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Canada Teenage physics genius has head start on changing the world

Taylor Wilson, 19, in the garage of his parents’ Arkansas home, where he planned to build a fusor before a former University of Nevada prof allowed him to use his lab.

Bryce Duffy/The Globe and Mail

In his Arkansas drawl, the 19-year-old speaks of getting the "nuclear spark" at age 10. That was around the time he asked his parents for plutonium for Christmas. Later he pricked his relatives' fingers at Thanksgiving to "draw some blood" for genetic testing, mined for uranium in the desert, and achieved nuclear fusion at age 14 – watching excitedly as a "miniature star" emerged in the reaction chamber.

"I've got a head start on the whole 'changing the world' thing," Taylor Wilson, a physics wunderkind who will be in Nova Scotia this weekend for the Halifax International Security Forum, half-joked in a telephone interview this week from Reno, Nev.

By early accounts, he is right. Hospitals want to buy a device he developed that would let them cheaply produce medical isotopes on-site. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security approached him, he said, about his inexpensive non-proliferation device that can detect radioactive weapons in cargo containers. And with his latest work on nuclear fission reactors, he hopes to revolutionize the way we power the world.

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"He just came out that way," said his father, Kenneth Wilson. "I'm a fourth-generation Coca-Cola bottler in southwest Arkansas, and my wife [Tiffany] taught yoga and had an organic juice bar."

He said his wife joshes that Taylor and his younger brother Joey, a math whiz, are so remarkably bright because she ate healthy foods while pregnant. They knew Taylor was different when he was about three years old – when they discovered, through his minutely detailed descriptions of tractors he'd seen, that he had a photographic memory. Taylor said he only felt distinct from his friends because he was "a little bit more ambitious."

Even his birthday parties in Texarkana, Ark., were unique. His fifth, at the height of his construction obsession, featured a five-ton crane. He wore a hard hat and a smile the whole time, but he was serious about doing real work with the crane and wanted his friends to be serious, too. "It was as if it wasn't a party," his father said, adding that his son had endeared himself to their neighbours. "He had the operator extend the arm into a tree to pull out some dead branches."

Taylor's life is so colourful that a Hollywood studio, he said, bought the movie rights to his story after Popular Science magazine ran a profile entitled "The Boy Who Played With Fusion."

Carl Willis, a 33-year-old friend and fellow science fiend, said he first heard of the shaggy-haired teen "during his pursuit, back in 2006, for some uranium ore." A year later, Mr. Willis jumped through bureaucratic hoops to land Taylor, at the time a minor, a tour of the accelerator at New Mexico's Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, where Mr. Willis had worked.

"[Senior management] relented," said Mr. Willis, a development engineer in Albuquerque, N.M. "I think they recognized that this is a highly unusual situation – that he's going to be involved in this field in a substantial way, sooner rather than later."

He also recalls the time Taylor successfully trolled the Albuquerque landscape for remnants of a hydrogen bomb that had accidentally been jettisoned from a military plane in the 1950s, and the time Taylor spoke so exuberantly about another "nuclear tourism" opportunity that he disturbed a passenger sitting near them on a plane. "He was apologetic," Mr. Willis said. "He came down to earth – briefly – and then things got going again, just in more hushed tones. … His enthusiasm is unstoppable. It's a runaway train and you better be prepared for it."

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Taylor, a slim, 5-foot-11 college football fan, said he does not feel uncomfortable or weird in the presence of older colleagues or even politicians, for example, who will gather at this weekend's Halifax forum to discuss pressing security issues. And he had a cheeky response for President Barack Obama, whom he met at the White House Science Fair last year, when the Commander-in-Chief wryly asked his staff, "Why haven't we hired this guy yet?" Taylor responded: "I'll probably be selling this stuff to you guys."

Taylor's father said it was rewarding but also a challenge raising the boy, because neither he nor his wife could satisfy his intellectual curiosity. All they could do, he said, was nurture Taylor's interests – stay overnight with him at space camp when he was too young to go alone, move to Reno so Taylor and Joey could attend the Davidson Academy for the profoundly gifted, and make a detour to Mississippi on a Florida-bound trip so Taylor could visit sites where underground nuclear testing took place in the 1960s.

"Taylor is Taylor," said Ron Phaneuf, a former professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who let him build a fusor in his lab after hearing the teen planned to build it in his parents' garage. "I see a possible role for him as a spokesperson for science, explaining fairly complicated concepts to ordinary people."

When Taylor and his parents approached Prof. Phaneuf for help, they had already heard "no" from someone else. Friedwardt Winterberg, who earned his PhD under famed theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, told the 13-year-old he first had to master the language of science.

"He didn't listen to my good advice," Prof. Winterberg said, calling Taylor an "amateur" who happens to be good at public relations. "I told him, 'Sit on your ass – I'm sorry to say that – and learn, like crazy, calculus' … He wanted to play, make a little thing – a gadget here or there – in his garage. With that, he cannot impress anybody."

Taylor eschewed formal university schooling in favour of a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to focus on his enterprising research. He has since launched Prometheus Industries, a parent company named for the Greek titan who stole fire from the gods and brought it to Earth.

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"The Greeks looked up at the stars and thought they were on fire," explained Taylor, the youngest person to achieve fusion. "That was nuclear fire, and I think that if I can perfect nuclear energy – which I'm fully convinced I will – there's something poetic in the name."

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