Youthful Brilliance

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Texas A&M Physics and Engineering Festival. It was a busy trip — I gave a physics colloquium and a philosophy colloquium as well as a public talk — but the highlight for me was an hourlong chat with the Davidson Young Scholars, who had traveled from across the country to attend the festival.

The Davidson Young Scholars program is an innovative effort to help nurture kids who are at the very top of intellectual achievement in their age group. Every age and ability group poses special challenges to educators, and deserves attention and curricula that are adjusted for their individual needs. That includes the most high-achieving ones, who easily become bored and distracted when plopped down in an average classroom. Many of them end up being home-schooled, simply because school systems aren’t equipped to handle them. So the DYS program offers special services, including most importantly a chance to meet other students like themselves, and occasionally go out into the world and get the kind of stimulation that is otherwise hard to find.


These kids were awesome. I chatted just very briefly, telling them a little about what I do and what it means to be a theoretical physicist, and then we had a free-flowing discussion. At some point I mentioned “wormholes” and it was all over. These folks love wormholes and time travel, and many of them had theories of their own, which they were eager to come to the board and explain to all of us. It was a rollicking, stimulating, delightful experience.

You can see from the board that I ended up talking about Einstein’s equation. Not that I was going to go through all of the mathematical details or provide a careful derivation, but I figured that was something they wouldn’t typically be exposed to by either their schoolwork or popular science, and it would be fun to give them a glimpse of what lies ahead if they study physics. Everyone’s life is improved by a bit of exposure to Einstein’s equation.

The kids are all right. If we old people don’t ruin them, the world will be in good hands.

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14 Responses to Youthful Brilliance

  1. Ben Goren says:

    Sean, I bet a lot of your readers here would be just as delighted as those kids to hear (or read) your age-appropriate introduction to Einstein’s Equation…if I might drop a not-so-subtle hint….



  2. John Zande says:

    4th from the right, center row, two fingers up… that kid is going places 😉

  3. Rowena Kitchen says:

    I am so happy to hear that there are such programs available to these exceptional students to keep them excited about learning and able to meet others like themselves. Years ago, when my kids were in school and adjudged to be exceptional students, there were few to no programs for them. In fact, the U.S. was making all students take tests to show that they’d all achieved a mediocre level of education in specified subject matter. (Of course, they didn’t all live up to that expectation.) “No child left behind” curriculum was downsized and dumbed down. The most important aspect of education seemed to be ensuring student seat time in the required courses so that public schools could receive money. No wonder so many parents elected to send their children to private schools or to home school them. And, unfortunately not all privately educated students received an exceptional education. I know a number of them who can barely read. But, to be fair, there are public schooled children who also can barely read.

  4. Joel Levinson says:

    Sean, I had a similar experience recently on the four occasions when I spoke to students at The Cook-Wissahickon School in Philadelphia. On two of those speaking engagements, I had with me an 89 year old physicist, Kenneth Ford, who worked on the design and fabrication of the first H-bomb. He worked at Princeton under John Wheeler who asked him to join him at Los Alamos. The students asked excellent questions and were in rapt attention when Mr. Ford explained some physics and what his role in the project was. I also spoke to the classes of mostly 7th and 8th graders about the illusionistic nature of perception and how that ties into physics and other sciences. I was startled when one African-American student came up to me after class and told me, “You have changed my life forever.” On my website, I’ve posted an article I wrote for a local paper that gives a fuller account of my engagement with the students. My approach is this: don’t fill them with facts; fill them with the mysteries of their place in the universe. They were dumbstruck by all the forces and particles that were in the room with us that they couldn’t see.

  5. My comment written moments earlier went flying off before I could complete the information, which now appears below. Perhaps the comment and the fields below can be integrated.

  6. Annie Stratton says:

    What delights me in that photo: look at all the GIRLS! Yay. I was a girl nerd, and I grew up to be a lady nerd, and there is almost nothing better (maybe being a mom, too). Go, ladies!

  7. Sean Carroll says:

    Ben– It wasn’t a very long introduction. The left-hand side of the equation is a particular way of expressing “how much curvature is located at each point in spacetime?” — the amount by which space and time twist and turn into each other. The right-hand side expresses “how much energy and momentum are located at each point in spacetime?” — essentially, how much stuff there is at every point. Einstein says they are proportional to each other, and that’s how we get gravity. The mathematical objects doing the expressing are tensors, which you can roughly think of as 4×4 matrices. If spacetime were 5-dimensional, they would be 5×5 matrices, etc.

  8. Ben Goren says:

    Thank you! That…that actually helps a _lot._ Having that sort of high-level overview provides a framework that makes it a lot easier to fit the pieces into.

    I’ll bet you a cup of coffee that, thanks to your appearance there, one of those kids grows up to be a better cosmologist than you. And I’d bet you another cup of coffee that that’s one bet you’d be overjoyed to lose.


  9. John Anderson says:

    Mr. Bader gave Feynman a book on Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics to keep him occupied. I hope you’re serving a similar role for these talented students. (FLoP, Vol. II, Chapter 19)

  10. “4th from the right, center row, two fingers up… that kid is going places “

    Where no Davidson Young Scholar has gone before. 🙂

    I can’t make it out on the picture; his two fingers are up what? 🙂

  11. Nicholas Suntzeff says:


    We greatly enjoyed your visit. I have heard from a number of parents of the Davidson Scholars how well your talk went. You really had a big impact on their visit! I talked to one happy but exasperated mom who told me her child was like having a tornado in the house – projects everywhere, questions about everything, answers for many of those questions. Without immodesty she told me that it is not easy having a kid that is so much smarter than everyone else, including all the family members, because her child requires constant engagement.

    I think most of us can recall meeting someone who greatly impressed us at a young age, and we grew up wanting to be like that person. I am sure you will be that person for many of these kids.

    Also, thanks for the great technical talks too. The philosophers were very engaged in your ideas, and you presented a fascinating summary of your thinking.


    Nick Suntzeff

  12. George R. Welch says:


    Let me second Nick Suntzeff’s thank you. I’d like to share with your readers a brief quote from a letter I received after your visit:

    “The private talk with Caltech’s Dr. Sean Carroll allowed my 10 year old son to talk to a prominent physics professor one-on-one. When adult role-models take the time to sit and talk with the children it engenders within the child a sense of value which motivates them to pursue new goals that they now have the courage to set for themselves. And when this “adult role-model” is a scientist (not an athlete, or a pop-star…but a SCIENTIST!!) it matters even more (and the positive ripple effect to society is immeasurable)!!”

    Yep, that pretty much says it all.


    George R. Welch
    Professor and Department Head
    Department of Physics and Astronomy
    Texas A&M University

  13. Sean Carroll says:

    Thanks Nick and George!

  14. John B says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much. They did away with generation-X and they pushed back the year of millennials to being born back in 1980, which surprisingly pushed me into being a millennial myself. Most of these kids probably grew up tapping on their iPhones, instead of picking potatoes. Generation-X has already learned from a lot of the mistakes of the older generations already and will probably take good care of them. If they are teaching aggies how to do theoretical physics, then we could become a Type 1 civilization here really soon, and wormholes will become a reality.