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Math Idle Science

12-Year-Old Rewrites Einstein's Theory of Relativity 588

rhathar writes "A 12-year-old boy by the name of Jacob Barnett is a math genius. Mastering many college level astrophysics courses by the age of 8, he now works on his most ambitious project to date: his own 'expanded version of Einstein's theory of relativity.'"

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12-Year-Old Rewrites Einstein's Theory of Relativity

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  • Primary Source (Score:5, Informative)

    by dtmos ( 447842 ) * on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:17PM (#35641656)

    The Indianapolis Star []

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by xTantrum ( 919048 )
      [blockquote]The boy wonder, who taught himself calculus, algebra, geometry and trigonometry in a week[/blockquote] I call bullshit.
      • Re:Primary Source (Score:5, Insightful)

        by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @02:06PM (#35642448) Homepage

        [blockquote]The boy wonder, who taught himself calculus, algebra, geometry and trigonometry in a week[/blockquote]
        I call bullshit.

        How so? It's not unprecedented for people to be savants, and to have singularly amazing mathematical abilities. The human brain is an amazing thing ... I don't even think this is the first time I've heard about a teenager with some form of autism who is a math prodigy.

        According to the article:

        At this point, Jake's math IQ -- which has been measured at 170 (top of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) -- could not get any higher.

        "You could tell right off the bat, his performance has been outstanding," said Ross, who, at age 46 with a Ph.D. from Boston University, has never seen a kid as smart as Jake.

        Sure, it's rare. But, I don't think it's unprecedented to see this.

        Of course, I can only imagine that between being this smart (for math) and having some degree of autism is going to make it difficult for him -- I can only imagine how messed up it would be to be doing graduate-level mathematics, and still have all of the other crap a 12 year old has to go through on top of that.

        But, I don't dis-believe that he taught himself high school math in a week or two. Some of these kinds of problems are well documented as something that occasionally someone with autism or something similar just "see" and work with naturally.

        • Re:Primary Source (Score:5, Insightful)

          by PaladinAlpha ( 645879 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @02:32PM (#35642846)

          It's not about being "smart (for math)".

          Let me put it like this. What if the kid was a whiz programmer, and they said he had taught himself "C, C++, Perl, Python, Ruby, Java, Lisp, Prolog, and x86 assembly in a week"? It's nonsense. There's more information there than can be read in a week, let alone applied and digested.

          What does that imply about the claim, then? Well, for our hypothetical whiz programmer, it means he knows how to write "hello, world" a lot of different ways, but lacks the capacity to use the strengths of each language. He's committed the grievous error of the breadth-first search in an expertise-driven field. And I submit that the same thing holds for our actual math genius, here -- which I would further claim is a tragedy.

          If they held this kid accountable and really put him through the full coursework, he could turn into a very powerful mathematician, or physicist. But if they're letting him skate by with thinking he's taught himself everything there is to know about every major branch of mathematics inside of a week, they're ruining his ability to carry his investigation with scientific rigor. What he's learned is no doubt the trigonometric identities, the power and chain rules, and similar "first brush" material, and will spend the next two decades with mistakes and discoveries that have already been made countless times before.

          Genius is a reason to work more, not less. Removing responsibility from our best and brightest is one of the biggest threats to our prosperity.

          • It's not about being "smart (for math)".

            Again, how so? His disability seems to be offset by the fact that he has a singular talent for mathematics. For a lot of other things, he might be totally lost. He might only be "smart" for math, and struggle with basic language.

            If they held this kid accountable and really put him through the full coursework, he could turn into a very powerful mathematician, or physicist.

            I'm not sure that would work for him ... we're talking about a kid with Aspergers'. They basic

          • Re:Primary Source (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Ben4jammin ( 1233084 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @02:57PM (#35643194)
            Well, I don't know if you read the article or not, but I did. I assume you are basing your response partly on this:

            The boy wonder, who taught himself calculus, algebra, geometry and trigonometry in a week, is now tutoring fellow college classmates after hours.

