Jacob Barnett, Juan Carrasquilla and the author, standing vertically.
Jacob Barnett and his mother have been getting a lot of media attention lately because he is an autistic baby genius and she wrote a book about it. I have been following their story for over a year now, waiting for my chance to pounce. I’ve wanted to meet him ever since I saw his TED Talk, so I could absorb his behavior and metabolize it into energy, very much like a real-life witch. When I found out he was going to be at a science outreach festival, manning an exhibit called Ask a Scientist, I immediately booked a train ticket there.
I arrived at the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, and upon seeing its architecture, began squealing and taking pictures. I decided to smoke some regular old cannabis, to make things a little more kooky.
Wow, what a spectacular church.
When I entered the building, I was expecting an ocean of bodies wading around Jacob, so much that I would have to fight my way through the crowd and maybe get a chance to yell something inaudible at him. In reality, I was able to spot him within 45 seconds of being there. He was carrying a textbook, speaking casually to another male, both wearing matching T-shirts. His mother, Kristine, buzzed around a very archaic-looking robot on the other side of the room.
What is this—the Stone Age?
Taking note of several signs that read “ASK A SCIENTIST,” I began laughing crazily to myself, excited by the open-ended request. Slowly, I moved toward the child. I situated myself between the males in a human triangle formation. They looked at me attentively, in silence.
“I recognize you off the internet,” I said to Jacob, even though I told myself not to say that.
“Oh yeah,” said Jacob, and he sort of laughed with an air of modesty.
Beyond feeling anxious about seeing the child-wizard in 3D, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about this brain, so precious and beautiful—I just wanted to take it out of his skull and stroke it and kiss it.
“This place is awesome,” I said, loosely gesturing at the building’s high ceilings and windows. There were glass hallways running through the top floors, reminiscent of tunnels in an ant farm.
“Yeah, it’s great,” said Jacob, now beaming.
I realized I was being rude, ignoring the guy in the matching T-shirt. I turned to the other side of our human triangle formation and introduced myself.
“Juan,” he said.
He nodded coolly.
“Are you from the US, too?” I asked, curious about the kind of education or disposition that lead to careers in theoretical physics.
“No, I’m from Colombia.”
“Wow!” I said, as if Colombia were a magical fairy-tale land.
I asked them both what they were working on at the institute. Jacob said quantum gravity, and I laughed because that’s insane. Juan said condensed-matter physics, and Jacob seemed surprised. This led into a small conversation about their fields' discrepancies.
I didn’t know what they were saying, but I wondered if they were passionate about specific branches of physics, or if they were just applying their love for the technique toward any motion in nature.
“What was the paper you published?” I asked, holding out my notebook for Jacob to manhandle.
With a pen from his pocket, he wrote down the title. “Right now when you Google my name it’s just news articles, but search ‘Joglelar’ and my name, and then you’ll be able to find it.”
“Yeah, it is pretty crazy how many times you’ve been in the news lately.”
I scrunched my face up like a weasel, and if there had been hidden cameras, I would have looked at them mischievously.
Then I turned around to face Juan, handing him my notebook. “And what about you? What are your papers?”
“I’ve published 15,” he said. Jacob and I were both impressed by this number.
“How many did you do in your undergrad?” asked Jacob.
“Five,” said Juan.
“You did five papers in undergrad!?” he exclaimed.
“Well, I wrote five before I left my first school,” said Juan.
“Can you write down your name?” I asked, prodding him with my notebook.
He wrote “Juan Carrasquilla” in small letters, using my pen.
Then I just stood there, looking at them both, in silence.
“So do you have any… questions for us?” asked Jacob. I started nervously swaying side to side, giggling, and repeating “quantum gravity” to myself.
“Uhhhhhh,” I began. “Uh, is it mostly just little kids asking you questions?”
“Some little kids, yeah.”
“What do they ask you?” I said, fishing.
“Just, like, what I ate for breakfast.” I laughed, easing into the situation.
“How do you feel about all of the media attention you’ve been getting?” I asked. “Does it feel weird?”
“Sort of,” said Jacob, and then he perked up. “I just hope I’m inspiring to people.”
