A (very) smart kid and a solid theory

By Phil Plait | April 8, 2011 1:00 pm

I’ve been getting lots of emails and tweets about a young man named Jacob Barnett, a 12-year-old who is apparently a math genius. He’s been getting a lot of press lately because he’s tackling some pretty heavy problems in astrophysics, including relativity.

I want to be clear that from the videos on YouTube and such, he does appear to have an extremely advanced grasp of math and science. I also think he has a lot of promise! However, science is more than just learning the equations. It takes insight that generally comes with time. Happily, Mr. Barnett has that time, and has a big head start with the basics.

Steve Novella tackles that issue very well at Neurologica, and I don’t necessarily disagree with anything he wrote there.

But I do want to talk briefly about the way Barnett’s story has been told by some media. I first saw it at Time magazine’s site, with the headline "12-Year-Old Genius Expands Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong".

Barnett may very well be a genius, and may very well rewrite a lot of physics… as, no doubt, future generations of genius scientists will. But one thing they won’t do is prove relativity wrong.

Bold statement? Not really. We know relativity is right. It may be incomplete, but it’s not wrong.

What I mean by this isn’t too hard to understand. In science (ideally, if you’ll pardon the pun), an idea becomes a hypothesis, a testable statement. If it passes the test, it can be expanded upon, broadened, tested and retested. Eventually, as it grows and becomes more solid, it becomes a theory — I know, in the general jargon that word means "guess", but to a scientist a theory is an explanation of phenomena so profoundly certain that a layperson would call it a law.

Relativity is just such a theory. It has passed essentially every single test to which it has been put for the past century. It is literally tested millions of times a day in particle accelerators, for example.

As I wrote in a post on relativity and geocentrism:

Relativity is one of the most well-tested and thoroughly solid ideas in all of science for all time. It is literally tested millions of times a day in particle accelerators. We see it in every cosmological observation, every star that explodes in the sky, every time a nuclear power plant generates even an iota of energy. Heck, without relativity your GPS wouldn’t work.

Relativity is so solid, in fact, that anyone who denies it outright at this point can be charitably called a kook.

So I don’t think anyone, young Jacob Barnett or otherwise, will ever prove relativity to be wrong. What they might do, what I think and hope someone eventually will do, is show how it’s incomplete.

Put it this way: Isaac Newton formulated his Universal Law of Gravitation, and it revolutionized physics and astronomy, allowing us to apply math to the thorny issue of gravity. Newton’s Law is still valid today, four centuries later. However, it’s limited to a regime where masses are small and velocities low. If you want to calculate the Moon’s effect on Earth, Newton is the way to go. We still use his basic equations to plot the trajectories of our spacecraft, and they ply the solar system’s gravitational pathways with incredible precision.

But when you start to approach the speed of light, or deal with masses that are very large, Newton’s math breaks down. It doesn’t work.

Einstein fixed that. His Theory of Relativity uses far more complex math that can deal with these large velocities and masses, and get you the correct answers. When you look at Einstein’s equations for low velocities and small masses, they simplify right down to what Newton wrote. Newton wasn’t wrong, he was incomplete.

Einstein added to Newton, made the math more accurate. The thing is, we know relativity is incomplete right now. In the realm of the very, very small, relativity has some issues with quantum mechanics. QM is just as solid as relativity as theories go. Atomic bombs make that clear, as well as digital camera, electronics in general, and on and on. Obviously, one or both of QM and relativity are incomplete.

Again, we know they are not wrong — not like creationism is wrong, or astrology and Geocentrism are wrong, in that they don’t explain anything and all the evidence is against them — but just that we don’t know everything about them yet. There may be some bigger idea, some broader concept that unifies them, and reduces to either one if you use the right conditions, just as relativity reduces to Newton’s law in certain circumstances.

I am very much looking forward to seeing what Barnett can do in the next few years. If he can garner the insight and the imagination needed to marry QM and relativity, to unite these two seemingly immiscible fields, then I will happily cheer him on as he accepts his Nobel Prize. But that’s a whole different ballgame than proving it wrong.

Comments (79)

  1. Leon

    Or to put it another way, the person who wrote the headline (probably the editor) needs to pay closer attention to what he writes in the future:

    “12-Year-Old Genius Expands Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong”

    If I expand an idea, how does that possibly prove it wrong? I’m *expanding* *the* *idea*, not disproving it. How about we try this in a non-scientific context so the editor won’t be confused?