            I would take that with a grain of salt. He obviously has something akin to a photographic memory. FTA:

            By the age of three he was solving 5,000-piece puzzles and he even studied a state road map, reciting every highway and license plate prefix from memory.

            So a more likely explanation is that he ran through the books very fast because he only needs to read it once to memorize it. I would agree with your point that memorizing facts does not automatically mean you know when to apply them.

            But I think they are holding him accountable as evidenced by him attending lectures and providing tutoring services. If he is given the information about the mistakes and discoveries so far there is no reason to believe he can't assimilate it and push it further. He will need to learn scientific rigor, sure, but he is already on his way if the article is accurate when it reports that he seeks out the professors after class to ask questions...what else can he do at this point?

            I guess what I am trying to say is your response reeks of "sour grapes" :) I too wish I had a photographic memory. Although my hypnotherapist has helped me greatly in remembering names

            • Re:Primary Source (Score:4, Informative)

              by iamhassi ( 659463 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @04:14PM (#35644080) Journal

              I would take that with a grain of salt. He obviously has something akin to a photographic memory. FTA:

              Photographic memory doesn't really exist [] the way most people think of it, as in being able to look at a photograph of a forest and later being able to answer how many trees were in the forest or being able to recall the fourth word in the sixth paragraph after staring at a page in a book.

              Being able to memorize a deck of playing cards or a book of mathematical formulas is NOT photographic memory. No scientific study has ever found anyone with a true photographic memory... well, except one, but the scientist went and married the girl and she refused to repeat the experiments to other scientists so that's questionable.

              So next time you hear someone say "I have a photographic memory" you can chuckle to yourself ;)

          • I always try to explain this in a way that doesn't mean anything to non nerds for some reason. My point of view is that he's like a DnD character that's rolled up with an 18 INT score. Sure, he'll have a lot of spellcasting ability, but he lacks the WIS to truly understand the subjects he's studying and why they're important. His other stats get dumped because people assume they'll just "develop" and he gets killed by the first kobold that comes along, or spends his life creating complicated ways to cha

          • Someone is feeling mediocre.

          • by hazydave ( 96747 )

            I taught myself C, C++, Python, and Java each in a day... not the same week. LISP and assembler took longer, but they were only my 5th and 3rd languages, respectively. And I was 14 for assembler (Z-80), 18 for LISP, 19 for C.... I only taught myself BASIC when I was 12. That took about a month, but I didn't have an actual manual on the BASIC I was using, and no real book on BASIC either, only old copies of "Kilobaud" microcomputing. And I was learning how to program at the same time.. but that was more of a

        • by pspahn ( 1175617 )

          having some degree of autism is going to make it difficult for him

          I'm sure he'll be fine, so long as math is what ultimately interests him.

          An example from my roughly four years as a special ed assistant: It was March 14, Pi Day of course. For math I told the class that the student who memorized the most digits of pi by the end of the day would get a pie.

          I did this mainly to see how a few of the severely autistic yet bright kids (mathematically) would respond and take to doing actual work instead of causing behavior problems all day. All of them were void of behavior pro

      • Why? Most of those are all fairly obvious abstractions of stuff that goes on around us all the time. Calculus is a bit more abstract and less obvious, but is still pretty well grounded in the world as we all experience it. With so many fantastic tutorials available online to help him learn how other people have labeled those relationships, it's believable that a kid with a better pattern-matching engine than anyone else's could just pick it up.

        Scary as all hell, but believable.
      • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

        Aside from the underlying theories, most of that stuff boils down to learning a handful of formulas and knowing when to apply them. It would be challenging to say the least for an average person, but, ya know, genius...

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      the Earth, made mostly of carbon

      He's good at math, but he's applying that math on an ignorant premise.

