A Precociousness Record (Almost) Broken

I got started with science quite early in my life… with the result that I got my PhD (at Caltech, in physics) when I was 20 years old. Last weekend a young woman named Catherine Beni (whom I had met quite a few years ago) sent me mail saying she had just received her PhD from Caltech (in applied math)—also at the age of 20.

Needless to say, we were both curious who had the record for youngest Caltech PhD. Catherine said she was 20 years, 2 months and 12 days old when she did her PhD defense. Well, I knew I’d finished my PhD in November 1979—and I was born August 29, 1959. So that would also have made me around 20 years and 2 months old.

I quickly searched the OCR’ed archive that I have of my paper documents, and found this:

Stephen Wolfram PhD

The month was confirmed, but frustratingly, no day was filled in. But then I remembered something about my PhD defense (the little talk that people give to officially get their theses signed off). In the middle of it, I was having a rather spirited discussion (about the second law of thermodynamics) with Richard Feynman, and suddenly the room started shaking—there was a minor earthquake.

Well, now we have Wolfram|Alpha. So I type in “earthquakes at Caltech in Nov. 1979”, and out comes:

Earthquakes at Caltech in November 1979

There it is! The only possible date for an afternoon PhD defense is November 5, 1979. So now I can compute my age:

Age of Stephen Wolfram on November 5, 1979

20 years, 2 months and 7 days. My 30-year record for youngest Caltech PhD is preserved, by less than a week.

Well, at least sort of. Perhaps the correct official date for “getting a PhD” is the graduation ceremony. And by that measure, Catherine Beni is the winner by almost 6 months! (Perhaps more: I never actually went to my graduation ceremony, though the certificate did eventually arrive in the mail.)

(I also wondered about the precise time span in days: for me from birth to PhD defense it was 7373 days—and for Catherine the months line up so that it was exactly 5 days more: 7378 days.)

Whatever the details, Catherine and I are now thinking of starting a curious little club for “low-age PhDs”. If the cutoff age is 21, I think there must be decent number of potential members. Certainly there’s Ruth Lawrence, who got her PhD in math at Oxford in 1989 at the age of 17. And then there’s Harvey Friedman, who got his PhD in math at MIT in 1967 at 18. And Norbert Wiener, who got his PhD in math at Harvard in 1912 at 18. I’m guessing there are perhaps a dozen other legitimate examples, mostly in math and closely related areas. (So far, I’m the only non-math example I know; quite likely I even have the global record for youngest physics PhD.)

What do I think about precociousness? Over the years, a lot of people have come to me with it, so I’ve seen quite a bit of it. And if one ignores “precociousness for its own sake” (of which there’s an increasing amount these days), what’s left is a pretty interesting collection of stories. I would say that perhaps half of them have impressive or at least happy outcomes; the other half do not. My guess is that many of the better outcomes are associated with people who have good early judgment, as well as skill.

For me, at least, precociousness was a huge win. Because it allowed me to launch into adult life early—before whatever enthusiasm and originality I had was ground down by years of structured education.

As it happens, I didn’t start off thinking of myself as precocious. I was a top student at top schools in England, but I didn’t pay any attention to that. I got interested in physics when I was about 10, and just read more and more about it, and then started doing research about it, writing about it, and eventually publishing papers about it. I pretty much didn’t talk about my physics research with anyone. But because I’d taught myself all sorts of fancy techniques and so on, I started being able to do school-level physics very well.

So when I was 16 I left high school (Eton) and went to college (Oxford). (In between I had a job doing theoretical physics at a British government lab.) I didn’t last long in college, and never got a degree. But by the time I left I’d published quite a few physics papers (even including some that I still consider quite good)—and I went straight to graduate school at Caltech.

It would have been easy for me to “get a physics PhD while I was still a teenager”, but at the time I wasn’t thinking of things like that. And so I ended up getting my PhD, as I now know, when I was 20 years, 2 months and 7 days old.

When I was in high school, people kept on telling me that if I accelerated things as I ended up doing, I would somehow have terrible trouble. “Social difficulties” or something, they said. Well, I’m happy to say that none of that terrible trouble ever materialized.

To be fair, a certain amount of toughness was required on my part at various stages. But the main effect of the prediction of trouble was that it caused me to take longer than it should have to realize that precociousness in science is not incompatible with more obviously worldly things, like running companies.

When I was young, it was fun being precocious, and I think I was lucky that I taught myself so much in my early years. Because somehow it gave me the confidence to believe that I could teach myself almost anything. And in the 31 years since I got my PhD, I’ve been learning subject after subject. In a sense always simulating my youthful precociousness attitude: “just because other people seem to think this is hard doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out”.

Just in terms of the raw passage of years, being precocious has let me get more done: I’ve been able to spend more time learning things, and more time doing projects. It’s a little weird these days, seeing so many of my “contemporaries” from my early days in physics get to the end of their careers. Because I still feel like I did back when I was being a precocious physics kid: there are so many wonderful things to do, and I’m just getting started…

Posted in: Life and Times

13 comments. Show all »

  1.  

    “The journey [ path of Discovery ] IS the reward”
    – Chinese proverb

    “What matters is making a Discovery”
    – M. Gell-Mann, from “Student to Scientist”

  2.  

    Nice post. Interesting to know your personal experience about precociousness.
    Just one question: “Because somehow it gave me the confidence to believe that I could teach myself almost anything.”… why “almost”?