    “President Expands The U.S. military, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong”

  2. Hi there Phil.
    Of course you are absolutely correct on the points that you are making.
    I only want to make a small clarification. When you are saying “relativity” and you are talking about its incompatibility with QM, you are referring to General Relativity, while when you say that “relativity” is the most tested theory, you are talking about Special Relativity. I think that the distinction should be made since there are different things that one should consider when is talking about extending SR than the issues one has to consider when talking about extending GR.


  3. Red

    This kid is a genius which means in ten years he’ll be producing reality TV shows or selling impossibly complicated financial products.

  4. doug baker

    I have told people that Issac is wrong and when I get a funny look from people, I tell them exactly what you stated, he is correct for anything you would experience but for the bigger universe, not so much. I like your idea of saying it is just incomplete.

    which is why all of the debate about science in the public/education system is very funny.

    what we believe today could be wrong, it just means someone will have to have a better theory that explains all of the data and all that we know already.

  5. Mike

    Phil, you have raised an interesting subject. What do you think the chances are that String Theory may be the bridge that ends up connecting QM and relativity?

    Look forward to some of your comments on that.


  6. Joel

    I think I’m more bothered by the link to “Top Ten Troubled Genius Movies” in the time article. Dear God, the kid may have Asperger’s but from everything they say about him, he seems pretty happy and well adjusted – so naturally they’re including him alongside Van Gogh and John Nash.

  7. Jon F

    I agree with #1 that the article and especially the headline is yet another example of someone violating Weiner’s Law. Since I probably see a dozen such examples a day, every day (as I’m sure many of BA’s readers do) I’m not surprised. This one is particularly unfortunate since it involves a 12-year-old making claims that are no more grandiose than every other kid his age would make given the opportunity and the publicity (think back to your childhood and try to remember some of the whoppers you told to impress your friends that, due to your age, you convinced yourself were actually true). Exceptional faculty for learning does not confer maturity and we should in no way fault him for that. This is, I think, something that we know in our heads to be true but wish would be wrong just once since it would provide a window into how we can become genuinely better humans. That savants and child geniuses don’t possess maturity and emotional discipline beyond their years is a big reason why so many of them “burn out” as they can’t reconcile their own lives with the expectations of all of humanity laid upon their feet. Still, one must hope for the best in this example.

  8. B Comment

    If you’re in Tennessee you just can vote what’s reality and what’s not.

  9. But, to TGUM*, “incomplete” is the same as “wrong”. After all, isn’t one of ID’s claims that Evolution is “wrong”, because it doesn’t explain where life came from in the first place.

    Doug Baker:

    what we believe today could be wrong, it just means someone will have to have a better theory that explains all of the data and all that we know already.

    Well, there is a world of difference between “a new theory explains things better” and “the old theory was wrong”. Though I do have to admit that I think it’s theoretically :-) possible that relativity can be wrong. Is it possible, after all, to come to the same conclusion for the wrong reasons. Do I find it likely? No. Not impossible? Yes.

    * “The Great Unwashed Masses”.

  10. Electro

    @Mike #4

    I will be over the Moon ( possibly literally ) if we ever develop means of testing String Theory.

    My understanding , albeit limited, is that it is utterly untestable with current methods.

    Hope I’m wrong ;-)

  11. The spin on Glenn Beck’s site “The Blaze” was that he was proving the Big Bang wrong, which of course got hundreds of breathless kudos from the faithful. It’s an interesting example of the limits of raw intelligence — he seemed to have been troubled, as near as I could tell, by the lack of carbon generated in the early universe, despite the sufficiently high temperatures. While he really does seem to be very smart, he didn’t realize that the temperatures in the early universe are in fact *too* high to allow the first step in fusion to take place (roughly, deuterium will photo-disassociate before forming helium until the temp drops, by then it’s too cool to make carbon). To really make leaps forward in science, it helps to be *both* smart *and* experienced.

  12. TomF

    Barnett seems to be saying more that Einstein’s *maths* may have errors. That is, given the axioms Einstein chose, he may have skipped a few logical steps that would be strictly required for mathematical proofs. Does that mean the end result is incorrect? Clearly not – the evidence shows that relativity is an excellent model of nature within the limits that we understand. But did Einstein jump to conclusions that were not strictly derived from the logical process? Possibly.

