The making of a child prodigy

Paul Wells on the next chapter in the amazing story of Jacob Barnett

Meet the subject of my article in the current issue of Maclean’s. Here’s Jacob Barnett at 12:

I like how you can see Igor the dog through the window while Jacob writes calculus on it. By this point, three years ago, Jacob had been attending university in his home state of Indiana for a year. Which is remarkable enough, but what’s more amazing is that when he was a toddler, Jacob was diagnosed with severe autism. He didn’t speak for a year and a half. Specialists told his parents they should not expect him ever to learn to read.

How he got from that diagnosis to life as a child prodigy is the subject of an amazing book by his mother, Kristine Barnett, called The Spark: A Mother’s Tale of Nurturing Genius. You may have heard them on CBC Radio’s The Current in the spring or again earlier this month.

Now, as my story reveals for the first time, Jacob Barnett is studying at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, ON. 

I spent time in Waterloo visiting with Jacob, his unstoppable mother Kristine, and their family, at Perimeter and at their new home. Jacob beat me at chess, although not as badly as I had expected. We talked about physics, about parenting, about what it’s like to be alone and to have people you can talk to about the things you love most.

Here’s some video our Jessica Darmanin shot at Perimeter, giving Jacob and Kristine a chance to tell their own story:

The full story is in the new issue of Maclean’s, now making its way onto newsstands and our tablet edition. Watch the site for the story and a book excerpt.

On Sept. 10 at, we’ll have a live online chat with both Jacob and Kristine Barnett at 1 p.m. ET. And I’ll be supplementing my story with blog posts about some other Perimeter personalities, about debates in modern physics, and about the future of Kitchener-Waterloo.

I had a great time working on this story and we’re happy to be able to bring it to you in so many ways.

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