Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Teen Creates Fusion in His Basement

Back in my teaching days, whenever some jaded, burned-out high school teacher would tell me something like, "...that's just too hard for the kids! Why do you make it so hard?" I generally ended up showing them the projects that actually ASKED to do and saying, "...well these students didn't think it was too hard. Check out the telescope and photometer that Jennifer built, and she didn't think she was good at either Physics or Math." And true, it might have been hard for some of the students, but not for all of them. The key was always to keep both ends of the intellectual engagement spectrum challenged.

But I just can't resist highlighting real teen achievement in such a way as to show that the main limitations in many of our science curricula are the limited breadth and depth of the curricula themselves when the main mechanism for pedagogy is the lecture. This story shows the true power of unlimited guided and independent innovation.

Thiago Olson put in over one thousand hours over a couple of years to create a fusion reactor in his basement. This is no mean feat, given that there are only a few dozen working fusion reactors in the world, with most of them at multi-million dollar research institutions. Thaigo, in the true spirit of scrappy innovation scoured EBay for the parts and built it on a shoestring with a little help from Dad.


My favorite quotes from the article come from his mother:

Thiago's mom, Natalice Olson, initially was leery of the project, even though the only real danger from the fusion machine is the high voltage and small amount of X-rays emitted through a glass window in the vacuum chamber -- through which Olson videotapes the fusion in action..

But, she wasn't really surprised, since he was always coming up with lofty ideas.

"Originally, he wanted to build a hyperbolic chamber," she said, adding that she promptly said no. But, when he came asking about the nuclear fusion machine, she relented.

"I think it was pretty brave that he could think that he was capable to do something so amazing," she said.

Thiago's dad, Mark Olson, helped with some of the construction and electrical work. To get all of the necessary parts, Thiago scoured the Internet, buying items on eBay and using his age to persuade manufacturers to give him discounts. The design of the model came from his own ideas and some suggestions from other science-lovers he met online.

Someday, he hopes to work for the federal government -- just like his grandfather, Clarence Olson, who designed tanks for the Department of Defense after World War II. Thiago, who is modest and humble about his accomplishment, said he knew from an early age what he would do for a living.

"I was always interested in science," he said. "It's always been my best subject in school."

But, his mom had other ideas.

"I thought he was going to be a cook," Natalice Olson said, "because he liked to mix things."

Read the full article here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Outstanding achievement. Would like to see more of the detail of what he built. Phil