Most eighth-graders are into sports, video games, chilling with friends—and so is Jackson Oswalt. He also happens to be the youngest person ever to build a nuclear reactor.
What drove the now-14-year-old Memphis teen to build the ultimate science fair project when he was only 12? When he first read about Taylor Wilson, the previous record holder who had put one together in his garage at age 14, Oswalt wanted to beat that as badly as any other kid might want to beat a video game.
“It was definitely for the challenge of it. It was always in the back of my head that I wanted to be the youngest,” he told Motherboard.
At least achieving nuclear fusion, a process in which atoms head-butt each other to release energy, isn’t the type of thing that ends up in meltdowns or massive amounts of radioactive waste. But. Smashing atoms involves generating enough heat to reach 180 million degrees Fahrenheit. That didn’t bother Oswalt, who hit the books to research what it was going to take to build a contraption that could actually do this. Building all sorts of things in his grandfather’s workshop certainly helped.
Of course, the parts for a nuclear reactor were going to cost more than any Xbox or Playstation. Think around $10,000. At least his parents were supportive of the project because, you know, this endeavor was pretty genius.
Oswalt converted his old playroom into a lab and got to work, learning mostly through trial and error. He researched people who had built their own reactors before, using their experiences to better figure out what he was doing. Protecting himself from radiation was also a major concern, which is why he also had his physics teacher, a physics professor, and researchers from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to back him up.
While this sounds like a feat brag-worthy enough to impress the whole school, Oswalt told almost no one. Even his closest friends thought the whole thing was an elaborate joke.
The internet probably knew more than Oswalt’s classmates. He kept posting updates on the forum Fusor.net, and when he finally reached fusion just before his thirteenth birthday, he posted his results. It was Fusor.net administrator and retired electronics engineer Richard Hull who recognized that he had the youngest person to ever achieve nuclear fusion on his hands.
Despite accomplishing something this astronomical, Oswalt didn’t really start discussing it until recently. Never mind that—he’s already planning his next reactor.