Jacob Barnett, boy genius

Diagnosed with severe autism as a child, Barnett is now 15 and one of the world’s most promising physicists
Jacob Barnett (Photographed by Jessica Darmanin)

By May of this year, Jacob Barnett had wrung everything he could get out of the university he had been attending for four years in his home state of Indiana. He had taken every undergraduate course on mathematics and physics, and a bunch of graduate-level courses too. None of it had even slowed Jacob down. The only question now was where he would go to study next.

As Jacob accompanied his mother, Kristine Barnett, on an international tour to promote a book she’d written, the two of them spent their spare time dropping in on the world’s great institutions of research and higher learning, places like Cambridge and Stanford. The last stops on the tour were in Canada. In Toronto, he delivered a familiar line to his mother: “I want to find some physics.” There was a lecture scheduled at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, 90 minutes’ drive from Toronto in Waterloo, Ont. The lecture was not open to the general public, but the Barnett family has formidable powers of persuasion. Soon enough, mother and son were walking through the atrium of the sunny, clean-lined research institute conceived and financed by BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis.

“He fell in love with this place,” Kristine Barnett recalled last week at Perimeter. “It was only about maybe five minutes into walking around the building that I realized Jacob had found where he wanted to be. I knew it before he told me. But then he told me.

At the beginning of August, the Barnett family sold their Indiana home and moved to Waterloo. Several days later, Jacob began a year’s study in Perimeter Scholars International, a master’s-level program designed to attract the finest physics students in the world. There are 31 students in this year’s program. Their brilliance is formidable, their dedication inspiring.

But even in this group, Jacob Barnett stands out. He is nearly a foot shorter than they are. They’re in their early 20s. He’s 15.

Something else about this story nudges it a little further toward the realm of the miraculous. When he was a toddler, almost as soon as he had learned to talk, Jacob stopped speaking for a year and a half. He seemed unable to perform the basic tasks an average child could do. Specialists diagnosed him as severely autistic. One special-education instructor told Kristine Barnett she might as well stop giving Jacob alphabet flashcards, because he would never read.

Kristine Barnett didn’t give up. Soon it became clear that, while he faced serious developmental challenges, Jacob Barnett had lashes of astonishing insight. Her unorthodox parenting style and his burgeoning intellectual gifts are recounted in her book, The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius. Published early this year, it has become an international bestseller. A Hollywood movie is in the works. Today, Jacob Barnett is a pale, quietly charming young man with an intellectual gift few of us can begin to comprehend. His arrival at the Perimeter Institute is the next step in an extraordinary intellectual journey.

“It’s not like the university back home. For one thing, the university back home doesn’t have a bistro or a gym. It’s very structured here to work in groups, which is very nice.” At times like this, there is little evidence he is anything but an average teenager. Mind you, he still wears flip-flops because he is not great at tying his shoelaces. He was wary and shy answering my first questions. He fidgeted with two red pens while we talked. Maybe that’s an autistic tic, although plenty of people fidget with pens.

He wears it lightly. “I’ve been here, what, eight days? This is my eighth day,” he told me. “We just finished the complex analysis and the algebra courses.” The Perimeter Scholars come from wildly varying backgrounds. Their program begins with a month of short courses on math, to make sure everyone’s on the same footing before things get intense. “It’s been really great,” Jacob said.

At one point, I made a comment about music. He stood, grabbed some chalk, and drew notes and a treble clef on the nearest blackboard. There are chalkboards everywhere at Perimeter. He asked me a few questions. My answers reminded him of something from his complex analysis course. He wrote a math formula across several lines and drew the shape it described on an x/y axis. “This is the region ‘D.’ It’s like something you can squish together, only it’s got some holes in the way,” he said, pointing eagerly.He had lost me from the first line, but it was impossible to miss the joy on display. In two minutes, Jacob had been transformed from a shy kid to an animated, playful theorist: engaged, eager to share and to teach. Confident and in charge. All it took was a scrap of chalk and a board.

“I think there’s something about this place that speaks to the way he thinks about physics and the way he likes to learn,” Kristine Barnett said.

“It kind of called us back to his childhood. Immediately, when we walked through, there are all of these big glass windows and chalkboards.

At home, from early childhood, Jacob was fascinated by patterns—the play of sunlight on ripples in a pond, the march of shadows across a wall. Kristine Barnett ran a daycare in small-town Indiana while her husband, Michael, worked in retail. One day, she saw that Jacob, then three years old, had organized hundreds of crayons into the colours of the rainbow, in order. Michael was slack-jawed. How did he even know the order of the colours? When his father asked the question, Jacob, who was not speaking, turned a nearby water glass until it splashed a rainbow across the tabletop. It was his way of answering.

What was it like to have your first child stop talking after he had begun? “What would it be like to have somebody punch you in the stomach as hard as he could hit?” Michael said, as we sat on the sofa in the living room of the house the family has rented. “Every morning he’d say to me, ‘Good morning, Daddy, I love you.’ Then it stopped. It didn’t come back for a year and a half.” He pointed a mock-accusatory finger at Jacob. “You owe me a year and a half of that.