“YOU ARE!” I said, wide-eyed. “You make me feel like I can do anything!” Sure, I thought. If I take lots of Adderall.
He nodded his head, smiling brightly, eyes gleaming.
“What do you…. do?” he asked.
I said, “Journalism,” immediately regretting it because a) that wasn’t my plan, and b) I didn’t want him to feel bothered by yet another media outlet boring him with personal questions that have nothing to do with physics. Quickly attempting to change the subject, I asked Jacob who his favorite scientist was.
“Alive or dead?” he said, almost automatically.
I had only a smidgeon of knowledge about the details of Feynman’s research. “… Cool,” I said.
I asked Jacob if he was interested in the applications of his theories, or if he only thought about the theory itself. He implied that he wasn’t so interested in the application, or even in experimental physics. I wondered what the difference would be if he’d chosen to pursue pure mathematics.
Now estranged by my own deep-rooted motivations for being there, since my thoughts incessantly looped back into engineering ploys, I became involuntarily conscious of my fundamental belief system… Why did I care about manipulating nature so much? Is it even truly possible to “manipulate” “nature”? Why am I so obsessed with technological singularity? Why hadn’t I been interested in physics as a child? Did my Catholic upbringing give me brain damage?
Feeling overwhelmed and not knowing what else to say, I bowed to them, as if engaging in a normal social custom in Waterloo. I parted ways for the moment, deciding I would come back only after more people had showed up. Instead, I drifted toward the EEG headband exhibit.
There was a room with glass walls and inside were five pedestals showcasing EEG headbands, which looked like taxi-dispatcher headsets mixed with Google glasses. The idea is that people will be able to use headsets to control technology, just by thinking about a simple task-command. I walked up to a headset, looked at a volunteer, and pointed at the headband like a baby might point at a dog.
“Do you want to try it?” she asked.
She laughed and began attaching the headset to me. There was a piece of metal lining my forehead, my temple, and a little clamp on my right earlobe. She told me to look forward and focus to which I said, “On what?”
“It could be anything,” she said. “It could be your favorite color, or math…”
Contemplating the open-ended possibilities of this request, my mind went blank, and I simply stared at the wall, focusing on the wall itself, repeating internally, Wall. Then I thought to myself, consciously, Does this count?
“Hmmm, it doesn’t seem to be working,” said the volunteer.
The people testing headsets around me were making the electric wall change colors, relying only on their propensity to “focus.” I even overheard one of the volunteers sincerely cheering one of them on.
“What do the colors represent?” I asked, having no idea what was going on at this point.
“It’s just to show people how it works,” she said.
“Does it correspond to the measurement of Hertz?” I asked.
“No, it changes constantly.”
I was very confused.
Then she added a conductivity agent to my headset and told me take off my earrings. We tried it again and nothing happened.
“Am I just really stupid?” I asked.
“I don’t think this headset is working,” she said, and then she turned to one of her peers to ask for help. I stepped down and took the headset off, suggesting that someone else give it a try.
A woman came up and put it on. Within seconds the wall in front of her was changing color. We all laughed. The volunteer looked at me and said, “Your brain is just impenetrable.”
“I think I’m just really stupid,” I said, wondering about neural architecture and the modularity of synapses that might correspond with active focus. I wondered what parameters were involved with programming inputs for EEG-task translations. The words “decentralized processing” kept repeating in my mind, perhaps as a self-diagnosis. As I looked around the room, I could see different people’s brain activity being measured and projected on the walls, the motions fluctuating constantly in real-time. For some reason, maybe due to the giant projection of Tetris on the other side of the room, this act of demonstrating EEG headsets reminded me a lot of blowing on Nintendo cartridges.
The author at level two.
I gave up on the headsets and walked around the rest of the exhibition, wondering what kind of people came to these events. There were booths for young children to color, and I had to resist the urge to join in. One of the coloring pages showed an empty silhouette of a human adult with "I’M A SCIENTIST" printed overhead. I hypothesized what my reaction to this would have been as a young girl. I imagined my child-self honestly believing that the scientist should be wearing a lab coat with glasses, entirely overlooking the self-referential mandate of the project.
