The boy who played with fusion
Zhi Liao and Tom Anklam of NIF, flanking Taylor Wilson, discuss the Master Oscillator Room. Photo: Alex Camargo
Taylor Wilson stood at the front of the auditorium, shifting from foot to foot and adjusting his suit sleeves like any other 18-year-old boy. His constant physical energy mirrors his ceaseless pursuit of net-energy fusion, a topic not many other teenage boys could discuss with any level of prowess.
At age 14, Wilson built his first successful fusion reactor, earning him the title of "The Boy Who Played with Fusion."
Last week, Wilson visited the Lab to tour the National Ignition Facility (NIF), speak with researchers and share his life's work thus far.
Nuclear energy "unlocked the invisible force of the atom", Wilson explained, and this seemingly magical unraveling of a complex structure is what drew him to fusion in the first place. Once the idea to build a fusion reactor in his parent's garage was rooted in his mind, Wilson completed his work in less than four years. As he pointed out, as if to humble his own efforts, the inventor of the television discovered a reactor as a viable source of neutrons when he was only 14 as well. Wilson's reactor works, but cannot create net energy—a task NIF sets out to accomplish.
From this successful reactor, Wilson veered into anti-terrorism and nuclear medicine outlets. "I know you all have some experience in that field", Wilson joked, as he explained that he was attempting to measure radiation entering the United States in shipping containers to prevent weapons of mass destruction.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, Wilson has shared a lab for the last four years, and is now old enough to actually be a student at the university. In his relatively spare time, he enjoys searching for uranium ore in the desert of New Mexico, a project he endearingly termed "scouting for nuclear material." More than 200 destructed nuclear parts are littered across the desert, and Wilson touts the largest private collection of pieces. While other 18-year-olds are busy collecting acne and Nike sneakers, Wilson adds to his assortment of lightly radioactive materials.
At the end of his talk, Wilson theorized upon the philosophical nature of science.
"It's human nature to pursue the big challenging things in the universe, like space and fusion," he said.
He drummed his fingers against the podium and hurriedly clicked through the last slide, as if racing himself to a finish line only he could see. This style seems apparent in the rest of Wilson's life, competing with no one but himself, and getting a taste of scientific fame before his first taste of beer.