  • And dissect his brain. Really, it would be interesting to see what a 12 year old math genius' functional MRI looks like. Probably lots of glucose uptake in certain regions. (Unlike mine which has glucose intake concentrated near the doughnut).
    • They've looked at child prodigies, as in children who can truly excel even by adult standards, in fMRIs with various tests. I cannot find a link right now but the interesting thing they find is that in terms of logic, their brains function like adults, but in terms of emotion, their brains function like children. It is not as though they just develop at an accelerated rate, some things do, some do not.

      • perhaps the contrast has some advantage, a lot of really groundbreaking stuff seems to get done by the really young geniuses.

        • I don't know. I can't think of too many prodigies who you can name among the top scientists. There's a difference between a genius and a prodigy. For example Feynman was a genius. There is no question of that. However he was not a prodigy. While he was far ahead of most children, as geniuses are, he was not operating and excelling at an adult level as a pre-teen.

          You don't see a lot of prodigies, it is pretty rare, and they only seem to happen in music and math (which may really be two sides to the same coin

          • Feynman real talent was the ability to explain complex physics in terms even a 12 year old could understand. Looks like this kid has that same talent.
            • by vlm ( 69642 )

              Feynman real talent was the ability to explain complex physics in terms even a 12 year old could understand. Looks like this kid has that same talent.

              I think you're getting all confused here. "Feynman's real talent" was in physics. He got a Nobel prize in physics for his work in QED. Not for writing books. I don't think any 12 year olds understand Feynman diagrams.

              The weirdest part about Feynman's legacy is he did some pretty good lectures against cargo cult science, yet he's been embraced by those same people! Kind of like the situation of Nietzsche and antisemitism.

              You want a dead scientist whom was a great writer, try Asimov and check out his non

          • Feynman was repairing radios and getting paid for it when he was a little boy [his words].

            • by wisty ( 1335733 )

              Which is roughly equivalent to a boy getting paid to fix computers these days.

            • He was able to do that because of the (apparently timeless) irrational fear of technology - soldering a loose wire was usually all it took. Entrepreneurial prodigy maybe, but not scientific.
            • by blair1q ( 305137 )

              Not to dis Feynman, but, radios were a few orders of magnitude simpler, then.

    • by v1 ( 525388 )

      they already went crazy with einstein's brain and didn't learn much.

      • by Surt ( 22457 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:34PM (#35641938) Homepage Journal

        Yeah, but he was a loser who couldn't figure out relativity until adulthood. This kid actually has some talent.

      • Actually they did learn something. The section of brain next to the spatial reasoning piece never formed in Einstein's brain. This allowed his spatial reasoning section to fill the empty space and be twice as large as a normal person's. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes me dubious of genetic engineering of humans. Knowing beforehand that a piece of brain was simply not going to form would be the sort of thing someone would try to "fix".

    • by denzacar ( 181829 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @02:18PM (#35642646) Journal

      And away from sensationalist reporters going for "OMG! Big Bang didn't happen says genius kid!". []

      Meanwhile, Jake is moving on to his next challenge: proving that the big-bang theory, the event some think led to the formation of the universe, is, well, wrong.


      He explains.

      "There are two different types of when stars end. When the little stars die, it's just like a small poof. They just turn into a planetary nebula. But the big ones, above 1.4 solar masses, blow up in one giant explosion, a supernova," Jake said. "What it does, is, in larger stars there is a larger mass, and it can fuse higher elements because it's more dense."

      OK . . . trying to follow you.

      "So you get all the elements, all the different materials, from those bigger stars. The little stars, they just make hydrogen and helium, and when they blow up, all the carbon that remains in them is just in the white dwarf; it never really comes off.

      "So, um, in the big-bang theory, what they do is, there is this big explosion and there is all this temperature going off and the temperature decreases really rapidly because it's really big. The other day I calculated, they have this period where they suppose the hydrogen and helium were created, and, um, I don't care about the hydrogen and helium, but I thought, wouldn't there have to be some sort of carbon?"

      He could go on and on.

      And he did.