When I went back to see Jacob again, there were children, teenagers, and middle-aged adults crowded around him as he drew on a large chalkboard, energetically explaining the shapes of things. Juan was standing off to the side with his hands in his pockets.
Jacob teaching a kid who will never be as smart as him.
“You can actually swallow diamonds,” said Jacob to the crowd.
My first thought was, “Duh, people can swallow anything they want.”
Then he continued talking about the diamonds refracting light in the bloodstream, and my mind started oozing.
A younger female came up to the side and said, “What is this? You are talking about?”
Jacob stepped back and sort of looked around anxiously. Then he apologized to the audience saying, “She’s a scientist here, too, so her questions are scary.”
The adults erupted in laughter. I wrote, “Her questions are scary,” in quotations in my notebook.
Then I think I heard Jacob say the words “crystal,” “nitrogen,” and “compact,” but in retrospect, I don’t know if I was just making that up or not.
As the young girl started to leave, I stopped her briefly to inquire about her educational background, since she looked quite young as well. She took off to follow her family.
I lurked around before eventually situating myself next to Juan again. “What exactly are you working on… in… condensed-matter physics?” I said.
He smiled bashfully, seeming flattered but also apprehensive. “I’m trying to figure out… the spinning,” he said.
“The spinning… what?” I asked. My own question internally catapulted me into the realization that any response he could give me would be arbitrary since any word was only just a name for a thing, and things can be things without names, and that’s not even the important part anyway.
“When they are coupled,” he said, “you can control them but when there are three they go out.”
At this point I was so high I wondered if he was just making this up to fuck with me/wondered if he was actually talking about having a threesome with me and Jacob. He sensed my confusion and began drawing dots and triangles on the chalkboard. I decided I would just roll with it, and refrain from asking if he was in fact talking about sex, atoms, or a sub-subparticle that I’ve never heard of.
“Can you add another spin so it doesn’t do that?” I propagated, assuming that “spinning out of control” implied an undesirable outcome.
“Well, there are an infinite amount,” he said. I laughed, acknowledging that was probably a basic fact. Then I heard him say the word “temperature” and wondered why he was trying to figure this out in the first place, and I remembered that he doesn’t need to have a reason because he’s simply trying to characterize nature. I decided to express this.
“For a second I was wondering what this was for, but then I remembered that there’s no point,” I laughed.
“There is a point,” he said, smiling weakly and nodding.
“Yes, there are many points,” I said, imagining myself as a Buddhist monk in a luscious garden. Then my brain started thinking about dicks as points, and I wondered if that’s actually what Juan meant. I shook my head, reassuring myself that that was insane, telling myself that I should really read a fucking physics textbook sometime soon.
“Can you control the spins?” I asked.
He said something and drew this hexagon.
Suddenly two 25-year-old-looking males popped their heads among the sea of people. They were wearing baseball caps, blond goatees, and sports jackets. One said, “Yo, ask him how much a scientist makes.”
They sneered—maliciously, I thought. I wondered, based on the tone of the male’s voice, if he was simultaneously referring to the prospect of sexual reproduction, perhaps in accordance to Juan’s interactions with me. Then I wondered if he was specifically exposing the ritual of childbearing females seeking social status/security/being “gold-diggers.” I looked at Juan with a sardonic expression, hoping to gain some sense of solidarity against the idea that all females are gold-diggers, even though I just made that up in the privacy of my own mind. Then I thought it was extremely presumptuous of me to assume that this male was making a paralleled commentary about sex, and maybe he just genuinely wanted to know the average salary of all scientists. Nobody acknowledged his inquiry.
When the crowd eventually thinned out, I crept up to Jacob and said in a deep voice, “Diamonds you can swallow…”
“Oh, yeah,” he said excitedly. “It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.”
“Did I hear you say ‘nitrogen crystals’?”
“Oh, the girl asked me—not the girl you were talking to before, another one.”
I was startled that Jacob had actually taken note of my behavior in his periphery and was now relaying it back to me.
“She asked me if there were any medical applications for quantum mechanics.”
Jacob started explaining how compressed carbon can refract light through the bloodstream and computationally code biological information. I started squealing and my eyes started popping out of my head.
“I know, it’s exciting,” he said.
