Wednesday, March 30, 2011

For 12-year old astrophysics genius, the sky’s the limit

In some ways, Jacob Barnett is just like any other 12-year-old kid. He plays Guitar Hero, shoots jewelry with his friends, and has a friendly girlfriend.

But in other ways, he's a little unlike. Jake, who has an IQ of 170, began solving 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles at the age of 3, not long after he'd been identified with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. A few years later, he trained himself calculus, algebra, and geometry in two weeks. By 8, he had left high school, and is currently taking college-level advanced astrophysics classes while teaching his older classmates. And he's being recruited for a paid canvasser job by Indiana University.

Now, he's at work on a theory that confronts the Big Bang the current explanation among scientists for how the universe came about. It's not clear how developed it is, but experts say he's asking the right questions.

"The theory that he's working on involve several of the difficult problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics," Scott Tremaine of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Studies where Einstein (pictured) himself worked wrote in an email to Jake's family. "Anyone who solves these will be in row for a Nobel Prize."

Here you can watch Jake question some of the key elements of Albert Einstein's theories on quantum physics:

It's not clear where Jake got his gifts from. "Whenever I try talking about math with anyone in my family," he told the Indianapolis Star, "they just stare vacantly."

But his parents encouraged his interests from the beginning. Once, they took him to the planetarium at Butler University.

"We were in the crowd, just sitting, listening to this guy ask the crowd if anyone knew why the moons going around Mars were potato-shaped and not round," Jake's mother, Kristine Barnett, told the Star. "Jacob raised his hand and said, 'Excuse me, but what are the sizes of the moons around Mars?' "

After the lecturer answered, said Kristine, "Jacob looked at him and said the gravity of the planet ... is so large that (the moon's) gravity would not be able to pull it into a round shape."

"That entire building ... everyone was just looking at him, like, 'Who is this 3-year-old?'"