    On the other hand, that’s probably only interesting to mathematicians with a historical interest, and not very interesting to physicists or the understanding of our universe. Indeed, some think it’s the bits where people jump to conclusions with intuitive leaps that are the interesting parts of theoretical physics! Then you do experiments to find out if they’re right or not. If the data supports the result, who cares about the logical consistency – it’s a good model!

  13. Sean

    On a side note, i had no idea this kid had Aspberger’s, but after watching this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcY17MIqIvU&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL I thought to myself, you know what i think he has Aspberger’s. Interestingly enough, the only connection I have with that affliction is through the show Parenthood. It says a lot about that kid’s acting abilities, and the show’s portrayal of the disability that I was able to identify the same characteristics in an actual kid with Aspbergers after about 2 minutes.

  14. Ryan Brown

    To be fair, it’s better to say that in most situations the errors introduced to Newton’s equations by relativistic effects approach zero. Newton’s equations *are* wrong, it’s just that most of the time it doesn’t matter. Using 3.14 for pi will give you incorrect answers, but they will be close enough to correct in most situations that it doesn’t matter.

    Einstein’s equations are likely wrong in the same way. That is, there’s some factor which they do not, or cannot, account for. In most situations that doesn’t matter, but at the quantum realm it does.

    Some parts of string theory may be testable at energy levels available at the LHC. Other parts would require energy levels only obtainable at a particle accelerator orders of magnitude larger (think a loop the size of lunar, or even planetary orbits)

  15. DrFlimmer

    I hope that kid is unlike Sheldon Cooper, who, btw, is about to become a father :D .

  16. Scott Davis

    I read that he also wants to disprove the big bang. he has potential, but he is still a kid.

  17. Brian Schlosser

    There’s a great anecdote about a child musical prodigy playing for a great composer. The child plays a piece with technical perfection, to which the composer responds “Well done! You have the notes. One day, you may have the music.”

    Whenever I hear about child geniuses, I always think of William Sidis, the boy wonder who ended up doing exactly nothing of note, other than writing a series of monographs on street-car transfers… I hope this kid does better.

  18. Jason Dick

    Well, personally, what I would say is that we know for certain that General Relativity is wrong (because the theory itself predicts singularities, which are nonsensical). But we also know that it is such an extremely good approximation to reality that we have yet to see any discrepancy in experiment.

  19. Scott Davis:

    I read that he also wants to disprove the big bang.

    But I know it’s real. I even have 3 seasons of DVDs to prove it!

  20. Crux Australis

    The Head of Religion Studies at the school at which I (secularly) teach physics and science is fond of saying that Newton was wrong. I’m fond of saying he (the teacher, not Newton) is wrong.

    An aside: I want a class pet; a newt. I would name him Newton.

  21. Scott Davis
  22. Bryan N

    I read another article about how he tries to disprove the big bang using an argument which was extremely wrong, and showed that he does not have a remotely good grasp of the astrophysics he was trying to make statements about. I think it’s unfortunate that a kid who is obviously very talented gets groomed to assume that he’s smarter than everyone else, and lacks humility to a point where he feels qualified to make such grandiose statements. Hopefully he grows out of it and is able to put his talents to good use.

  23. viggen

    Barnett may very well be a genius

    Phil, I think you’re being exceptionally gentle on this subject. As a graduate student physicist, I spent some time watching the videos of this kid and I think he’d being WAY overblown. If it isn’t an outright hoax, he is not (and I mean REALLY NOT) anywhere near understanding many of Einstein’s basic postulates, let alone challenging them.

    I watched two videos. In the first, he rattles off a couple of equations at his Mom and then makes this huge, overblown assertion that the speed of light should be adjusted… except that much of what he says after the equations makes no sense and cannot be gotten to from the specific equations that he rattled off –from what he says, I think its flat obvious he has no E&M yet. More to the point, one of the equations he “leaps off” from has a unit error and can’t even be a right equation. In the second video, I watched him make a flat algebra mistake –the kid doesn’t totally understand algebra yet and I haven’t seen him use any calculus.

    The certainty with which he writes his math makes him very bright or very well practiced for his age, but he’s not the prodigy he’s being trumped up to be. Granted, he’s at an age where, if he is genuine and keeps practicing, he could get really really good… but he’s not what he’s being sold as. If he’s got Asperger’s, I’d say it’s very clear why they’re called “little professors,” but I think that the entire inflated bulk of this nonsense shows just how ignorant the public is of the subject of Physics and how unaware they are of what is really the extent of intelligence. The kid is currently a flashy parrot, nothing more.

  24. nomuse

    Another great post.