      "Otherwise, the carbon would have to be coming out of the stars and hence the Earth, made mostly of carbon, we wouldn't be here. So I calculated, the time it would take to create 2 percent of the carbon in the universe, it would actually have to be several micro-seconds. Or a couple of nano-seconds, or something like that. An extremely small period of time. Like faster than a snap. That isn't gonna happen."

      "Because of that," he continued, "that means that the world would have never been created because none of the carbon would have been given 7 billion years to fuse together. We'd have to be 21 billion years old . . . and that would just screw everything up."

      Plenty of time for Carbon at the beginning of things. [] [] []

      IANAA, so my GUESS here is that kid lacks the knowledge necessary to put the whole thing in perspective.
      As indicated by astrophysics Professor Scott Tremaine's reply to his theories that suggests "Jake to spend as much time as possible to learn more and to further develop his theory".
      It's a polite way to say "Well thank YOU Mr. Smartypants. Us poor astrophysics scientists here would have NEVER thought of THAT had YOU not come along. NOT!".

      And the journalist simply doesn't have a clue on the subject and is clearly going for a sound-bite.

      • by mbkennel ( 97636 )

        He is obviously very smart and motivated, but the smartest person is not going to know more than the combined experience of a civilization, in particular, the work products of a few thousand people, quite a few of whom were pretty talented when they were 12 years old, but have now read papers describing the observational evidence.

        Pretty soon he will be in a domain (early universe modeling) where you cannot figure it out "in your head", though your head is certainly necessary.
        Scientists have to make hypothes

      • by FrootLoops ( 1817694 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @02:59PM (#35643220)

        I find it difficult to sort out the journalist's inexperience from their sensationalism. For instance, The Indianapolis Star version mentions a "calculus-based physics class he has been taking this semester" but then says "he needs work at an instructional level, which currently is a post college graduate level in mathematics". There is a big gap between calculus-based physics and graduate level math--at least serious graduate level math. Differential geometry would seem to be right up his alley, but there's no (even horribly obfuscated) mention of it.

        The highest level of math directly mentioned in the article that I was able to figure out was "funky letters and upside-down triangles", presumably meaning Greek and the gradient symbol (it has other uses), which are undergraduate level. The video only discusses basic calculus at a level that perhaps one in a thousand high school freshmen reach; it's remarkable, but not "12-Year-Old Rewrites Einstein's Theory of Relativity" remarkable. The article mentions a YouTube video on quantum mechanics but I couldn't immediately find it. I agree with previous posters that the subtext of the quotes of the letter from Prof. Tremaine is "I want to encourage you, but, aside from your age, your ideas are unremarkable at my level of physics."

        Without more info, my opinion (FWIW) is that he's got a great memory and is at a relatively advanced undergraduate level in physics and math. He'll probably make a great researcher after a few more years of maturation, which is probably why he's been offered a research position--for his potential, not for his current work, as some of the article text implies. I wish him the best of luck, and all the creativity he'll need to make truly interesting discoveries.

      • Actually there are a litany of problems with the big bang, not the least of which is relativistic time. That said, I haven't seen a good reworking of the Big Bang theory taking relativity properly into account yet.

        *I'm not saying there isn't one, I'm saying I haven't read one.

      • by SETIGuy ( 33768 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @06:40PM (#35645744) Homepage

        I feel sorry for this kid, because these stories/videos aren't going to go away. The kid is talking about things he partially understands, and maybe he has some insights or ideas, but other people have probably already had those insights. He's got a lot more to learn before he'll be reworking general relativity. Maybe he'll be working on it in graduate school. The problem is, that these videos will follow him there.

        I think this happens to all the physics freaks at that age, but we old timers didn't have video cameras following us around when we were explaining to the rest of the class why the detection of cosmic ray muons at ground level is good evidence for special relativity. I tried to build a version of special relativity with quantized space-time when I was in middle school. Of course I didn't succeed, but I've still got the papers somewhere. It's extremely stupid and I did learn things in the attempt. But with a little more knowledge I wouldn't have even tried it. But fortunately I (and more importantly, my colleagues) don't have video of TV interviews with a 13 year old me saying things that any physicist undergrad would know were wrong.

