Baby Nobels

Intel’s Talent Search charts where no child has gone before.

In the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., this week, 40 Intel Science Talent Search finalists hung out beside foam-board exhibits of their projects, three of which were shortly to be awarded big prizes. (The top entry wins a $100,000 four-year scholarship; second- and third-prize winners get $75,000 and $50,000 toward college.) But it was the 17- and 18-year-old high-school seniors themselves who were really on display. The whole thing might well have been called “American Intel,” a very high-brow variation on the American Idol theme. Now in its 62nd year, it drew a stream of curious (though not all that numerous) spectators.

What were we looking for? Were the finalists “weirdos,” my kids asked me, plainly eager to deflect the other possibility: that these students might be held up as role models—the kind of high-performing paragons that I’d henceforth expect them (especially my high-school sophomore) to strive to be. I’d gone feeling tugged in much the same two directions myself: I was expecting to marvel at natural prodigies, and yet also to gauge the prowess of kids (and parents) who’d snagged the crown jewel in the college application process. Spellboundfresh in mind, I’d also gone expecting to find white-bread American kids overshadowed by more recent energetic immigrants.

The vaulted ceilings lent the students the aura of museum pieces, or exotic specimens—not mere science-fair participants. There were butterflies, like Melis Nuray Anahtar, a Turkish beauty from nearby Bethesda, Md. She couldn’t stop smiling as she patiently explained to a succession of adult dunces how her tiny device for extracting white blood cells worked. There were also moths, and as you might expect, they did math. Gaurav Subhash Thakur—another local (from Rockville, Md.)—squirmed as if pinned. A boy who had mastered logarithms in kindergarten, he murmured almost inaudibly as he pointed with a pained expression to a chart illustrating the “powerfactorial” function. That’s PFn(x), in case you’re wondering, and Gaurav’s study of it has something to do with the Riemann Hypothesis, a theorem about prime numbers that he’s intent on proving. I almost asked about Legos instead—Guarav’s other passion—but I could tell his hovering father was hoping his son could be left in peace.

It was almost 4 p.m., closing time, and kids were beginning to fold up their displays. Ahead was one more day of suspense, in which they’d be asking themselves the same question that mystified, and mesmerized, ignorant Intel tourists like me: Who in their midst merited the baby Nobel laurel? Which of these stellar students, some with well-placed mentors and all with phenomenal focus, really had the goods? And should God, or serendipity, or pushy families, or a meritocracy get the credit? In the Great Hall I wanted what everybody else seemed to have, a theory.

Like any company eager to burnish its brand, Intel had produced a brochure with the finalists’ bios and a description of their projects—from Boris Alexeev of Athens, Ga. (“Minimal Deterministic Finite Automata—DFAs—for Testing Divisibility”), to Ning Zhou of Plymouth, Minn. (“Quantitative Trait Loci Modulating Corpus Callosum Size in the Mouse Brain”). It had blank pages at the back, labeled “Notes,” and I scribbled, though not very scientifically: “nice pants suit,” “acne,” “looks like she’s got a real stage mother,” “storytelling champion!!!!” That was Shaye Perry Storm, of Midwood High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a big hit at the New York City Board of Education’s Storytelling Festival—on top of researching “Age Determination and Size Reconstruction of North Atlantic Codfish (Gadus morhua) from Akurvik, NW Iceland.”

Clearly I needed some numbers—real data, not random details—for my project. (“Distinction and Distribution of North American Science Whizzes” was how I thought of it.) Some statistics leapt out of the Intel packet: New York leads the states with 850 finalists since 1942, the year the competition began (with funding from the Westinghouse Foundation, which sponsored it until 1998). That’s 33 percent of the total—way ahead of California, which comes in second with only about a fifth as many finalists, 180. And this year’s New York-California ratio is even more skewed: 18 to 3—even though the most populous state also has the biggest pool of Asians (including Indians), the group that dominates the Intel list. The only explanation I could think of for California’s lag was what you might call the Beach Boy theory: “Tell the teachers we’re surfin’, surfin’ USA.”

I couldn’t resist reaching for a corollary: The more homegrown a young researcher, the more humdrum (by Intel standards) his or her enterprise—and the more exotic the kids’ names, the more esoteric their topics. The correlation looked promising. Yuyin Chen’s project sounded dauntingly abstract: “Removing All Edges From the Complete Graph and the Complete Bipartite Graph.” Then again, one of the most convoluted titles—”A New Spin on the Haasnoot-Altona Equation: Determination of THETA by Variable Solvent 1 H and Variable Temperature 13 C and 1 H NMR”—was the work of Phillip Thomas Deutsch. My hypothesis needed honing: If the project was comprehensible, the name was likely to be pronounceable (but not necessarily the other way around). “Blueberry Pie: Friend or Foe?” stood out for its simplicity. Its author was Jennifer Anne D’Ascoli, who bridled a little when someone jokingly inquired about a sample. This wasn’t some bake-off!

But in a way, maybe the best way to think of the Intel competition is as a high-tech version of the old home-ec cooking contest, rather than as American Idol-with-ideas: an early winnowing of youths who may get short shrift from their popular peers yet who will excel in the world and work of adults. Here were students whose grown-up hobbies had catapulted them ahead of their cohort and kept them busy measuring and mixing, testing and refining. Selected out of more than 1,500 entrants, they’d proved themselves to be models not just of creativity but of mature industry. On the brink of their escape from high school, they were getting a rare taste of celebrity.

And the premium this year, it turned out, was on American ingenuity—useful applications rather than elegant speculations. First prize went to Herbert Mason Hedberg* (“looks like a jock,” I’d jotted), whose inspiration was, of all things, his grandmother: Her battle with cancer had spurred his search for better ways to identify possible tumor suppressors. In second and third place were some pretty abstruse-sounding projects: Boris Alexeev’s work on DFAs (see above) and Ryna Karnik’s “A Non-Photo Lithographic Approach to the Construction of N-Type MOSFET Devices Using FIB Technology.” But behind the rarefied titles were in fact two very useful recipes: His computer work can help decipher the genome, and she’s found a new way to make microchips.

“So, did it change your life?” I overheard one finalist ask a former finalist who had come down to the Great Hall on his spring break, eager to check out this year’s contenders. “No, I’d already gotten into all the colleges I’d applied to,” he told her. “But it was icing on the cake.”

Correction, March 25, 2004: In the original version of this story, Ann Hulbert misspelled Herbert Mason Hedberg’s name as Hedberger. Return to the corrected sentence.