Even teenage geniuses need a bedtime. So Kenneth Wilson, whose son, Taylor, created a nuclear-fusion reactor when he was 14 years old — the youngest person on the planet to do so — orders lights-out at 11p.m.
Taylor is 19 now. His brother Joey, a math prodigy, is three years younger. Both boys are still expected to make their beds in the morning and take out the trash at night.
“We treat them just like normal kids and they really are,” Kenneth says. “Joey does what he’s asked, but Taylor is sometimes pretty messy. You don’t win an argument with him, but at some point you have to say, ‘This is not a democracy.’”
Kenneth and his wife, Tiffany, have made sacrifices to make sure their children have the educational opportunities to support and fuel their brilliance, but they’ve also been careful to try and keep them grounded.
Kenneth, 59, is a fourth-generation
“The boys were excited to travel and go to a different school, but they were afraid it was going to be a Hogwarts school of nerds,” recalls Kenneth of the move. “They’re not nerdy kids.” Kenneth also has a daughter, Ashlee, 27, from a previous marriage; she’s the one who alerted the family to the progressive school.
The Wilsons maintain their home in Arkansas and still attend Arkansas Razorbacks games when they can. Kenneth keeps in constant contact with the bottling plant via phone and e-mail. His brother-in-law is the on-site general manager.
“It’s almost like I’m there,” Kenneth says with a laugh. Tiffany owned an organic juice bar back home but had to sell it after finding it too difficult to administer long-distance.
Though both parents are bright and educated, there’s no clear explanation how Taylor and Joey turned out to be so gifted. “They just came out that way,” Kenneth says.
Both boys taught themselves to read by the time they were 4 years old. Kenneth and Tiffany realized Taylor had a photographic memory when he was 5. “Whatever his passion was, he would research everything about it,” Kenneth recalls. “When he was four, he got obsessed with space and learned about all the astronauts.” When he was 6-and-a-half, Taylor and his father attended space camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“He was looking at the rockets and telling the counselor everything about them that even the counselor didn’t know,” Kenneth recalls.
Early on, Kenneth had an epiphany to nurture Taylor any way he could. “It didn’t take a lot of intelligence on my part to realize he was a lot smarter than I was. I’m a pretty good businessman, but this was something else.”
Once enrolled at Reno’s Davidson Academy, Taylor was (safely) able to achieve nuclear fusion under the careful supervision of professors and engineers. Building a bomb was not his goal. He had read of thousands of shipping containers entering America’s ports without being effectively inspected for plutonium and uranium.
“He’s very patriotic, very much a student of military history,” says Kenneth of Taylor’s invention to scan cargo containers, baggage and packages for explosives by using weapons-sniffing neutrons. Several years ago Taylor brought a prototype to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, known as the Super Bowl of pre-college science events, and won first place. Homeland Security came calling and left reassured.
When President Obama invited the science fair winners to the White House, Taylor did require some extra vetting by the Secret Service — which makes sense, as the term “teenage nuclear scientist” isn’t one you hear every day.
Taylor and his work generated so much attention he was interviewed by CNN, The New York Times and the BBC. He was also profiled on CBS. Author Judy Dutton devoted a chapter to him in her book, Science Fair Season. And The Boy Who Played with Fusion, a Popular Science story on him, is being developed as a film.
“It’s been pretty rewarding for me, too,” Kenneth shares. “I’ve gotten to do a lot of things just because my son needed a driver.” Taylor had little interest in learning to drive until he was 18. He was too busy trying to figure out an affordable cure for cancer using medical isotopes.
Hovering over Taylor and Joey has not been Kenneth and Tiffany’s parenting approach. “If we’d been helicopter parents the kids never would have gotten where they are,” he says. “You’ve got to give them room to explore, let them learn from experience — even when you think it’s a little bit dangerous.”
Last year he won a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to form a technology company to pursue his counter-terrorism and cancer-curing experiments.
“People ask me what he’s doing and I say, ‘You need to go ask him,’” Kenneth says. “I can't explain it.”
All he really wants for his kids, he said, is for them to be happy. And to do their chores.