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Interview with Nuclear Physicist Taylor Wilson

Aired June 10, 2012 - 14:00   ET



TAYLOR WILSON, APPLIED NUCLEAR PHYSICIST: My name is Taylor Wilson and I am an 18-year-old applied nuclear physicist.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Taylor is a force of nature.

WILSON: I developed a counter terrorism device that's revolutionizing the way we detect nuclear materials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's nine years old when he got his first scholarship.

WILSON: And now I'm working on this, which is a prototype for medical isotope generation device.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he's one of those people that will change the world in some way.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Taylor Wilson dreams of solving the world's energy problems, fighting nuclear terrorism and bringing cancser furthest reaches of the planet. It sounds utterly fantastic, the feats of a comic book really.

Until you find out that Taylor Wilson is the youngest person in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor and he did it at the age of 14. Since then, he's used his passion of physics to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing humanity.

As you might imagine, he's getting the attention of some of the world's top minds. None of them think Taylor Wilson's dreams are fantasy.


WILSON: When I was 10 years old, that nuclear spark hit me. Whatever it may be, I really don't know what it was about nuclear science, but whatever it was that triggered that interest, it stuck. I went after that one with a passion.

You know, just kind of realizing the power this unseen power within the atom was what drew me to it. You know, knowing that I can hold a piece of uranium in my hand that has enough energy locked in its nucleus to bring down an entire city, that's an incredibly powerful thing.

To tell you the truth, the reason I started building my fusion reactor was to make things radioactive. I had this obsession with radio activity. Short of contaminating to make something radioactive, you had to have a source of neutrons.

I don't have weapons around the house or at least not at that time -- but any way, to make things radioactive, I would need a neutron source. I decided to build this fusion reactor, but with that came this interest in fusion.

DR. RONALD PHANEUF, ATOMIC PHYSICIST: My name is Ron Phaneuf. I'm a professor in Atomic Physics here at the University of Nevada in Reno.

I first met Taylor it will be four years ago this coming fall. He was 13. And very first thing he told me was that he had this plan to build a fusion reactor. He was telling me about some of the components that he already collected.

So I knew he was serious. I remember thinking at the time, that, you know, this is not the kind of project that you want to be doing at home in your garage with your family upstairs or on the other side of the wall.

So I started to think right then maybe we could find room for Taylor to do that here at the university.

Well, first impression is he was probably about a foot shorter than he is now. And like I say, painfully young and I was just wondering, could this little guy really be as smart as they say he is.

After talking to him, it didn't take long to figure out that he's very intelligent, very savvy with things most anything to do with physics. I figured it would be kind of fun to help him with his projects.

WILSON: There were many sleepless nights before I got nuclear fusion. It was incredible process in my life and time in my life. I can remember checking the neutron detector after my first fusion shock with fusion fuel and seeing the remnants of neutrons in that detector.

And that was an incredible experience. You know, there was lots of laughing and high fives and excitement and calling of parents and friends.

KENNETH WILSON, TAYLOR'S DAD: Well, he's just got a personality. He's kind of like a magnet. People love --


KENNETH WILSON: Yes, charisma.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He has a lot of charisma.

WILSON: I think a lot of parents would be concerned if their kid decided that they wanted the build a nuclear reactor in their garage. But to tell you the truth, my parents -- I wouldn't say recklessly supported me.

But they realized they knew what I was doing. I was very safe and caution individual and they supported me. They got me the resources I need to do what I wanted to do.

KENNETH WILSON: Well, I mean, you tell Taylor something, you know, we can't do this. Well, he never takes no for an answer. His mind works so quickly. He's got an answer why that's not so or why he can do this, but he's got a knack for figuring things out.

WILSON: My holy grail is fusion energy. Nuclear fusion has little to no radioactive waste. It's clean. It's very abundant. The fuels are everywhere. There are problems with fusion.

It's easy to make a fusion reaction. It's not easy to make a fusion reaction that produces net gain. The so-called breakeven point, where you produce more power out than you put in.