        So let's leave the kid alone and let him fail at these unattainable goals without us looking. Then he will go to college and grad school and become a scientist that might actually do some of these things. If we keep bothering him, and make his inconsequential failures public, he'll probably end up an accountant.

  • by WrongSizeGlass ( 838941 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:18PM (#35641676)
    This kid has Aspergers syndrome and is making the most of it. Good for him. Hey kid, invent me a time machine dammit so I can warn myself about all the stupid stuff I did to end up where I am in life!!
    • by strack ( 1051390 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:26PM (#35641816)
      well, the real measure of this is to see where he is when hes like 25 or roundabout. theres been a lot of boy wonders who burnt out.
      • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:36PM (#35641982) Journal
        A number of famous mathematicians and physicists did a lot of great stuff before they were 25.

        So from pure science POV it matters not that he burns out, but that his flame burns bright enough.
        • Most breakthrough work is done before a person is 25 – [Well, 30] – so I am not sure what that proves.

          It’s is not so much people burning out. It is the difference between a young flexibly mind who is willing to put in ungodly hours to write an original thesis vs. a family man of the status que who needs to teach classes and shepherded Phd candidates.

      • Then they better put a cooling system on his head quick smart, before smoke starts coming out of his ears.
      • by Luyseyal ( 3154 )

        I just hope this big bang debunking thing doesn't turn into a conspiracy theory thing that drives him into insanity (like Bobby Fischer).


      • by bberens ( 965711 )
        If he's got any sense (as opposed to being intelligent) he'll get a job writing complex trading algorithms for some big Wall Street firm. There's no money in doing something productive, might as well be rich.
    • by hitmark ( 640295 )

      Indeed. Just like a music or sports prodigy, he has found something he loves doing and have done it every chance he has gotten.

  • Nonsense! (Score:5, Funny)

    by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:27PM (#35641834)

    He doesn't even have his deriver's license yet!

  • by Anonymous Coward
  • Jebus (Score:5, Funny)

    by SomePgmr ( 2021234 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:37PM (#35641994) Homepage
    I now feel like a barely functioning, non-contributing member of society. Thanks slashdot.
    • by harl ( 84412 )

      Give it 5-20 years. You're feel better after he burns him self out.

      You always hear about child prodigies but you never hear about successful middle age people who were child prodigies.

  • "I gave the bitch an expanded Theory of Relativity. Bitches love expanded Theories of Relativity!"

    Yep, the women are gonna be all over this kid like prepubescents on a Beiber...
  • by drpimp ( 900837 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:40PM (#35642032) Journal
    But how does one calculate integration by parts on non-Windows?
  • by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:42PM (#35642066)

    So, the kid seems to be great at math. Question is, is he great at physics? Manipulating equations in startling ways is cool and all, but if the result doesn't agree with reality, or if it produces nothing testable, then you're just messing around. Period.

    Einstein always struggled with the mathematics and didn't consider himself to be very good at it. Einstein's contribution was the physical insight behind relativity.

    • by hitmark ( 640295 )

      theoretical physics have already reached the point of being untestable unless one can launch a spacecraft into close proximity to a black hole...

  • Evolution.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by daitengu ( 172781 ) * on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:45PM (#35642130) Homepage Journal
    I've been saying it for years.   Autism isn't a disease, it's the next step in human evolution.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      So guys with autism get more pussy?
    • Re:Evolution.. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by smelch ( 1988698 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @01:56PM (#35642292)
      I've been saying it for years, Autism is what uncomfortable people use to make themselves feel ok about never quite understanding humans because they were too busy thinking instead of experiencing. Also, in rare cases used to refer to a mental disorder.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Vaguely related, and I love the quote.

