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Teen Scientists

February 1, 2013

I had a home laboratory while in grammar school and high school. When I started my career as a professional scientist, I found that many of my colleagues had one as well. More than half my science education came from tinkering and independent study. One of my most prized possessions when I was a fifth grader was a complete doorbell circuit composed of a hefty battery, a switch, a bell, and wire. I also used the battery to power electromagnets I made from wire coiled on steel nails.

The doorbell components were a gift from my parents, who would also give me science kits, such as the traditional chemistry set and an Erector set. A toy train set was more prized for its variable transformer than its actual purpose. The transformer had enough power to heat fine wires to incandescence.

There are a few science kits sold today, but most of these are rather tame compared with the ones I had as a child. As I wrote in a previous article (Baking Soda and Vinegar, October 8, 2010), regulatory agencies are making it harder to sell children's toys, and such kits have become more expensive. Nowadays, it's easier to market science-themed computer programs. Most of these have flashy animations and hip background music, but they are a poor second to hands-on experience.

One thing that encouraged my home experimentation was the annual science fair we had from sixth grade through high school. These were a lot of fun, and they were a great learning experience. You can view a photograph of the radio telescope antenna I made as part of my science fair entry during my senior year of high school, here.

Cover of the 1939 Tom Swift book, Tom Swift and His Giant TelescopeCover of the 1939 book, Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope.

One of my high school classmates built his own twelve-inch Newtonian reflector as high science fair project. Most of his time was spent hand-polishing the glass blank for the mirror and checking his progress using a razor blade in the traditional Foucault knife-edge test.

(Slightly modified Wikimedia Commons image).

Another thing that got me interested in science as a youth was science books, starting with the various "Golden Books,"[1] and graduating to young science fiction books, such as the Tom Swift, Jr. series. The Tom Swift books I read were a modernization of the original series, which featured Tom's father. The many space-themed movies of that era were also an inspiration.

Wikipedia has a listing of all titles in the second Tom Swift series. I remember reading the following:

• Tom Swift and His Flying Lab (1954)
• Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship (1954)
• Tom Swift and His Giant Robot (1954)
• Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster (1954)
• Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space (1955)
• Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire (1956)
• Tom Swift on the Phantom Satellite (1956)
This sudden nostalgia was brought on by a short blog article by Ken Myers in Scientific American.[2] He lists the following examples of scientists who started doing science in their teen years.
• Aristotle
• Galileo Galilei
• Blaise Pascal
• Isaac Newton
• Albert Einstein

All these were surely prodigies, but I would say that good evidence only exists to qualify Galileo and Pascal as having done science in their teen years. There's somewhat of an Einstein cult, at least among popular science writers, that requires a mention of Einstein in any story about awkward science prodigies.

Einstein was rightly famous in later years, but there's no evidence of his being a "teen scientist." Starting in his teens, Aristotle was tutored by Plato, but he was a student at that time, not a scientist. Newton in his teens was also a student, and not a scientist.

For Pascal, the evidence is clear. At age sixteen, Pascal discovered Pascal's theorem about a property of line segments joining arbitrary points on a conic section, such as an ellipse, parabola or hyperbola. At age nineteen, Pascal invented a mechanical calculator, called the Pascaline, as an aid for his father, who was a commissioner of taxes.

A Pascaline, a mechanical calculator invented by Blaise PascalA Pascaline at the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris

(Photograph ©2005, David Monniaux, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Likewise, Galileo, in 1581 at age seventeen, made his famous observation about the swing of pendula, that the period is independent of the amplitude. He followed up on this observation by doing experiments. Galileo is known as the Father of experimental physics. Although his father preferred that Galileo should become a physician, Galileo talked his father into allowing his career change from medical school to science and mathematics.

Double pendulumNot your ordinary Renaissance pendulum

Galileo would have had a difficult time analyzing the motion of a double pendulum, which exhibits chaotic motion under certain conditions.

(Image by JabberWok, via Wikimedia Commons.)

One scientist who definitely was doing science in his teens was physicist, John D. Kraus, whom I briefly mentioned in a previous article (Optical Antennas, June 13, 2011). Kraus is the inventor of the axial mode helical antenna, and he was a pioneer in radio astronomy.

As recalled in Kraus' autobiographical book, Big Ear,[3] he had a home laboratory as a child. In 1920, at age ten, he built a crystal radio and used the receiver from his family telephone as an improvised headphone. He built transmitters and radio receivers in the early days of radio, at one time building a high voltage electrolytic rectifier using 48 Mason jars with aluminum and lead electrodes and a borax-water electrolyte. To do this, he collected rainwater for the solutions, since it had fewer impurities than the city water supply.[3]

References:

  1. The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments by Robert Brent and illustrated by Harry Lazarus, is available, as a PDF file, here. As explained in the article, Banned Book - The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments by Anne Marie Helmenstine (August 5, 2008), some of the experiments are dangerous, and the book was banned from libraries. It's still a fun read for adults. As they say, "Adult supervision is required."
  2. Ken Myers, "5 Famous Scientists That Started Their Work as Young Teens," Scientific American, January 17, 2013.
  3. John Kraus, "Big Ear," Cygnus-Quasar Books (Powell, Ohio, 1976).

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