There's a joke in fusion energy research that fusion is always 30 years away and it always will be. But I hope I can make it this 30 years and I think I can.

And I really have become convinced that nuclear fusion is our energy future. It's so powerful. I mean, it is the power of the stars. If we could bring that down to the laboratory and to the power plant on earth, that would be an incredible thing.

I really think that I'll be the one that brings it to this 30-year time frame and makes fusion energy where we're going. I think that will be probably my greatest legacy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So for Christmas, instead of toys he would get one of his construction sites. He would get cones and orange vest and barricades and went from there to radioactive materials or Geiger counters for Christmas so.




WILSON: I'll have (inaudible) in the morning and go in the lab in the afternoon and test it out. That is perhaps one of the most rewarding things about doing science for me, is having the ability not only intellectual level, but technical and engineering level to have these ideas and just immediately go in the lab and crack at them.

KENNETH WILSON: I really don't know where Taylor got this from. My background is I'm a fourth generation Coca-Cola bottler.

TIFFANY WILSON, TAYLOR'S MOM: We have no science in our family at all of kid people all their lives how did you end up with these kids. I said, well, it's all the health foods I fed them growing up, you know, teasing.

He kind of started out just kind of, you know, timid and shy and just took everything in and then, you know, just blossomed. Any interest he had, he just went crazy with it.

He started out with construction and learned every name of every tractor and from that went to rockets and learned all the rockets. And then Kenneth took him to space camp. When he got there, he knew more about the rockets than the actual counselors knew.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: When it breaks through those ozones just one second after it does, the external fuel tank falls off.

KENNETH WILSON: Well, we were walking through and the counselor started telling about the big rockets. And Taylor immediately raised his hand and started telling the counselor about it. And immediately she was taken aback and she went and got her supervisor and he couldn't believe it.

TIFFANY WILSON: His other love later on became blowing things up and making his own fireworks. He had some pretty big fire balls. It's pretty scary for a while until we finally figured out he knew what he was doing and it was safe.

WILSON: This little bit of yellow cake. I use it not counter terrorism research. Not something everybody can say I have yellow cake.

These are nuclear weapons components from a broken arrow. So what happened is in the late 1950s, the government basically lost nuclear bomb out in the desert.

This happens falls out of the belly of a plane. The high explosive will detonate and spread pieces of the bomb, some of them radioactive all over.

KENNETH WILSON: He was about 9 years old and he had become interested in nuclear energy and nuclear bombs.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We're constantly being bombarded by cosmic radiation, which is gamma rays, x-rays, neutron radiation from the sun.

KENNETH WILSON: So Taylor wanted to go up to Oak Ridge and visit with this professor's name H.L. Dods. Go visit with us 5 minutes. Three hours later, we're still in the department and when we getting ready to leave, Taylor, when you get ready to go to college, I have a scholarship for you.

He's 9 years old and got his first scholarship. I'm sitting there in awe. I didn't know he knew any knowledge or very little of nuclear energy. But after that day, I knew he was something special.

COLEEN HARSIN, DAVIDSON ACADEMY: Taylor's tenure at the academy has been a definite wild ride at times. He's very passionate about his subject area. It's rare to see a student who is that consumed by their interests, such that he lives and breathes nuclear physics at all times.

LILY HOOG-FRY, DAVIDSON ACADEMY FRESHMAN: Well, I know Taylor just because we go to school together and I met him I remember on the first day. And they were just like this is the nuclear physicist. They were telling me about him. You're crazy. How have you done all this?

SOFIA BAIG, DAVIDSON ACADEMY JUNIOR: He's really sweet guy and southern gentleman. And he's very goofy and fun, so then we started hanging out.

WILSON: I think my brain is kind of compartmentalized. You know, the science is separate from my social life or my girlfriend or whatever it may be.

But at the same time, I'm able to see kind of nuclear equations in my head and se kind of ten steps out what I want to do on an engineering level. I still work hard in what I do.

I don't want to take the easy rout. I want to work on that project that will be more challenging. I always push myself. I think the day I stop pushing myself will be the day that I die, but at least good things.

President Obama invited me to the White House to attend the White House Science Fair.

Hi, Mr. President.


KENNETH WILSON: I was so proud of him.

TIFFANY WILSON: Pretty amazing.




WILSON: Yes, I joke with people that after I became the youngest person in the world to produce nuclear fusion, then I wanted a challenge. That challenge was solving some of the biggest problems of the world.

I was about 7 years old on 9/11. I think the September 11 attacks really hit home to me. I didn't have anybody necessarily personally involved in the attacks, but I think we all felt it as a country.

As I got older and more invested in my studies, in nuclear science, I started to realize how much more devastating a nuclear attack would be. You would kill hundreds of thousands of people or more compared to the thousands of people that were killed by the aircraft attacks.

And I realize how big a threat this was that we had these, you know, basically open borders to nuclear terrorists and nuclear proliferators. I started to realize that maybe I could do something about this.

I've developed a couple systems for counter terrorism applications for scanning primarily things like cargo containers for nuclear weapons. One of the systems actually uses water. They're as sensitive, if not more sensitive, than the pre-existing helium three detectors but in a small, small fraction of the cost.

My current technology it's been proved. Right now, it's in the stages of testing, built testing, going out in the field and proving this works in the real world with harder containers.

Everybody was incredibly excited about this, not just, you know, academic colleagues, but government officials, you know, politicians.

President Obama invited me to the White House to attend the White House Science Fair.

Hi, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good to see you.

KENNETH WILSON: I was so proud of him.

TIFFANY WILSON: Yes, pretty amazing.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: So what do we have here?

WILSON: I developed a system for detecting nuclear threats. It uses water instead of helium three.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that's pretty important.

TIFFANY WILSON: The president comes through and, you know, of course Taylor has him rolling. I mean, doubled over twice laughing at Taylor's remarks.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let's test this sucker out and see fit works.

WILSON: They wouldn't let me turn it on. Secret Service really didn't want me bringing this nuclear reactor in.

TIFFANY WILSON: His best buddy. You known, no nerves at all.

WILSON: Good meeting you, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good to see you. You may be working for me soon.

TIFFANY WILSON: And then as he's walking out after he made the rounds around everybody, Taylor kind of jumps out at him and grabs his hand again and says thank you, Mr. President.

PHANEUF: One of his advantages is that he thinks outside the box. His thinking is less conventional. If you're trained as a discipline, you tend to adopt, most people at least, adopt at conventional thinking. Taylor was essentially self-educated in nuclear physics. So he could see things that maybe other people were blind to.

WILSON: I started looking at some medical technologies, having a grandmother that died of cancer recently. And that was something that was on my mind.

Nuclear medicine really is the doctor's best tool for diagnosing disease, whether it be cancer or another disease. It's also a big tool for treating cancer and disease.

The problem is that it basically resolves around things called radioactive isotopes. These radioactive elements that are spontaneously decay and admit radiation.

Those can either be used to locate or treat disease. The problem with these isotopes, they're very short lived and so companies that produce them have to go to great lengths to get them to hospital or treat or diagnose the patients.

They actually have fleets of private jets sometimes because isotopes are so short lived so I had the idea of why could I not develop a device that produces these isotopes on site, at the hospital.

Incredibly inexpensive and could potentially be wheeled into the hospital room. And I was able to do that using a few clever nuclear tricks that really had not been thought of before.

TIFFANY WILSON: So he's now figured out a way to make the isotopes more affordable, what he's working on. And that way they can have PET scans, you know, in remote parts of the world that they can't right now.

He thinks if he can get these in locally in hospitals that will be a better way to diagnose cancer and I think someday he would like to find a cure.

WILSON: I think everybody you know, at least I know, has been touched by cancer and other disease in some way. So I think it's a very personal thing at least for me and most people in being able to see, kind of the impact that you're seeing on a personal level is incredibly gratifying to me.

Science fairs are the most incredibly inspiring experience. Seeing other kids is just mind blowing. I think there's something about the child's brain that makes them so much better innovators.




