Spark : A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius” by Kristine Barnett

Breakthrough : How one teen innovator is changing the world” by Jack Andraka with Matthew Lysiak

At the heart of these books are two quite extraordinary teenagers. Jacob Barnett is an autistic teenager with a quite astonishing gift for maths. Jack Andraka developed a potential diagnosis tool for pancreatic cancer that could potentially be world-changing. Oh and by the way, he’s gay.

Now reading what they’ve accomplished before they’ve even finished high school would be enough by itself to make just about anyone feel like they haven’t done much their lives. But in both cases, the kids had quite a journey to get where they are now.

Jacob Barnett started as an apparently normal, giggling baby, who in his toddler years withdrew into a completely uncommunicative state, obsessed with shadows and patterns, and all but oblivious to the world around him. The majority of “Spark” documents his mother’s frankly heroic efforts to try and get through to him, and bring him back into the world, by concentrating on the things that interest him and encouraging those passions.

At one point Kristine takes the astronomy-obsessed Jake to a viewing at a local telescope. To her horror she realises when she gets there that they’ll have to sit through a lecture first. But Jake is enraptured. At the end of the lecture, the professor asks the audience why some of Jupiter’s moons aren’t spherical. Jake asks his mother if he can ask a question.

He asks the professor about the masses of the moons. Apparently they weren’t large enough to generate enough gravity for a spherical shape.

Jake was three at the time.

The book is littered with equally astonishing moments. An older JakeĀ gets a summer job as a research assistant at a university. The professor gives him math problems, and he generally solved them in the car on the way home. Then he hits a problem he doesn’t think he can solve.

Like mothers everywhere, Kristine tells him to buckle down and do the work. Several hours later Jake comes up with a solution.

It turns out it was an “open problem” in maths – that no one ANYWHERE had solved.

It’s hard not to feel inspired after reading the book, and the highlights are so extraordinary that you can forgive the book’s lapses into sentimentality. Parts of the book get a little treacly.

In “Breakthrough”, the perspective is Jack’s own (as massaged by the ghost writer I assume anyway). In last week’s book club, I talked about the Musical Theatre Kid. Jack belongs to another high school sub-category – the Science Fair Geek. His parents inspired a passion and curiousity for science in Jack and his brother that led to him competing in science fairs from middle school onwards.

He finds that actually winning science fairs doesn’t win him friends at his hypercompetitive math and science-focused charter school, and grappling with his emerging sexuality at the same time made for an unhappy school experience. During that time he clings to science like a life-line.

The interesting thing about many of Jack’s projects is that they focus on real world problems. His first winning project is about modifying low-head dams to make them safer for swimmers and boaters. He constantly looks for ways science can address environmental issues. And his crowning achievement, the one that forms the focus of the book, is potentially finding an early diagnosis tool for cancer.

One of the things that came across most clearly in the book was just how much work Jack put into his projects – the cancer tool especially. He throws himself into the project after his uncle dies from pancreatic cancer – diagnosed too late. He sets out to find a protein that will be a signal for the presence of cancer, labouriously working through a list of approximately 8000 candidate proteins, checking whether they meet the right criteria. Even once he finally finds the protein, he has an epic struggle to find a laboratory that will let him develop and test his carbon nanotube-infused papers.

It’s a fascinating book, but one that almost felt like it ended prematurely. His scientific accomplishments were amazing, but I wanted to know if he had found a boyfriend, or even just friends-who-were-gay.

So there you go – two books to read if you want to feel better about the possibilities of the youth of today changing the world for the better.

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