Eventually, Kristine’s response to this shocking change in their son’s behaviour was to trust him more than she trusted the specialists. “The therapist would come in during the day and [Jacob] would be studying a ball and the way the light moved off the ball. I didn’t know that’s what he was doing at the time. The therapist would immediately take the ball away and put it in their bag.” To the therapist, Jacob was exhibiting “perseverative behaviour,” the repetitive gestures that characterize autism. To Kristine, this must be something Jacob wanted to do. “The therapist would move away and I would immediately sneak the ball back and give it to him. So I was quite a rebel in his early life because I was always determined to let him explore the world and do the things he loved.

When he was 3½, she followed this logic to its unnerving conclusion and pulled him out of 60 weekly hours of special-education therapy. Michael, the pragmatic father, was deeply worried. But Kristine generally got her way.

“I was sneaking out in the middle of the night with him saying, ‘Let’s build a sand castle together. Let’s—’ There wasn’t a lot he could do. Well, he could look at the stars. We could lay there and look at the stars.” The therapists would spend hours trying to get him to stack plastic donuts on a stick. He wanted to study patterns and make his own. “What could he do? You have to build those things back up. It’s really counterintuitive. But the way to fix your struggles in math if you’re just a typical kid is maybe to spend a few hours going out and riding horses in a week. Get to what you love. It’s about your own positivity.

Soon, surprising things happened. She took him to Holcomb Observatory on the campus of Butler University in Indiana because it said in the newspaper they would let visitors look at Mars through a telescope. What it didn’t say was that her autistic son would have to sit through a lecture by a professor at the university. At the end of the lecture, the professor asked why the moons of Mars are oblong, like potatoes.

Jacob’s hand went up. “Excuse me, but could you please tell me the size of these moons?” It was more words than his mother had ever heard from him.

The professor answered. Mars’s moons are quite small. “The gravitational effects of the moons are not large enough to pull them into complete spheres,” Jacob said.

It was the right answer. He was not yet four. By eight, he was auditing courses at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. At 11 he dropped out of fifth grade and enrolled at IUPUI full-time. The TV interviews and the TEDxTeen Talk with a million and a half YouTube hits and the bestselling book followed. The Spark has become an inspirational manual for countless parents, not all of them parents of autistic kids.

Kristine Barnett’s message—that parents should encourage their children’s passions instead of trying to remediate their flaws—has become a rallying cry.

At the daycare she ran, if a child liked crayons, they were going to get every colour of crayon there was. At the weekend centre for autistic children that grew out of it, if a child liked boats, they were going to be making some boats. She calls it her philosophy of “muchness.” And here’s the thing about the Perimeter Institute: it is turning into a global headquarters for muchness in physics.

“Even in the university setting where he went, he sort of felt like that passion for physics—where it just spills out onto the entire surroundings—was, maybe, unique to him,” she said. But at Perimeter, there are blackboards across three walls of a lecture hall, motorized so fresh boards can be lowered to a lecturer’s reach as each board fills up. Every lecture is captured on digital video and archived online forever. Neil Turok, the institute’s director, brims over with enthusiasm for recent trends in physics.

Jacob “had considered Princeton, he had considered Cambridge,” Kristine said. “But nothing had the feel of this place.

A quick refresher on this place: by 1999, Mike Lazaridis was rich from selling the first rudimentary BlackBerry pagers. He announced he would put $100 million into the creation of a theoretical research institute in the north end of Waterloo. He has since repeatedly added to that endowment, as have federal and provincial governments and private corporations. Independent from any university, the Perimeter Institute is a haven for theorists, a place where they can think, collaborate, hold conferences and pursue their research into the basic questions of creation. What holds particles together? What happens when stars collide? How many dimensions are there? The point was never to develop the next smartphone keyboard but to inspire historic breakthroughs in fundamental questions of theory.

Perimeter was not created to teach young people, but when Neil Turok, a South African who is one of his generation’s leading cosmologists, became its director in 2008, he realized Perimeter was in a global competition for talent. The best way to attract the best minds was to keep Princeton or Cambridge from getting them first. In 2009, the first Perimeter Scholars class walked in the door. (The acronym for the program is PSI, after the Greek letter often used to represent wave functions in quantum mechanics.)

The program of study is intense. “They’ll usually be exposed to quite a bit of mathematical physics early on, just for foundations,” Philip Schuster, a young American member of the Perimeter faculty told me. “You know, a review of quantum mechanics, basic classical mechanics. Then they’ll be exposed to quantum field theory, general relativity, condensed matter physics, quantum foundations, basics of quantum information processing. They’ll be exposed to cosmology. And then there are topics courses that’ll include particle physics, namely the standard model and beyond the standard model; field theory and curved space-time; quantum gravity topics, et cetera.

This is comparable to the coursework a doctoral student would undertake before doing thesis research—not quite as detailed on any given topic, but much broader in the range of topics covered. There are consolations: free tuition, room and board, and no exams. Everything is pass/fail. The assumption is that if you’re still standing next spring, you’ll be able to write your own ticket in physics. One student in the first PSI cohort compared the experience to “drinking water through a firehose.