    Another Isaac said similar things a few years back, in his essay “The Relativity of Wrong.”

    There may be an essay waiting to be written on the difference between “Not really wrong (just incomplete),” “wrong,” and “not EVEN wrong” (re. Pauli).

  25. u definitely mad

    u mad, bro?

  26. MJ

    Doesn’t Kuhn say (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) that it’s the young and inexperienced that come up with the new theories because they haven’t been indoctinated by the old established “religion” of physics?

  27. @viggen:
    I see your point, but where you in University when you were 12?

  28. Crudely Wrott

    Perhaps the boy’s knowledge base will increase rapidly and he’ll soon have illuminating insights. Perhaps his base will increase at a slower rate and later he will publish a paper that will provide a deeper insight into relativity. Perhaps he’ll mature at a more relaxed pace and much later in his life leave us with the keys to the stars.

    Or maybe he’ll get a job at a reputable corporation, get married and buy a house and take a teaching job at a small state college, to be ever known as the prodigy who was just an everyman.

    In any case it’s encouraging that lithe and clear young minds are still taking interest in the maths and sciences. Not that it’s surprising; what would be surprising is if none did!

    To Jacob: Have right at it, son.

  29. NAW

    Has anyone checked on the kid’s story? Or like viggen is saying above, checked on the physics of what the kid is saying? I saw the story the other day on ‘yahoo news’ and just wrote it off as another unchecked story.

    Keep in mind, I am not saying it is a fake. Just that I would like to see some more about the background other than just being told about it. For example how it says he is connected with Purdue University, but with a quick checking I can’t find anything about him there. You would think that would be something to go on the front page of the site.

  30. Colin

    He certainly knows quite a bit of the math, but I’m not sure about the physics. Especially since he talks too much about MOND… blech. Still, glad to see that he’s paying attention to the world and trying to understand it.

  31. Joseph G

    Leon #1: Or to put it another way, the person who wrote the headline (probably the editor) needs to pay closer attention to what he writes in the future:

    “12-Year-Old Genius Expands Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong”

    If I expand an idea, how does that possibly prove it wrong? I’m *expanding* *the* *idea*, not disproving it. How about we try this in a non-scientific context so the editor won’t be confused?

    My thoughts too – this is probably yet another example of journalists using stupid oversimplifications when it comes to anything regarding science. Sigh.

  32. spacewriter

    I can just see this whiz flunking his first class in E&M with such statements. And, wait til his committee for his dissertation gets done with him… ;)

  33. Brian137

    The kid’s story is being hyped to sell copy. It is too bad because the fact that he has been able to understand so much math and physics at such a young age is a wonderful tale as is without the adults adding all their zingers to it.

  34. @28 NAW:
    He is in UNIVERSITY at 12 years old! What more PROOF do you need that the kid is a frackin’ genius? No, he might not disprove relativity, but by the time he’s 13, he will probably submit a more awesome paper to his science prof than you did!

  35. Aiser

    Ummm just to let you all know , not all child prodigies “WOW” the world for long. While this young man is brilliant and admirable he might not turn out to what we might think he would be.

    Take child prodigy Michael Kearney for example. A former child prodigy in biochemistry and was already lecturing as a professor by age 17. Today i believe he plays poker for a living as he stated in a game show he appeared on.

  36. David H

    I liked your take on this, Phil, as I did with Steve Novella’s. Maturity is something quite different to IQ, and is different to experience – it means understanding the history of how ideas evolve, and that you don’t have to be ‘paradigm shifting’ to be recognised as a great scientific mind.

    I love the idea of Jacob in ten years or so, looking back slightly embarrassed at how he was presented as a child, but making great contributions to science, with maturity, experience and most importantly an instinct* for cooperation with other scientists. This is not a competition over who is ‘smartest’, just another step on our journey to fuller understanding of the universe.

    * I don’t know if instinct is quite the right word, but I imagine people know what I mean, and I couldn’t think of a better one.

  37. nrrfed

    It’s sad when people make posts with varying degrees of skepticism, only to be called jealous.

  38. It seems that he is imagining other universes and messing about with constants.
    But working if they expand or instantly collapse, or even figuring our their properties are a bit beyond my capabilities. Without seeing the mathematics, i would be cautious about giving this “expanded version of Einstein’s theory” any credence.
    But it seems the boy has promise though.

