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