        "Introverts almost never cause me trouble and are usually much better at what they do than extroverts. Extroverts are too busy slapping one another on the back, team building, and making fun of introverts to get much done ... I can pass for normal most of the time, but I understand perfectly why some of my autistic patients scream and flap their arms - it's to frighten off extroverts." Mark Vonnegut, MD

      • Have you ever met someone who is *actually* autistic? Not someone who has Asperger's and is socially awkward, but someone who has the full-blown condition?

        When I was in secondary school, we took a course where we interacted with autistic people on a day-to-day basis. Autistic people can not be expected to care for themselves in any way. Forget taking advanced maths. It's a hard slog to get these guys washed and dressed every day.

        I think both the OP and the GP are romanticising the condition. Yes, sometimes

    • If we were all autists, society would fall apart. High-functioning autism is great for specialized tasks, but it's nothing like neuro-typicals, and those with autism who aren't high functioning are essentially mentally retarded. They're like rain-man without the card-counting (or worse). High functioning autists are special gene sequences that bubble up every now and then, but environmental and sociological pressures will prevent them from being the norm.
      • If we were all autists, society would fall apart. High-functioning autism is great for specialized tasks

        And if ever an autistic person happens to specialize in procreation, it really would be tickets for society.

    • But will it pay off? Once you introduce specialization in a species, they're often that more co-dependent on each other. Prior to human civilization, these people would not have survived (or in great numbers at least) for very long. But if they can survive in large enough in numbers to procreate, we could be witnessing much more specialized diversity within the human race.

  • Go for it kid, and I wish you all the luck. Having a mind like this is exciting, but it burns a lot of us out. It's become even harder with the diagnosis or Aspergers and ADD/ADHD, as many of us end up on medication which robs us of the gift. I love the fact that you are getting the opportunity to share with other people at such a young age. All too often folks won't listen because they simply don't understand. This in turn causes us to retreat, which is the worst outcome possible.

    My words of warning: As
  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @02:33PM (#35642868) Homepage

    A walking Calculator and a Genius is that the Genius can formulate his own theories and hypothesis. This kid so far is simply regurgitating mainstream information. There have been several relativity "rewrites" and I'll bet that if a professor were to review his work he will see a regurgitation and not creation. Critical thinking and mental experimentation that is required for high level mathematics cant be something you are born with. It's learned with time and experimentation. Being 12 years old, he has only had 6 years of time for any real experience in cause and effect.

    I'm not saying he CANT do it, I am saying that he is too young yet.. Some things you cant skip... the experience of failure is what creates great men and women.

  • by pgn674 ( 995941 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @02:58PM (#35643210) Homepage
    For a long time, I've wondered if the suggestion "think outside the box" would be easier to follow if you were not aware of where the box was. Could a child prodigy, or any person who is very intelligent yet not highly 'educated', have an easier time of coming up with strange ideas out of right field? Ideas and theories that most educated people would not come up with because at a glance they seem to ignore the facts of the universe that have been ingrained in the educated, but upon further investigation the theory is actually plausible?
  • by jhoegl ( 638955 ) on Monday March 28, 2011 @03:05PM (#35643276)
    Stop using the daily mail as your main source of information.

    I mean seriously... STOP.
  • well, being a math prodigy is fine and all that. just, the thing is that it means he probably spends a lot of time with mathematicians. and if he's working on a refinement of special relativity, i hope for his sake that he doesn't get mired in the same thought processes which turned the field of physics into an quagmire forty years ago. yes, it's necessary to understand where we are to see where we're going, but frankly if you listen to a modern physicist, they are so utterly lost in the minutiae of particle decays that they're missing the right-in-their-face boots-on-the-ground reality. the last few decades of research have brought us practically nothing except the word "string". and even then it is inconsistently applied, poorly conceived of, and utterly obtuse to a layperson anyhow. sure kid, it's neat that someone proved the photon can be particle or wave purely on circumstance. but if you start obsessing over trying to make a followup experiment to prove some minor particle effect, you will end up just as gobsmacked by the new reality as the rest of the physics faculty.

Bell Labs Unix -- Reach out and grep someone.