Could a 15-year-old from a Midwest commuter college hack it? When Jacob came wandering in, Neil Turok wasn’t sure, but he was eager to find out. “Among my staff, I’d been asking people repeatedly: ‘If you ever hear about somebody with exceptional ability, let me know, because let’s follow up,’ ” Turok told me over lunch. “We need to really make ourselves hospitable to these people.

So there was interest in Jacob, but it was, Turok said, “mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism.” When it comes to child prodigies, “often there’s hype and bulls–t. And I’ve also seen many cases where one of these child prodigies leads nowhere. There’s too great expectations. They end up disappointing everyone and themselves.

Turok and Jacob chatted. “He seemed open-minded, keen to learn. He didn’t have his mind made up. A lot of people come to you and say, ‘I’m going to make the next unified theory, or I’m going to show Einstein is wrong.’ That sends all the bells off the wrong way, because at that point in your development you really don’t know enough to make claims like that.

The next step was to see whether he was capable of learning at the PSI level. He was invited to audit PSI courses from two years ago, available online, and submit the coursework. Tibra Ali, a young physicist who helps teach and administer the program, graded his assignments. He said Jacob’s work would have put him near the top of a typical PSI class. “Some of the work, he has made mistakes. But given that he was taking a graduate-level PSI work, teaching himself by watching the lectures and doing the homework by himself, I was really impressed.” With that he was admitted, and the Barnetts moved north.

The clan includes Jacob’s little brothers, Wesley, 12, and Ethan, 10. Neither is autistic. Both are enrolled in the Kristine Barnett school of muchness. Wesley is the vice-president of his hometown’s chapter of Mensa, the global club for people with high IQs. He studies meteorology. Ethan dropped out of grade school to study university-level biology online. Neither felt much like moving to Canada, but the family is treating the whole thing as an extended vacation. Wesley and Ethan listened with fast-waning patience while I interviewed their brother, then hauled him outside to play Frisbee.

The middle-class family from the Indiana heartland has found a kindred spirit in Turok, who runs a network of mathematics institutes in Africa as well as Perimeter. “What I see out there, and through my work in Africa, is an ocean of talent which, by and large, standard educational institutions are failing to tap,” Turok said. “It’s the outliers, the oddballs, the unusual kids who often have the most to offer. And our whole system has turned into a factory. We crank people through—certificates, qualifications, degrees—and stultify, don’t reward creativity and unusual ideas. Which we all know is what counts.” One of the most heartening things about Jacob’s arrival at Perimeter is that he seems finally to have hit his groove. For half his young life, he had developmental challenges so severe it was hard to see past them. For the past few years, he’s been Celebrity Physics Kid. At Perimeter, he has some chance of fitting in.

“The pace is amazing,” he told me when I asked about the firehose tempo of things. “They’re able to cover things like Lie algebras in four days.” (For a definition of Lie algebras, don’t ask me.)

Does he worry that he won’t be such a big deal in this temple of glass and chalkboard where everyone is above average? He was amazed at the question, and gave it long thought.

“Being different has its advantages and it has its disadvantages,” he said at last. “Its advantages: you’re obviously able to excel at a much higher level than your colleagues. When I was at university, I was able to take a lot of different courses at a time because they were built for people who weren’t as fast as me. And I could still succeed very well. I’d say one of the disadvantages is that it’s harder to learn from people; a lot of the learning you have to do pretty much on your own.

“That’s one of the great things about here: I get to work with other people. And we’re actually on a similar level. I really like that.

During the year and a half he didn’t talk, he said, he was alone. The things people said to him didn’t match what he was thinking. The things he wanted to say had no words. “Nobody likes being alone.

What’s next? Google Jacob’s name and you see a hundred headlines like, “Autistic teenager with IQ higher than Einstein tipped to win Nobel.” The greatest gift Perimeter has given him is that for the moment, his personal future is not a particularly interesting question. He’s too busy drinking from the firehose to worry about what comes next. But he will be ready for doctoral studies after PSI, and then a career publishing papers that attempt to explain the same patterns of the universe that have fascinated him since childhood. Theoretical physicists often peak early. Stephen Hawking made significant discoveries before he was 30.

In his TEDxTeen talk, Jacob urged his audience not merely to study, but to lead. “You all have some passion,” he said then. “You all know what it is. So I want you to think about that field instead of learning about that field. Instead of being a student of that field, be the field—whether it’s music, or architecture, or science, or whatever.” Attitude counts for a lot in science, as it does anywhere else. Jacob cannot yet drive a car, but he is determined to be a leader, as Turok and Hawking are.

“My main job with Jacob is, where possible, to take the pressure off him,” Turok said. “I tell him, ‘You’re here to play and have fun. We don’t have any expectations. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Your enthusiasm is your biggest asset; just protect that.’ We’ll see where it goes. But he seems to be an amazingly well-balanced young man. And I hope he will be a pioneer for many more to come.