.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Unposted O level critic.

Ainan did not take Singaporean O levels, he took UK ones. They are still being provided by some boards for overseas markets.

Perhaps you could provide a link to the papers you say you looked at?

2:34 PM  

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