At first blush he seems like any other 17-year-old. Hes wearing a T-shirt and jeans and flashes a big, though halfway shy smile. But get him talking about science, especially physics, and he comes alive.
His name is Ben Bartlett, and if he were filing a tax return, it might very well say boy genius in the occupation box.
Hes quite a guy, says Don Jordan, a mathematics professor at the University of South Carolina.
Having directed or been involved with various state STEM, or Science Technology Engineering and Math, programs, Jordan has been something of a mentor to Ben over the years, and has watched the young physics star grow and mature.
Hes come a long way, Jordan says.
Is Ben the brightest hes ever seen?
Ben is not the only one, he says, naming several other leading math and science students. But if I had to rank them all he would certainly be among the top.
Just how brightly does Bens star shine?
Just recently, the Lexington High School junior participated in several state and national science events, taking home top honors, including first place at the 50th National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium held in Bethesda, Md., in May. Hes South Carolinas first grand winner in that competition.
A week later, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Bartlett won the European Organization for Nuclear Research Award and placed fourth among the fairs grand awards. At that same event, he also earned an all-expenses paid trip to tour the Hadron Particle Collider, the worlds largest particle accelerator, outside Geneva, Switzerland. He leaves for that trip on Saturday.
Thats the big award that all the kids in the physics competitions want to win and go to, said Bens mother, Melissa Bartlett, laughing.
In fact, the Hadron Collider was a plot point on this past seasons hit TV show The Big Bang Theory a show that Ben admits to having watched a couple of times, though hes not a big TV watcher by nature.
In AP physics (class), we have this ongoing joke with all the characters ... that Im Sheldon, he says, referring to the shows sometimes prickly, sometimes socially unaware theoretical physicist.
He can be snarky, says younger brother, Jon.
But sweet snarky, adds his mother.
An early interest
It would not be accurate to say Bens parents have no idea where he gets his love of science.
After all, Bens father, Robert Bartlett, is a surgeon specializing in hyperbaric medicine. Bens mother, who studied in biology and chemistry, once considered a career in medicine herself but opted to raise a family and home-school her children instead.
I sort of came through the back door of teaching, she says.
With not one but two naturally curious boys on her hands, Melissa Bartlett says her motto was to try and stay five minutes ahead of them.
I took (teaching) very seriously, she says.
But sometimes having two reasonably intelligent adults in the house just isnt enough to satisfy the curiosity of a burgeoning science prodigy. As Melissa recounts, one night, when Ben was just 6 years old, the voracious reader asked his mother why the universe was expanding.
I said, Ill read up on that and get back to you in the morning, she says.
As the boys grew, the Bartletts worked hard to ensure both children were well-rounded. Ben enjoys swimming, chess and classical music, while Jon enjoys fencing, jazz and speed cubing, or solving puzzles such as the Rubiks Cube.
Homeschooling allowed the family to go on trips with Robert Bartlett, who, as a national and international trainer and lecturer, traveled frequently. While abroad, Melissa Bartlett would incorporate art history, architecture, languages and cultural lessons into the boys schooling.
By 8th grade, Ben was taking honors algebra II, honors geometry and probability and statistics at the same time. at the same time About a year later, at the age of 14, Ben built a fusion reactor in his garage, tying with another 14-year-old as the youngest person in the world to achieve fusion.
Once the boys reached high-school age, Melissa Bartlett enrolled them in public school, an experience she says provided all-important socialization skills.
She was particularly pleased that Lexington 1 had a dual credit program that allowed students like Ben to take classes at USC or Midlands Tech.
So far Ben has taken six classes at USC classes such as discrete mathematics and numerical linear algebra and plans to take four more this summer.
Passionate about particles
To say the future is bright for Ben, who is interested in attending MIT, Stanford or Caltech, might be an understatement.
This school year alone, hes earned $15,300 in competition earnings. But money doesnt seem to impress Ben nearly as much as the fundamentals of physics.
Take plasma physics, for example. When Ben begins talking about it, his voice quickens with excitement.
I find it very interesting simply because its just an extreme environment where you literally have parts of atoms flying apart, he says.
Long term, he thinks hed like to study that or particle physics. He hasnt made up his mind just yet, but theres no hurry: After all, Ben has another year of high school to go. And thats fine with Melissa. She thinks its important her sons stick with their peer group.
Either way, there are those who expect big things from Ben, as his mentor says.
It might be connecting his engineering skills to medicine, but thats just a guess on my part, Jordan says. (But) he might be someone who can work with physics and cancer and come up with something.
Melissa says her biggest concern for her son, as he faces his future, is to find that sometimes elusive work-life balance.
I want him to ... include a little bit more fun time and a little bit more time with friends, she says, sounding not unlike a typical mom.
Whatever the case, Ben seems to take it all in stride. Asked what it is that he finds so appealing about solving equations, for the first time, he seems genuinely stumped.
Then, after some reflection, he says, When you have such a complicated expression ... that can be simplified down to such a beautiful, succinct equation, I find that to be very satisfying.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.