Book Review: the boy who played with fusion by Tom clynes

Originally Published in: Yemassee (august 2015) - university of south carolina

In framing the story of Taylor Wilson, the real-life Arkansas wunderkind who built a nuclear fusion reactor before he could drive, author Tom Clynes notes, “The lesson of the Icarus myth came to mind—how could it not? But Icarus’s story wasn’t a perfect fit. After all, Icarus hadn’t put the sun in a box.”

It’s easy to see why Icarus is an imperfect, but nonetheless tempting story to relate to Taylor, a young man whose idea of a perfect summer vacation is toting a Geiger counter into the Nevada desert in search for radioactive detritus. As Clynes relays firsthand accounts of Taylor’s experiments with potentially deadly radiation in his parents’ garage, what I find most impressive about Taylor’s work isn’t the complexity of his devices or their unthinkably hot plasma beams, it’s not Taylor’s incredible mind or even the fact that he was careful enough to avoid a major accident, but rather the young man’s matter-of-fact confidence—a geeky, yet charming swagger that, were this story fiction, would’ve doomed his wings to melt in a bath of gamma rays. But what surprised me about The Boy Who Played with Fusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) is how the book itself is a sort of literary Icarus. It’s ambitious, a little crazy, and, like Wilson, able to push the envelope while avoiding the dangers of flying too high.

About halfway through the book, I started to understand the depth and difficulty of the project Clynes undertook in telling such a detailed, personal, and pertinent story. What started as 2012 Popular Science article grew to an expansive account of Taylor’s adolescence—from pre-teen tinkering with fireworks and radium to skipping college to further his research on medical isotopes with the backing of all-star venture capitalists. Though Clynes does take advantage of some non-linear texturing, the story is mostly an A-to-B journey in, as the subtitle suggests, how to metaphorically and literally make a star. Anyone interested in the logistics of nonfiction has a lot to appreciate here. With limited in-person access, Clynes has a tricky task in reconstructing major moments from Taylor’s past, translating the nuclear science into something mortal readers can follow, and weaving in the book’s political raison d’être. Amid the rollicking nuclear fun is a sharp critique of the education system in the United States, with particular interest in its failure to support the gifts of our nation’s brightest minds.

Taylor’s spectacular accomplishments and swiftly evolving interests make him a difficult subject to pin down. There is, of course, a bildungsroman to be told, but a number of obstacles hinder our access to Taylor’s internality. For one, he’s barely into his twenties, and has a lot of time ahead of him to decide how he’s going to understand his incredible childhood. He’s also the antithesis of a navel-gazer. What energy he doesn’t expend in his work channels into his cheerleading for nuclear science. Taylor is a talker, which sets him apart from fitting into some loner brainiac stereotype, but we sense that he would find the kind of fine-toothed introspection some of us bookish-types salivate over a huge waste of time. With nothing less at stake than the chance that harnessing fusion might one day cure cancer, produce pollution-free electricity, and unlock the secrets of the universe, he’d probably be right.

Taylor is just a different sort of cat. Clynes’s immediate embrace of this was very instructive for me. When Taylor enrolls in Davidson Academy, a privately-funded “Hogwarts for Geniuses” in Reno, Nevada, the book really came alive as the world poked its nose into Taylor’s laboratory and forced him to deal with the challenges we all had to face as teenagers. I found myself willing Taylor to achieve what I so desperately wanted in high school. It was hard not to resent Taylor when he shrugs off both direct admittances to PhD programs to MIT-tier universities and the advances of wicked smart Hogwarts girls. After a couple chapters of shaking my head at Taylor fast-forwarding through opportunities I’d pined for, I realized what I was becoming. Throughout the book, Taylor’s unique path through life garners him an army of naysayers—middle-school teachers who chastise him for deviating from planned lessons, crotchety professors who dismiss his hands-on approach to learning, anti-nuke nuts, neighborhood busybodies, and on and on. No one has seen a kid like Taylor, and so it’s incredibly easy to criticize his life choices. Taylor’s insane intelligence and work ethic make dreams of girls and fancy campus visits feel pretty stupid.

The most profound gift from this book about a profoundly gifted young man is its reminder that there is no limit to the number of ways one might achieve knowledge, success, and happiness. Clynes writes Taylor’s story with curiosity, compassion, and utter respect, modeling the way we should be treating individuals who don’t fit into the tidy boxes we stack in our feeble attempts to give structure to the world. The Boy Who Played with Fusion made me smarter. It made me kinder. It made me rethink all those high-flying Icaruses who look pretty strange from the ground. In a rhetorical world where doom rules the headlines, this book offers real hope, as bright as hot plasma, in human ingenuity and selflessness.

Author and photojournalist Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous side of science, the environment, and extraordinary personalities for magazines such as National Geographic and Popular Science, where he is a contributing editor. His work has also appeared in Men’s Journal, Nature, New York, The Sunday Times Magazine (London), the Washington Post, and many other publications. He is the author of the books The Boy Who Played With Fusion and Wild Planet! and his magazine stories often appear in Houghton-Mifflin’s “Best American…” series of magazine-writing anthologies.
Corner-Straits Chain of Lakes, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Corner-Straits Chain of Lakes, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan