Jacob Barnett is a 13-year-old child with Asperger’s syndrome who is currently being recruited by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) for a paid research position. Why? Because he has far surpassed the level of what college professors can teach him and university officials believe that Jacob’s skills would be more useful in a research environment.
In some ways, Jacob is a typical 13-year-old. He has a steady girlfriend and recently attended his first dance. He plays basketball and loves playing video games, especially Guitar Hero and Halo Reach. That is where the comparison stops. At the age of three, Jacob was not talking or making eye contact. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and found to be far above his age level in academics.
Jacob was interested in astronomy books, which he read over and over. His parents took him to the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium at Butler University where, at the age of three, he explained to a group of startled tourists why the moons around Mars were potato shaped instead of round. By the time he reached the fifth grade, his math skills were at the level of someone in possession of a doctorate in math, physics, astronomy, and astrophysics. By the age of eight, he was sitting in on an advanced astronomy class at IUPUI, helping fellow classmates tackle difficult math problems.
Currently, Jacob is working on a new and expanded theory of relativity, an original work that has caught the attention of Scott Tremaine, one of the world’s leading astrophysicists. Jacob intends to eventually disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Taking on the assumption that this was a rare ambition for someone to have, I told one of my co- workers about Jacob’s aspirations and he said very nonchalantly, “Oh, there are a lot of people out there trying to disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity.” Oh really? That’s news to me! How long has this been going on? I’m sure Einstein’s theory works just fine, so maybe we shouldn’t mess with it! On a more serious note, Jacob’s personal ambitions aside, I want to clarify that I am not attempting to glamorize Asperger’s syndrome in any way. Many families affected by Asperger’s syndrome struggle on a daily basis. Not every 13-year-old child with Asperger’s is being pursued for a prestigious research position.
What I found to be the most remarkable about Jacob wasn’t his desire to disprove Einstein, (because apparently many people want to disprove Einstein) or his genius-level math skills, but his recognition of an underlying math phobia that affects many people in American society, and his desire to be a math professor so that he can help others understand math. Perhaps it is because he was always advanced in math and often helped fellow students understand difficult math concepts.