WILSON: I started out with a dream to make a star in a jar, a star in my garage and I ended up meeting the president and developing things that I think can change the world and I think other kids can too.

Being a kid that's been through science fairs, science fairs are the most incredibly inspiring experience. Even being a winner at these science fairs, seeing the other kids is just mind blowing.

I think there's something about the child's brain that makes them so much better innovators. They don't have that kind of preconceived notion of the world, the political or social or regulatory constraints that adults have.

What's going on, guys? And to tell you the truth, they're not afraid to fail. And that's something that -- a reason I've been successful. I hope that growing up I don't lose that notion of no preconceptions of the world. So I love what hi do and I think science fairs are really cool.

GAGE HOLLEMAN, TULSA, OKLAHOMA: Just to get to his level is extremely inspiring for I think of all us. He's using radioactive isotopes work with cancer cells. It's really impressive work. I'm a huge fan.

SEAN NATHAN, SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA: This is just ridiculous work. I'm honestly stumped of how a kid could be so mart. It just makes me want to go on in life and do bigger and better things than I am doing now. I actually have a signed copy of Taylor Wilson's abstract because I feel like he is the next Tony Stark.

WILSON: I get, you know, tons of fan mail from kids all over the world. Knowing kind of I'm an inspiration to them is the most gratifying experience. I get the question a lot, how can I do what you did? How can I make a difference?

Part of that is not being afraid to fail. Go take a problem. Go crack at it for a few years. If you fail, great you've learned a lot. If you don't fail, maybe you could be like me. Maybe you can change the world.

So, you know, I've kind of at this point been very confused about the next couple of years of my life will be. I've been contacted by all the big defense contractors and the Ivy League and Harvard, MIT and those kind of things.

Lots of people want me to work for them obviously, but I'm content for now for keeping my ideas for myself. I met someone from the Till Fellowship. Peter Till is the co-founder of Paypal.

He now has a foundation and investing in lots of technologies, but also a group of very, very passionate and driven young people under 20. And hopefully with that fellowship over the next two years, I will start up my own company.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From Reno, Nevada, Taylor Ramon Wilson.

WILSON: I think the people in my life are completely responsible for my success. It's kind of two parts to this equation. It's, you know, kind of raw intellect and passion really, but also having the network of support.

I have that whether it be my parents or the people at the university working. Working with Bill and Ron has been one of most incredible experiences of my life. I mean, they've almost become best friends and family to a point more than just a mentor or professorial figure. So they really became an integral part of my life. I'm really thankful for, you know, the opportunities that they've provided me.

WILLIAM BHINSMEAD: We broke down someplace. I've been here for 30 years now. I have never met anyone like Taylor.

PHANEUF: I think he is the smartest person I've met in my life. I've met a lot of really smart people. I've been privileged to meet (inaudible) and Taylor is right up there with them.

So I expect great things from him. I don't know what they'll be. It will be exciting to see where he goes from here. I'll be one of his fans watching. I hope he will stay in touch and keep us posted.

TIFFANY WILSON: Well, as a mom, I'm the most proud of Taylor that he's such a kind kid and he's so helpful. He's a great friend and a great son and a great brother. He just has a really big heart.

KENNETH WILSON: His character, it thrills me to no end that his teachers and his professors just marvel at his character.

WILSON: Always been really passionate about solving problems and really passionate about changing the human condition. I think my technology can do that.

As long as I make an impact, that's really what matters to me. I want to change lives and I want to save lives. I think my technologies can do that.

I have a bucket list and just about one of the only things is winning the Nobel Prize. We'll see.


GUPTA: A few people have the confidence to say a Nobel Prize is within their reach. But few people can claim their remarkable innovations of Taylor Wilson at any age. He's rocking the world of science.

But, you know, Taylor is at the top of the next list because he is using his intelligence to tackle some of the world's most enduring problems. There's no doubt we're going to be hearing a lot more from this 18-year-old prodigy.

For more on Taylor and other agents of change, check us out online and follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Also, join me on my live stream. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching.