Mad Scientist of the Month: Who’s Afraid of Taylor Wilson?

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Update (2/7/2012): Taylor Wilson at the White House

by Judy Dutton

At 10, he built his first bomb. At 14, he made a nuclear reactor. Now he’s 17…

Taylor Wilson makes people nervous. While his beanpole frame and Justin Bieber–esque haircut suggest he’s just a harmless kid, his after-school activities paint a far more ominous picture. At age 10, he built his first bomb out of a pill bottle and household chemicals. At 11, he started mining for uranium and buying vials of plutonium on the Internet. At 14, he became the youngest person in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor. “I’m obsessed with radioactivity. I don’t know why,” says Wilson in his laid-back drawl. “Possibly because there’s power in atoms that you can’t see, an unlocked power.”

Shouldn’t teams in hazmat suits descend on Wilson and shut down his operations before someone gets hurt? On the contrary, there are people in the government who think that Wilson is key to keeping this country safe.

“The Cold War is really when nuclear physicists got their shot, and those people are all retiring,” points out one of Wilson’s mentors, Ron Phaneuf, a professor of physics at the University of Nevada in Reno. “I think the U.S. Department of Energy is a little concerned that the motivation of young people to get interested in that kind of science has waned. I think that’s one of the reasons doors have been opened to Taylor. He’s a phenomenon, probably the most brilliant person I’ve met in my life, and I’ve met Nobel laureates.”

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security heard about Wilson two years ago, officials invited him to their offices to hear more about his research and determine whether or not it could be applied toward their counter-terrorism efforts. Because Wilson was only 15, they weren’t expecting much, but Wilson came prepared. After shaking everyone’s hands, he announced, “You know your building’s radio-active, right?” The pager-sized Geiger counter attached to Wilson’s belt was beeping, an indication that the granite surrounding them contained unusually high amounts of uranium—not enough to be harmful, but enough for Wilson to raise a few eyebrows.

“Their own building was radioactive and most didn’t know it,” Wilson says. “That’s when they started to take me really seriously.”

The Young Fusioneer

Wilson got his start on Fusor.net, a website where nuclear hobbyists who call themselves “fusioneers” fill message boards on topics that would enthrall only the geekiest subset of society, like “So where can I get a deal on deuterium gas?” The goal of every fusioneer is to build a reactor that can fuse atoms together, a feat first achieved by scientists in 1934. Ever since, nuclear fusion has been hailed as a potential “clean” energy source, although scientists have yet to figure out how to harness its power. By the time Wilson stumbled across Fusor.net, 30 hobbyists worldwide had managed to produce the reaction; Wilson was determined to become the thirty-first. He started amassing the necessary components, such as a high-voltage power supply (used to run neon signs), a reaction chamber where fusion takes place (typically a hollow stainless steel sphere, like a flagpole ornament), and a vacuum pump to remove air particles from the chamber (often necessary for testing space equipment).

Wilson also funneled money collected from Christmases and birthdays toward buying radioactive items, many of which, to his surprise, were available around town. Smoke detectors, he learned, contain small amounts of a radio-active element called americium, while camping lanterns contain thorium. In antique stores, he found pottery called Fiestaware that was painted with an orange uranium glaze. Wilson trolled websites such as eBay for an array of nuclear paraphernalia, from radon sniffers to nuclear fuel pellets, and came to own more than 30 Geiger counters of varying strengths and abilities. Most of Wilson’s radioactive acquisitions weren’t dangerous, given their small quantities. But a few—vials of powdered radium, for example—could be fatal if mishandled, which is why he’s never opened them. (Although he’s been tempted.)

To expand his collection, Wilson dragged his dad, Kenneth, on long road trips into the New Mexico desert to go prospecting for uranium ore; they returned with boxfuls. Meanwhile, Wilson’s growing obsession with all things radioactive “worried me a whole lot,” admits Kenneth, who turned to pharmacists and professors he knew around town to ask if what his son was doing was safe. “After they talked to Taylor, they’d tell me not to worry so much, because they said Taylor understands what he’s doing,” Kenneth says. He and his wife, Tiffany, tried to tell themselves that Wilson’s “nuclear phase” would pass, just like his previous obsessions. At age 3, he asked for a hard hat and orange cones and then directed traffic on his street. At age 7, he’d memorized every rocket made by the U.S. and Soviet governments from the 1930s onward. But of all of Wilson’s obsessions, radioactivity stuck.

Hoping that the right guidance could keep their son from doing damage to himself or others, the Wilsons moved from Texarkana, Ark., to Reno and enrolled Wilson in the Davidson Academy of Nevada, a public school that caters to gifted kids. (Wilson’s IQ tested in the 99.99 percentile.) His physics teacher, George Ochs, encouraged Wilson to enter the local science fair, but did a double take when he heard that Wilson had his heart set on building a nuclear reactor in his garage.

“I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. You’re going to irradiate your parents, and maybe the whole neighborhood,’” recalls Ochs. “I suggested he build it somewhere safe, like a university."

Ochs introduced Wilson to Phaneuf, and the professor quickly saw Wilson’s potential and helped him set up shop in the subbasement of the university’s physics department. Around Wilson’s work area, a shield of paraffin and lead absorbs any radiation he might produce. A radiation safety officer stops by periodically to assess the safety conditions, and Wilson must wear a dosimeter, a badge nuclear power plant workers use to measure an individual’s radiation exposure levels. So far, Wilson says, “I’ve never gotten a dose that’s above legal levels.”

After months of researching, building, and welding, Wilson put the parts of his nuclear reactor together, using the basic blueprints posted on Fusor.net. He added his own personal touches. It looked like a cappuccino maker on human growth hormones. To find out if it worked, Wilson filled its reaction chamber with deuterium gas, retreated behind the lead wall, and then flipped the switch to the reactor’s high-voltage supply. Tens of thousands of volts of current coursed through a golf ball–sized wire grid within the reaction chamber. If all went well, this would fuse the atoms of deuterium together and release radiation—not nearly as much as fission (or the splitting of atoms) produces, but enough to cause radiation poisoning or other health complications if things went to hell.

Wilson picked up a tiny glass tube called a bubble dosimeter that he’d placed near his reactor. If he saw bubbles, the subatomic particles that make up radiation had penetrated the tube, heating the hypersensitive liquid inside. Squinting at the tube, Wilson spotted five bubbles.

On Fusor.net, Wilson was proclaimed the youngest fusioneer ever, at just 14 years old. A year later, he met with officials at both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy, who offered him their expertise and equipment and encouraged him to apply for a research grant. “I started thinking, ‘What can I do with this?’” Wilson says. I wanted a real challenge. So I decided to try fighting terrorists.”

Taylor Wilson and one of his “nuclear mentors,” Bill Brinsmead, in Wilson’s basement lab at the University of Nevada in Reno. In the foreground is the nuclear fusion reactor Wilson built at 14—making him the youngest person in the world to ever do so. He spent two years scrounging the parts and radioactive materials.

Becoming a Terrorist Fighter

Every year, more than 35 million cargo containers reach U.S. ports of entry. “They’re big, and there are so many of them. It’s the perfect way to smuggle in nuclear weapons,” Wilson says. “If I were a terrorist, that’s how I’d do it.” Making matters worse, the most sensitive radiation detectors contain helium-3, a man-made chemical that is expensive and in short supply. “The only place you can get helium-3 is in the decayed remains of nuclear weapons components, and our supply is running out,” Wilson says. He started wondering whether there were a cheaper, more plentiful alternatives.

In May 2010, Wilson entered his nuclear fusion reactor in a series of science fairs that won him a trip to Switzerland to tour the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, where many of the most cutting-edge nuclear experiments on the planet take place. Within the collider’s labyrinthine corridors, located 300 feet below ground, Wilson gawked at swimming pool–sized Cherenkov detectors, which identify radiation by measuring the light that is emitted when these subatomic particles move through water. That got Wilson thinking: Water is plentiful. Maybe he could build a liquid-based radiation detector that would work on a smaller scale.

Wilson returned home, went to the hardware store, bought a five-gallon drum, and filled it with water. He mixed in gadolinium, a chemical element that emits light when hit with radioactive particles. Because those flashes would be too weak to be seen with the naked eye, Wilson bored a hole into the drum and inserted a highly sensitive light detector, which he hooked up to his computer. He then placed the drum next to his nuclear reactor, behind the lead wall, and flipped the reactor’s switch to produce a silent explosion of radiation. Checking his computer, Wilson was delighted to see that his detector had picked up brief emissions of light. The detector worked—and unlike helium-3 testers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Wilson’s cost a few hundred bucks.

He filed for a patent. In May 2011, Wilson entered his radiation detector in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair against 1,500 competitors and won the $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. In September, once school begins, he plans to do full-scale testing of his invention by hauling a 30-foot cargo container into the Nevada desert. If all goes well there, he will start road-testing his detector at ports. “I want to get this stuff deployed—the sooner the better,” Wilson says. “Radioactive materials could be coming through ports as we speak.”

Wilson’s expertise is in high demand: Raytheon, the fifth largest defense contractor in the United States, tried to hire Wilson to develop security technologies. Numerous universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have recruited Wilson to lend a hand in various research projects. Since Wilson’s meeting with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy two years ago, both government agencies are checking in with him regularly to monitor his progress. For now, in order to protect his intellectual copyright, Wilson has refused their offers for funding, but once his patent is securely in place, he hopes to share his findings and roll out his radiation detectors in Iran, North Korea, and other high-risk countries.

“It would scare my mom to know I’m in some hostile country, tracking down terrorists,” Wilson admits. But if his parents have learned anything over the years, it’s to trust their son and let go.

“Sometimes I’ll blow up something in the backyard that’ll rattle all the windows in the house,” Wilson says. “My mom will come out, shake her head, and then head back in.”

Chicks Dig Nukes

Wilson isn’t an across-the-board thrill-seeker. Roller coasters scare him. He was reluctant to obtain his driver’s license and avoids getting behind the wheel. The only time he was grounded was when he let the family’s golden retriever out in the backyard while he was detonating bombs (not nuclear ones, Wilson clarifies, just garden-variety explosives made from household chemicals like stump remover). Now, when the dog smells explosives, he gives Wilson a wide berth.

In spite of his efforts to make the world safe from terrorists, Wilson is still sometimes seen as a menace. In March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused one of the country’s nuclear power plants to leak radiation into the atmosphere, Wilson tested the groceries in his refrigerator. He found trace levels of radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and cesium-137 in milk and spinach. After posting his findings on his website and talking to the Associated Press, “I got a lot of angry calls from the dairy association,” Wilson recalls. “I had explained that the radiation levels were low and not a health threat, but still some people freaked out.” Even at the physics lab where Wilson works, “next door there’s a laser guy who was scared that my nuclear reactor was irradiating him,” he says. “I had to calm his fears. A few people at the university have said, ‘You shouldn’t do this. You’re scaring people.’ I have to keep telling people I’m not a terrorist—I’m fighting the terrorists.”

Part of the problem, says Wilson, is that “pop culture has instilled in Americans an irrational fear of radiation, when in fact the household chemicals under your sink are more dangerous. I also think it unsettles people because I’m so young. They associate age with experience. But that isn’t always true.” Carl Willis, a nuclear engineer in New Mexico and a Fusor.net member who’s tracked Wilson’s progress, agrees. “Age discrimination against the young is widespread and was a constant obstacle in my early chemistry hobby life,” says Willis, who built his first bomb at age 12. “We automatically associate young age with poor judgment and inexperience, and while that’s typically the case, that’s just not Taylor. He shouldn’t be prejudged.”

In fact, Wilson thinks his youth is an asset.

“Because kids haven’t been exposed to the bureaucracy of professional science, they’re a lot more open to trying things,” Wilson says. “In that way, I think kids are able to sometimes do better science than adults.”

Among his peers, Wilson’s interest in science also has its perks. “At first when I was doing nuclear stuff I wondered, Is this going to make me a nerd? But I don’t think that was ever the case,” he says. “I’ve even used it to pick up chicks. I take women to my lab sometimes.” After all, what girl would be able to resist the line “Would you like to see my nuclear reactor?”


As for how he balances the demands of being a terrorist fighter/radioactivity obsessive/mad inventor with the challenges of being a 17-year-old kid, Wilson says it’s tough. “Nuclear stuff takes up most of my time,” he says. “Sometimes I have to decide: Do I want to be at my lab or hang out with Sofia?” (Sofia, a fellow Davidson student who’s an avid softball player, is his latest crush.) “She’s one of the few people who’ve been to my lab, which makes my friends mad, because not many have been able to visit,” Wilson says. But no one gets too mad, he jokes: “My friends always say, ‘Don’t mess with Taylor. He has radioactive stuff.’”

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August 22, 2011 - 5:30am
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