  39. andy

    Fundamentally science relies on experiments and observations. This is what distinguishes it from mathematics. It doesn’t matter how good the kid is at maths, unless he can demonstrate that his theory actually applies to the real world it will not replace anything.

  40. scott

    The kid is 12yrs old, when he said “wrong” (if he actually used the word wrong) he might have meant incomplete. Or given his age he may not have known exactly what he meant. At 12yrs of age I would cut him some slack when it comes to his proclimations(sp?).
    He is obviously very smart I hope his parents know how to build on that rather than turn his life into a media circus. That will be the hard part if this continues.

  41. SLC

    Re Vagelford @ #2

    Actually, theories such as quantum electrodynamics that combine special relativity and quantum mechanics are not entirely satisfactory either because of the presence of divergent integrals when vacuum corrections are computed. These are essentially hand waved away using a process known as renormalization. The hand waving is justified by the results, namely a computed value for the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron that agrees with the observed value to 10 significant digits.

  42. Gonçalo Aguiar

    This proves how expansive can a human mind be if well stimulated. I don’t know how this boy got to get to where he is not, but surely he didn’t learn everything he knows by himself. He had to have someone to stimulate him.

  43. @viggen

    Thumbs up.

    I would like to have more Physics scholars to issue an opinion, if possible. I’m pretty sure there’s plenty reading this.

  44. NAW

    Well would you please give me a link showing he is going to a University. The only things I can find are the news articles. As I said, I checked the Purdue University site. And can’t find him.

    As I said, I am not saying it is a fake.

    But, I would like to see information beyond a couple of youtube videos and some online news articles.

  45. pontoppi

    I browsed through a number of the videos. It seems that the kid is at the level of late high school to first year college math/physics, repeating some basic calculus and abstract algebra lessons. Not bad for a 12-year old, but not unique(!), and certainly not anywhere near the level where he can compete among professionals. His monologues are spoken in a vacuum with no one around to correct mistakes or ask questions. I did not see any evidence for any independent thought at all. As others have pointed out, repeating basic textbook material does not provide any evidence for balanced creativity, which is the true hallmark of a competent scientist. To reach a point where it becomes possible to add something to the very extensive existing body of knowledge in physics, astrophysics or other types of science takes a lot more that I’ve seen from this kid. For instance, an important part of earning your chops is to be able to stand your ground among peers (such as presenting your work at conferences or defending a thesis).

    I worry about the effects the attention will have on young master Barnett, who might well burn out or buckle under the pressure. Hopefully he has a mentor who can throttle down a little, work on his humility and creativity and allow his technical skills and maturity to grow at the same pace. Otherwise, I fear we will never see Barnett as an adult member of the scientific community, and that would be a terrible waste of talent.

  46. Jason Miller

    When I saw the headline “12-Year-Old Genius Expands Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong” I just shook my head and thought “Well then why does GPS work?” It makes use of both General and Special Relativity.

    Expand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – Bring in on; Prove It Wrong – Ain’t gonna to happen.

  47. Randy

    He might be 100x better at math then me. But he will never have my ability to do the Hammer Dance.

  48. I hate this kind of prodigy stories. The public seems to lap them up, and encouraging parents of einstein-wannabes to egg their kids on. Smart kids should be protected and given the space to develop as….kids, not paraded out for their 15 mins of fame and then…what? Josh’s parents should be proud of their kid, but what are they trying to achieve for Josh by sticking him in front of cameras and the media, and then have a million blogs talk about him?


  49. @Jon F
    I don’t think this headline violates Weiners Law.
    Read it again. It says the kid thinks he can prove it wrong. It doesn’t say – Is it wrong. Just that there is a smart kid out there who thinks he can prove it wro.

    What I worry about is the fact that this kid is going to go no where because
    a. His autism is going to hinder his ability to interact and so his genius will never be allowed to be productive.
    b. This premature exposure to the likes of us will kill any budding desire he might have to work in the field. I’ve not seen any positive reaction in the science/skeptic blogs I read.

    Imagine being socially awkward and finding that those in the arena you love most are not only distinctly not supportive, they are in some cases mean about it.
    Ya know what, I thought I would be an astronaut and/or figure out how to become invisible when I was 12. I wasn’t a genius, but this child has the same level of dream and to treat his dreams as though he were a grad student submitting a serious paper on whether relativity is true is nuts. Probably his lack of experience/maturity haven’t allowed him to make the connection between proving something wrong and building on its foundation.
    He’s a kid, there’s no point in discrediting his ideas (in particular when you haven’t heard or read them in completion) than there is in discrediting a child for any of their ideas.
    When he submits a formal paper for his ideas, go for it. Until then leave the child alone or actively support his growth.

