In the past year or so an unorthodox think-tank called Helena has been quietly bringing together an eclectic cross-section of brilliant individuals (mostly bright-eyed millennials) with ambitious goals. They’re focusing on the world’s biggest and most insurmountable problems: climate change and global security issues such as artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, and nuclear proliferation.
The elite and edgy group includes Nobel laureates, Hollywood stars, technology entrepreneurs, human rights activists, Fortune-list executives, a North Korean refugee, and more, but one of Helena’s most unique members is undoubtedly the 23-year old nuclear physicist Taylor Wilson, once known as “the boy who played with fusion”.
Taylor Wilson garnered international attention from the science world in 2008 when he became the youngest person in history to produce nuclear fusion at just 14 years old, building a reactor capable of smashing atoms in a plasma core at over 500 million degrees Fahrenheit – 40 times hotter than the core of the sun – in his parents’ garage. And this all happened after he built a bomb at the age of 10. As a child in Texarkana, Arkansas, Taylor became infatuated with nuclear science after trysts with biology, genetics and chemistry. At age 11, while his classmates were playing with Easy-Bake Ovens, Wilson was taking his crack at building a particle accelerator in an effort to makes homemade radioisotopes.
Soon after he created a mini-sun in his garage, the wunderkind won $50,000 at a science fair for building a counterterrorism device that has the ability to detect nuclear materials in cargo containers, an invention which he later presented to Barack Obama in another science fair, this one sponsored by the White House.
In addition to counterterrorism and nuclear fusion, Wilson has also focused his optimistic virtuosity on solving some of the major shortcomings of our health industry. In his teenage years, Wilson also created a production system for medical isotopes that can be injected into patients and used to diagnose and treat cancer. His design costs less than $100,000 and can be wheeled directly into a hospital room, with the hope to replace multimillion-dollar, warehouse-size facilities that serve the same function.
Before he was even legally able to drink a beer, Wilson had already racked up 4 million views between his two (yes, two) TED Talks (Yup, I Built A Nuclear Fusion Reactor and My Radical Plan For Small Nuclear Fission Reactors). He has a published biography written by author Tom Clynes as well as biopic in development to be directed by Jeff Nichols.
At 18, technically no longer a boy wonder but a legally-adult genius, Wilson skipped college and, armed with a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship, went straight to work trying to solve the same seemingly insurmountable problem that has had nuclear scientists scratching their heads for generation: how to translate the awesome power of nuclear fusion into harnessable energy that would change the future of this planet.
Wilson has said that despite this – or perhaps because of this – assimilating into the science community was no cakewalk. In a profile for the Atlantic in 2012, Wilson said, “These days, the scientific community accepts me. But getting to that point was tremendously hard… when people have dedicated their lives to something—and spent eight years in college—they just expect that a kid wouldn’t be up to doing it.” However, Wilson thinks his greenness is exactly what makes him a forward-thinker and therefore a great scientist.
“Kids have a certain predisposition to do things differently and see the world differently, and that’s helpful… I think that we get a lot of scientists now who are bent into a system, and we lose some of their boldness.”
It’s exactly this young, optimistic, and daring energy that likely brought Wilson to the Helena think tank this year. In this meeting of the millennial minds, from backgrounds as diverse as Texarkana and Pyongyang, from disciplines as far-flung as nuclear fusion and human rights activism, and a whole lot of hopeful energy, it’s hard to think that something incredible won’t come out of it.