Frank Anthony Wilczek: a childhood tale.
Today, I was at the Kuala Lumpur Innovation Forum 2011. There, I met an academic from the USA, who had an interesting tale to relate to me. The subject of my son, Ainan, came up in conversation and he, by association, told me the tale of another precocious boy, he knew as a teenager: Frank Anthony Wilczek.
Wilczek was in the American academic’s classroom in school. In fact, they sat next to each other, since the students were arranged in alphabetical order and my new acquaintance’s name began with W. Now, you may think this is not particularly remark worthy. Yet, it is for a couple of odd facts. Firstly, the classes in question were AP Physics (Advanced Placement) and AP Calculus. These were, by American standards, tough classes. Thus, one could expect that the students in those classes were the brightest in the school. So, my acquaintance had been quite bright as a child. Yet, Frank Anthony Wilczek stood out in these classes – for he was, according to my informant, just 12 years old at the time. Wilczek had been a child prodigy, of sorts.
Now, I was told, everyone in Wilczek’s class was awed by his intelligence. My acquaintance said that he knew, just KNEW, that no matter how many extra hours of work he put in to his Physics and Maths, that he would never be able to be as good or as bright as Wilczek – it just wasn’t about the work, Wilczek really had something the others did not. Indeed, the common view in his class, at the time, was that, one day, Wilczek would win the Nobel Prize. Rather uncannily, Wilczek did just that, for work he had done when he was a graduate student in 1973 – “the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction”.
The tale of Wilczek’s precocious childhood and adult success, is one that struck me as worth knowing more widely. Some people believe, really believe, that child prodigies only shine in childhood. Such people dig up cases of child prodigies who went astray as adults – such as Sufiah Yusof – and use that “evidence” to bolster their case that prodigies do not become adult geniuses. Well, the truth of course, is rather more complex. Some prodigies do, in fact, become adult geniuses – like Frank Anthony Wilczek. Many prodigies become respected experts or performers in their fields – and only a minority, I would say, a very small minority, ever go astray so magnificently as Sufiah Yusof did. In fact, she is the only example I know of her kind – so she is hardly typical of the life outcome of prodigies. On the other hand, there are rather many prodigies who became very distinguished adult geniuses...others include Norbert Wiener, the father of Cybernetics, John von Neumann and even Richard Feynmann, who had aspects of the child prodigy about him, particularly in his areas of interest – Physics and Maths.
What particularly struck me about the Wilczek story was that the other kids in his class were able to see, instantly, for themselves, that Wilczek would “win a Nobel Prize one day”. That was their assessment of their classmate – and funnily enough, he went on to do just that. So, intellectual promise is evident in childhood. It is quite possible to look at a young child’s manner of thought and make fair estimates for their future. Should that future not come to be, I rather think it has nothing to do with their quality of thought or ability, but would be due to the random obstructions that are encountered in many lives. Should such a child not live up to their promise that is not because the promise was illusory – it is because life can be hard, unfair and obstructive. Quite simply, life can get in the way of the promise of any child, prodigy or not. If, however, there is enough “luck” in life, of the young prodigy, such that their obstructions are not overwhelming, then, it is clear, that such prodigies can grow to be very special adults indeed.
I wonder what Frank Anthony Wilczek, who is still alive at just 60 years old, would think if he knew what his fellow classmates thought of him all those years ago? They saw his future before he had lived it. I wonder, did he see it himself, as clearly, or was his ultimate success a pleasant surprise?
Young prodigies should be nurtured carefully, for if looked after, they, too, can become as successful as adults, as Frank Anthony Wilczek is – and many others like him.
Posted by Valentine Cawley
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