  50. Gary Ansorge

    As I recall, the word “genius” is from the greek, genii, meaning “One who creates something new”.

    Newton was a genius. Einstein was a genius. This kid is,,,a kid, with high math talent and possibly eidetic memory(both of which I had at age 12. The eidetic memory declined to merely pretty good by age 15). If he ever contributes something new to our species understanding of the functioning of the universe, THEN he can be called a genius. Right now, he can only be called “pretty talented”.

    Letting ones child be exposed to a media circus says more about the parents than it does about the offspring. Right now, THEY revel in the limelight. Give the kid another dozen years to mature. THEN he may become something worthwhile.

    (From one gifted child to another).

    Mainstream media. Just another word for a circus of the ignorant.

    Gary 7

  51. Skeptical Farmer

    It’s the Old West! Einstein is regarded by most as the smartest person that ever lived (fastest gun) and every punk with a six shooter (or wild theory) is looking to take him down. Adding to his work will add nothing to them, they have to prove him wrong to win.

    Someday, someone will improve on Relativity, but I’m not sure I would envy them.

  52. Tom

    @ DrFlimmer
    Thanks for the spoiler! Idiot….

  53. panini

    I watched a bunch of this kid’s videos because he was mentioned on The skeptics’ guide to the universe. He’s smart and it’s great that he’s interested in science, but his comments are pretty much gibberish. Too bad some journalists are less educated than this boy and can’t write about science.

  54. His revolutionary theory involves “multi-dimensional space”? As opposed to what?? I love the hubris of a 12 year old trying to overthrow Einstein, but something tells me this is all ridiculous hype by people who know little physics and are easily fooled by a clever-sounding kid.

  55. Messier Tidy Upper

    @1. Leon :

    If I expand an idea, how does that possibly prove it wrong? I’m *expanding* *the* *idea*, not disproving it. How about we try this in a non-scientific context so the editor won’t be confused?
    “President Expands The U.S. military, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong”

    Better yet :

    ‘Heat expands seawater, proves it wrong!’ ;-)

    Or best of all : Hot air expands, proves it wrong!’ ;-)

  56. Anchor

    Phil, IF that poor kid ever manages to crawl out from under the wreckage his mother and the media has already placed him (to be sure, a pretty rotten situation for even mature adults to handle) and manages to properly excell and mature UNDISTRACTED by this nonsense to become a worthy contributor to science with his emotional mind intact, THEN you may look forward to:

    “…seeing what Barnett can do in the next few years. If he can garner the insight and the imagination needed to marry QM and relativity, to unite these two seemingly immiscible fields, then I will happily cheer him on as he accepts his Nobel Prize.”

    Are you anywhere near half serious???

    This kid is smart, sure, yet he’s now been denied the full potential of his future because his mom bragged about him and the media frenzy took over and he is now compelled to defend himself against media distortion and other distractions no 12 year old kid should EVER have to undergo!

    And all you have to say is:

    “But that’s a whole different ballgame than proving it wrong.”

    As if it was all about what that little kid might have come up with…instead of the horror he’s going through.

    I always thought that you had a better capacity to recognize the actual issue. That’s really depressing for a Monday morning.

  57. Anchor

    Exactly what pontoppi #46 says:

    “I worry about the effects the attention will have on young master Barnett, who might well burn out or buckle under the pressure. Hopefully he has a mentor who can throttle down a little, work on his humility and creativity and allow his technical skills and maturity to grow at the same pace. Otherwise, I fear we will never see Barnett as an adult member of the scientific community, and that would be a terrible waste of talent.”

    It happens all too frequently, and it remains a tragedy to science and the world.

  58. @Ryan Brown,

    I wouldn’t use the term “wrong”, I’d use the term “accurate.” Newton’s equations aren’t 100% accurate even when dealing with every day masses/speeds. Still, the accuracy is so high that you don’t need to worry about the 0.0000001% lack of accuracy.*

    Similarly, 3.14 isn’t a 100% accurate version of Pi, but it’ll do if you need two digit accuracy in your result.

    Thus, Relativity might not be 100% accurate, but it is accurate enough for pretty much everything except the very small (where Quantum Mechanics comes into play). If Relativity is “replaced” it will be by a set of formulas which will reduce down to Relativity for non-QM-sized objects (and reduce further to Newton’s equations for small enough speeds/masses).