“How does it work!?”
“Well, there’s a coupling of information,” he said, and he started using his hands to show two congruent, symetrical shapes. Then he said, “I’m made out of ones and zeros, and you’re made out of different zeros and ones.”
At this point, all of the holes in my face were totally wide open. I was so happy to be hearing this, especially because all of the people in my life are Luddites who don’t believe in the majesty of computation and think I’m silly for believing in the potential of concentration gradient binaries. “I have to write this down,” I said, taking out my notebook.
“Yeah, you have to write this down because you’re a journalist,” he laughed.
I felt offended and I wanted to tell him that I was actually just really high and thought it sounded cool. I reflected on my journalistic objectives.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to transfer things into the social realm,” I said, sadly.
Jacob’s beaming enthusiasm vanished and he sort of seemed to be thinking seriously, mirroring my tone.
“Yeah, I’m not really good with the language side of things,” he said.
I felt guilty after he said this because, first of all, that’s not true. He’s the most eloquent and funny 15-year-old I’ve ever met. Second of all, it seems that his diagnosis is an error posited by the social realm itself (i.e., neuropathology is incredibly underdeveloped). I hoped that he was feigning this insecurity, perhaps as a sympathetic gesture to me but doubted this was the case.
“I don’t know if this is a weird question,” I said. “But have you ever looked into the biophysics of autism?”
“The biophysics of autism,” he said, seeming as if he were scanning his memory for something relevant.
He mentioned a study where people with autism reacted faster to simple task commands, but the way he described this was uncharacteristically inarticulate. I noted that he also used the phrase “you guys” as he was referring to people without autism, which made me smile because it excited negative emotions in me, ones in which I so rarely get to feel. I was jealous and felt disempowered, uncontrollably at the determinism of my own biological disadvantage. Jacob misinterpreted my question, though.
“I don’t mean that. I mean the way autism develops,” I said.
I was internally reviewing research about axon growth, myelination, and midline brain architecture in neurodevelopmental disorders.
“The way it develops…” he said, still thinking. “No, I don’t know.”
Consciously I decided to change the subject. “Who is doing the diamond thing? MIT?”
“No, IQC!” he said, pointing at the window, toward the University of Waterloo.
I wrote in my notebook, “IQA.”
Jacob saw it and said, “No, IQC.”
“You wrote ‘IQA.’”
I laughed, scratched it out, and wrote “ICA.”
“No, IQC.” he repeated.
There was an awkward moment of silence where I just smiled at him and he smiled back, obviously resigning to leave my error uncorrected. I wondered if he could tell I was high.
A marginally psychotic souvenir.
Only a small family remained at the Ask a Scientist exhibit. A young boy started asking Jacob about fractals. Jacob began explaining snowflakes and infinite series’, and drew the edge of a snowflake on the chalkboard. The boy grabbed a piece of chalk and drew the Star of David saying, “No, this is a snowflake.”
Jacob smiled and said, “Oh, we must be talking about two different things.”
Then the boy said, “Chemistry is not important.”
My mouth dropped and I looked at Juan and Jacob for support, thinking I might faint.
“Why do you say that?” asked Jacob.
“Other things are more important. Chemistry is the least important science,” said the boy. He was wearing a shirt with a picture of the solar system on it.
“But it’s who you are!” I said, trying to conceal my fervent passion, lifting my hands out to the boy, as if this would somehow explain something.
Jacob looked at me with a shit-eating grin across his face.
“Well, you should keep an open mind about that,” he said to the boy, brimming with humor.
The arrogant little boy walked away, ignoring both of us.
“Dude, that was so crazy,” I said to Jacob, holding my forehead. Then I laughed devilishly to myself. “But I liked how you handled that.”
Jacob still had this very enticing grin across his face. I stared at it, becoming hypnotized, not wanting to leave his vicinity, ever, but knowing that I should because it’s illegal.
I thanked both Juan and Jacob for talking to me, as if I were a dirty peasant, bartering for change on a village street corner. Regretfully, I dismissed myself from the premises, while relaying fresh memories of Jacob through my hippocampus, like an internal, obsessive form of masturbation, suspended in imaginary bliss.
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