Is a 12-Year-Old Smarter Than Einstein? Don’t Be Stupid.

Time magazine

did a light rewrite this week of a feature the Indianapolis Star had run about a 12-year-old boy named

Jacob Barnett

, who has a form of autism and who is unusually good at math and physics, and now the

Los Angeles Times

blogged about it, this kid who “may be about to disprove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.” Where, the Times’ Michael McGough asked, are the prodigies writing “a sublime sonnet or the great American novel”?


McGough proposed an answer:

Producing great literature requires experience and reflection, not just an IQ of 170.

Whereas, you see, advanced physics requires no experience and no reflection.

Here’s another theory: the reason you see stories about the math-and-physics whiz kids, rather than about literary prodigies, is that the majority of American journalists and readers of journalism are so slack-jawed in their ignorance of math and physics that it seems plausible to them that a 12-year-old might be about to disprove Einstein, but they do consider themselves competent to judge whether a 12-year-old’s writing is a work of genius or not.


What is it about smart children that makes other people so stupid? The Indianapolis Star quoted one of Barnett’s classmates from the physics class he’s taking at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis:


“When I first walked in and saw him, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to school with Doogie Howser,’ ” said Wanda Anderson, a biochemistry major, referring to a television show that featured a 16-year-old boy-genius physician.

Speaking of theoretical frontiers, that passage may be the moment the American mind finally collapsed into a black hole of dumbassery: Rilly? Seeing a child prodigy in your college class reminded you of a television show about a child prodigy? And when this amazing analogy occurred to you, you decided to open your mouth and let it out, and a reporter wrote it down?

(McGough, in the Los Angeles Times, also chose to compare Jacob Barnett to Doogie Howser.)


The Indianapolis Star and Time both quoted an e-mail from an actual astrophysicist, Scott Tremaine of the Institute for Advanced Study, to the Barnett family, after they’d sent Tremaine video of Jacob talking about his theories:

“I’m impressed by his interest in physics and the amount that he has learned so far,” Tremaine wrote in an email, provided by the family. “The theory that he’s working on involves several of the toughest problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics.

“Anyone who solves these will be in line for a Nobel Prize.”

You don’t have to be Einstein to read between the lines. Or even to read the lines themselves (“the amount that he has learned so far”). Translation: it is possible that this young person will grow up to be able to do real astrophysics someday. But not now. That is great, and his parents should be proud. The universe, however, can safely go about its business.