    * Completely made up number. Feel free to spend the time figuring out the right accuracy difference and substitute it here.

  59. Nigel Depledge

    Michael L (34) said:

    @28 NAW:
    He is in UNIVERSITY at 12 years old!

    This proves nothing. He might know exactly the same amount of stuff as all of ghis contemporaries, but because he has specialised he is at University level in his one specialist subject. While his contemporaries also know some stuff from areas like history, English lit, geography, biology and so on.

    What more PROOF do you need that the kid is a frackin’ genius?

    Well, perhaps some proof that he understands what he is talking about. As Viggen (23) points out, there is not much evidence in the videos that he understands what he is saying. It’s all very well being able to manipulate equations, but understanding them is something separate.

  60. RWG

    This whole “media prodigy” thing isn’t a new phenomena. You see these news stories every few years about child geniuses who are going to change the world. They almost always, without fail, make grandiose claims about upending the entire scientific establishment with their world-changing ideas. These claims are often the product of a life absent of a serious ego check, and with very little practical experience in scientific work.

    Bold claims like this should tell you everything you need to know. Anyone who has ever had any practical experience with science as an occupations should be rolling their eyes at the standard public and media portrayal of science as some sort of closed society where academic masters rule over the universe with supreme conviction in their findings.

    This isn’t the case. Science is always “at the drawing board,” so to speak. This is how discoveries happen. Science is work. It’s experimentation. It’s putting your ideas to the test, and then having others do the same. It isn’t about making bold proclamations and challenging everyone else to prove you wrong. If this kid pursues as career in science, he’ll probably look back on his current statements as those of a smart, but inexperienced kid.

    If he starts doing work in any field of physics or astronomy, he’ll quickly realize that the things he claims as being “wrong” do, in fact, work quite well. He’ll quickly realize that the universe does not conform to our preconceptions or beliefs about how it should or should not work. He’ll learn to rely on what is, not what he imagines.

    Hopefully, he’ll break the curse of “child geniuses” and move on to some truly innovative and productive work.

  61. Dave

    Here’s hoping this extraordinary child will use his gift to do extraordinary things like resolve our understanding of Newton and Einstein’s work to the next progression.

  62. E

    Jacob Barnett reminds me of when I was in fifth grade, when I had the hubris to create extremely stupid theories after reading a few books on astrophysics and having a superficial understanding of calculus and limits. I quickly grew out of that phase, and now understand that one cannot freely divide by zero. I have now learnt the value of electricity and magnetism in physics, as Maxwell’s equations were the primary motivations for Einstein’s theory. I hope Barnett understands that to “disprove” relativity would require studying E&M, which requires multivariable calculus. If he has reached that level, then he should study the equations to find flaws and try to derive the speed of light. Then he will understand why Einstein’s theory is so difficult to disprove.

  63. Andreas

    Whats amusing, actually not amusing but rather depressing is reading some of the Comments on the his Utube channel…

  64. Kevin Brennan

    I’m a PhD student at Purdue and hadn’t heard of this kid (some people on here were mentioning that he supposedly went to Purdue). When I went to his mom’s youtube channel, it’s pretty obvious that he’s from IUPUI, probably the Indy branch, which is a very different thing than the W. Lafayette campus of Purdue. I’m not trying to knock IUPUI, which has many good programs, but just wanted to clarify for anyone curious like me. I’ll have to figure out if we grew up in the same part of Indianapolis!

    Most of these kid genius stories are overblown by the media, but, every once in a great while, the hype is fulfilled (see: Mozart). The kid sucks at piano (I’m not very good but was much better at 12), but it looks like he’ll have at least a decent future in physics. Hopefully he doesn’t get burnt out.

  65. Geoff

    Excellent points, but to be clear, it was the author of the piece on the kid, not the kid himself who claimed that he may disprove Relativity.

  66. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 64. Dave : Here’s hoping this extraordinary child will use his gift to do extraordinary things.

    Indeed. Well said & seconded by me. :-)

  67. db26

    Let’s face it, we are in the dark ages really when it comes to outer space. It takes a larger container of ‘gasoline’ than the total size of the shuttle just to get us out of the atmosphere…then the fuel is gone.-dark ages. We are no different in our theories now ‘relatively speaking’ (pun intended)- to our ancestors thinking the Earth was flat. Similarly, believing in the idea of the Big Bang is a similar waste of time that is throwing everyone off reality for an indeterminate amount of time. How exactly did the BB explain the inirial expansion of the Universe to have occurred faster than the speed of light? I think space is infinately finite (think about it). Matter is being created and destroyed in its own time and space continuously. To think all matter was created from a single point is actually proposterous in my opinion. The Universe may look like a firework, but there is a 99.99999999999% chance that it is not.