    Robert
  3.  

    The “there are so many wonderful things to do, and I’m just getting started…” is the eternal key for (nearly) everlasting youth and personal energy.

    Armin Steinbuch
  4.  

    Typo: Weiner –> Wiener
    http://www.tufts.edu/as/math/wiener.html

    Ben W.
  5.  

    My folks recently sent me my K-8 report cards. I was slightly above average in K-6. But my 2nd grade report card said that only 5% of students in the school were below average in the national standardized test. Apparently, i went to school near Lake Woebegone, where *all* students are above average. While my K-7 grades were average, all my grades jumped up a couple letters in 8th. Explanations? Algebra? English grammar? Glasses? I doubt any of this had anything to do with it. My son’s maturity level jumped noticeably at the end of 7th grade. Physical growth is in spurts. Perhaps maturity growth is also.

    In high school, i taught myself mental arithmetic with the Japanese abacus. I correctly computed an 11 significant digit sin(37.3 degrees) in about 35 minutes using Taylor series. It meant remembering over 80 digits of intermediate results, and included 20 digit divides. I showed noone. Is 17 too old to be precocious? Where is the dividing line? The techniques could easily be taught to younger students. (It’s easier than the violin.) Is it precocious if children are taught rather than if they teach themselves? If a whole group is taught some extraordinary skill, is it still extraordinary?

    My education could have been much better. My classmates and i did OK. Today’s students are doing much worse. What do we do about it?

  6.  

    I was also born in late August and where I live there was this rule, ‘you cant start school until you are n years old’ where n is an integer which I have forgotten. As the school year began in September I was always the youngest person in the school.

    So I was the youngest person to do everything. That didn’t mean I was any smarter than the others, or that I learned quicker, that was just coincidence. ;)

    Alan
  7.  

    Although officially I have beaten the record (when measured by dates printed on the diplomas themselves), I agree that a better measure of precociousness is the time from birth to the date of the defense. However, choosing the defense date as a benchmark also includes factors independent of the precociousness, such as the availability of the committee to meet. As is well known, committee members have busy schedules and the date of one’s defense depends on such factors that are beyond student control. Thus, I would estimate that an error of +/- seven days should be added to the number of days when comparing the exact numbers, making our precociousness identical within a margin of error.

    Apart from this, I had the advantage of having Dr. Wolfram as an inspiration. This gave me the confidence that precociousness would not, contrary to the attitude of many, result in an unfortunate outcome. I was twelve years old when I met Dr. Wolfram (who kindly autographed my copy of NKS) and I corresponded with him for a while about topic in PDEs and cellular automata.

    This brings me to discussing the possibility of starting, as Dr. Wolfram mentioned, a club for precocious PhDs. In my view, this would not be as a monument to ourselves, or for self-aggrandizement, but rather as the start of a supportive group of sorts to encourage, inspire, and reassure young people that precociousness can be extremely positive (and not dangerous to one’s psyche, as many people think). As for the membership criteria, I don’t think that a strict cut-off age is the best approach. Many additional factors, such as the quality of the school and the major, should also be taken into account. Thus, perhaps the club could be operated as a mini-academy, that is, new members are admitted via election by the current club members.

    Overall, I think the most important outcome of this is the opportunity for us to provide support for other precocious children who may otherwise not attain their full potential. I look forward to the development of such a support group and I am honored to take part in it.

    Catherine Beni
  8.  

    If you’d like some names for your “curious little club,” over the years I’ve collected quite a list. If, say, the cutoff age is below 21, then I know of 9 math, 4 computer science, 2 physics, 1 chemistry, 1 economics, and 1 biology, and 1 philosophy Ph.D. Please drop me a line if you’re interested.

  9.  

    Donald Marolf also received his PhD in physics at the age of 20 years old. Graduated in Austin, TX doing astrophysics. Curiously, Donald Page (another astrophysicist) also received a PhD at a very early age. Both Donalds graduated from a very small liberal arts college (William Jewell College) in the midwest. And both Donalds are quite known in the astrophysics fields.

    Mark Decker
  10.  

    Fascinating! Thank you for your stories!

    In my 20s, I kept dropping out of PhD programs and now, at almost 50, am considering it once again. This club isn’t quite as exclusive as yours but grad students in their 50s aren’t exactly the rule….

    My son is precocious, and I was encouraged to encourage him in math. But more opportunities are there to support his gifts in art so that is the direction we have gone so far. Unfortunately, he is finding public school elementary math tedious and boring. Your essay makes me want to find someone who would work with his so he will find the puzzle and the problem solving as exciting as I did once.

  11.  

    What Optical Character Recognition software do you use? Mathematica? The TextRecognize needs some pre adjustments to work perfectly. How do you scan all your documents? Is there an afficient way to do it? Thanks for sharing.

    Martim
  12.  

    What about a little club of people with multiple PhD’s, 2 or more accumulated doctorates. I wonder which club would be larger and if we could organize soccer matches between the precocious vs. the degree collectors team =) I know for sure that there will be people from Wolfram Research in both little clubs, not sure how many though.

  13.  

    This guy beated you Mr. Wolfram http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grigori_Perelman
    He seems to be just as smart but he refuses his prizes because he can “run the universe”. Can you say what you think about it? (btw, I’m just trying to provoke you to see if you can create more cool stuff). Sometimes I wonder how much knowledge you actually have hidden from the rest of us. I’m watching you! Haha!

    Sophia
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