  68. “Doesn’t Kuhn say (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) that it’s the young and inexperienced that come up with the new theories because they haven’t been indoctinated by the old established “religion” of physics?”

    Yes, but Kuhn is wrong. His paradigm shift happened a few times back when the church stopped burning people who disagreed with doctrine, but since then science has progressed via self-correction.

    What are the two most important achievements of 20th century physics? Many would say relativity and quantum mechanics. Planck was steeped in the tradition of theoretical physics and was very conservative (scientifically). Einstein said that he was radical once in his (scientific) life: the explanation of the photoelectric effect. He was 36 when GR was published, hardly a young whippersnapper.

    Can anyone come up with an example from the last, say, 200 years where Kuhn’s analysis is anywhere near correct?

    Kuhn’s idea is either scientifically correct or not. If not, then we can ignore it. If it is, then by his own logic it is just a paradigm which will be replaced with another one once the establishment who worships Kuhn has died off.

    Does any actual scientist take Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift as applicable to modern science seriously?

  69. What’s the big deal? OK, for someone who knows essentially nothing about physics, this might be above his level, and the kid is probably smarter than most his age.

    However, if some university is recruiting him for a paid research position, that doesn’t say much for that university.

    He knows the buzzwords and has a basic understanding—no more and no less than any of the thousands of other kids who read popular science books.

    He scores pretty high John Baez’s crackpot index.

    I don’t see the point in exposing him to the world and trying to pass him off as the next genius. (Note that Witten didn’t enter physics until his 20s, having studied history first.)

    What will happen to him? He will probably become an engineer, make good but not great money but save a lot of it since he won’t have many expenses, then retire early, become a crackpot and self-publish his unified-field theory and send me a complementary copy.

    I hope that this doesn’t happen to him. One way to help prevent it is to try to get the parents to do a reality check. Yes, all kids are not the same and yes some are smarter than others, but an above-average kid isn’t necessarily going to solve the big problems in physics which many people who are a lot smarter haven’t yet solved.

  70. Messier Tidy Upper

    @71. Phillip Helbig :

    Does any actual scientist take Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift as applicable to modern science seriously?

    I don’t know about real scientists but university lecturers and sociology /philosophy lecturers are nauseating keen on the “paradigm” word and have probably over-used and twisted it to metaphorical death. :roll:

  71. Observant

    Having never heard of this kid I just went and watched a few videos of him on youtube and whilst initialy his grasp of advanced math seemed impressive it very quickly became apparent that he appeared to not be solving problems but recalling them. What’s the difference you might well ask? It’s the difference in creatively solving a problem yourself or being able to read an instruction manual. Will he have the ability to imaginatively solve complex problems? His ability to recall complex functions and theories whilst like all eidetic memories is impressive it won’t necessarily translate into the creative thinking necessary to be a visionary innervator. To people without this skill it seems like the child possess raw intelligence but is a database intelligent? I wish this kid every success in life you never know he might change the world, then again…

  72. Chiefley

    In Lisa Randall’s (she is the most cited particle physicsts over the last few years) new book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, she explains this problem of theory incompleteness with a term called “Effective Theory”. For example, a Newtonian Physics is the effective theory for the range of phenomena that can be considered classical (slow enough and large enough). Whereas Quantum Physics is the effective theory for the range of phenomena at the atomic level and below.

    The term “incomplete” is a good one, in the sense that the effective theory for one range of phenomena is incomplete in terms of the entire range of known phenomena.

  73. Jay

    Just because it has passed all the tests scietists have thrown at it doesn’t necessarily mean its right. Maybe the scientists are just using the wrong tests.A lot of solid scientific theories have been disproved once scientists used the right tests.

  74. This_Guy

    #77 Jay said “A lot of solid scientific theories have been disproved once scientists used the right tests.”

    Name some, if you would.

  75. I think a problem here is that what the public think of as wrong INCLUDES incomplete. Even in things like politics, if you didn’t have all the information at the time, doesn’t matter, you were still ‘wrong’ It may just be one of those things like the public’s view of ‘theories’ that just differs between scientific and layperson cultures.


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