A brilliant 13-year-old kid graduated in Physics with flying colors

What's next, a doctorate in high-energy theoretical physics?
Deena Theresa
Elliott Tanner recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Physics.Elliott Tanner

Elliott Tanner showed all the telltale signs of a child prodigy.

Just four weeks after his birth, he rolled over on his own. Not normal.

At seven months, he spoke his first words.

By the time he turned two, Elliott could recite the alphabet; first in English and then in Swedish. You know, "for the heck of it I guess," his father told Kare 11.

But, from the beginning, Elliott was fascinated with numbers. When his peers carried stuffed animals, he treasured little magnetic numbers that accompanied him wherever he went. "He was talking about particle accelerators when he was 5 years old when other kids were pretending to be Superman on the playground," Michelle Tanner, Elliott's mum, told Live Science in an interview.

That was eight years ago.

Today, the 13-year-old is a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor's degree in Physics, and a minor in Mathematics.

It's okay to be jealous.

"I feel ecstatic. It is a truly surreal experience," Elliott told Live Science.

A genius in the making

The achievement is mind-blowing, but it doesn't make Elliot the youngest college graduate in U.S. history. Michael Kearney, who graduated from the University of South Alabama with a bachelor's degree in anthropology in 1992 at the age of 10, holds that title, according to the BBC.

Meanwhile, Elliott has already been accepted into the University of Minnesota's doctoral program in Physics, to further study High Energy Theoretical Physics and plans to earn a doctorate if his parents can raise the necessary funds. His folks are "incredibly proud" of the hard work and dedication he showed to get his degree at a young age.

"While he has an amazing capacity to learn, he's also a kind and funny human being," Tanner said. "He inspires us to be better people every day."

When Elliott failed kindergarten — he was too academically advanced for the classes — his parents decided to feed his inquisitive nature, and homeschool him.

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“He just consumed curriculum faster than I could buy it. He was done with algebra in a month and done with geometry in two weeks,” Elliott’s mother said.

Though his parents were struggling to keep up, they were extremely supportive and enrolled Elliott, who was nine then, at Normandale Community College.

Elliott Tanner
Right: Elliott dressed up as Albert Einstein for Halloween. Left: He is seen engrossed in a game of chess. Source: Elliott Tanner

Adulting physics as a child

Elliott's love for Physics blossomed in college. 

"My passion for physics stems from how the subject acts as a carrier for mathematics without the subject being bogged down by how formalized it is (i.e. having to consider non-physical states). Physics is more intuition-based and as a result inspires my interest in pursuing a graduate level education in physics," his website states.

Two years later, when he was 11, the child genius transferred to the University of Minnesota to start studying Physics and Math. The transition was a breeze, to say the least.

"Being exposed to people that are just as passionate about physics as he is has been incredibly rewarding for him," Tanner's mother said. "It satisfies his mind to be able to dive deep in with others at his level and learn from amazing scientists."

Elliott and his family have faced criticism from people who do not understand his situation.

Several assume forcing children to do extra homework or reading incomprehensible texts to them could make a genius, thereby disallowing a child to be a child. 

But, the element of "genius" is not in anyone's hands. According to Lyn Kendall, a consultant on "gifted" children at Mensa, children who have extremely high IQs show signs of extraordinary ability even as babies, way before pushy parenting begins to have an impact.

"People seem to have a preconceived notion that Elliott's childhood has been stolen from him," continued Elliott's mother. "People also assume he must be lacking in social skills." But this couldn't be "further from the truth," she added.

Elliott loves interacting with kids his own age. You can find him spending time with his friends playing games like Minecraft, Oculus, and Dungeons and Dragons. He also listens to some of his favorite musical artists like Steely Dan and The Beatles.

What's next for the real-life Young Sheldon?

There are numerous examples of child geniuses losing interest in their area of talent and bowing out. While some become experts in their field of interest, only a tiny number become fully functional adult geniuses.

Child prodigies are expected to be geniuses all their lives. This, and the added pressure from parents who push them hard, could lead them into believing that being extraordinary was a curse. According to Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College, parents who make it clear that being a prodigy is not the end goal are more likely to have a child who grows up to think that being one was a good thing.

On his part, Elliott is due to start his doctorate in the next academic year but his acceptance into the program has not come with the financial support students would normally receive.

The university usually provides students with a stipend, health insurance, and a tuition waiver. However, the Physics department opted not to provide the same to Elliott as they are unsure about giving Elliott teaching responsibilities, which is a significant part of the program.

This was a surprise to Elliott's parents, who hadn't had the time to build up a college fund.

"We never imagined sending a 9-year-old to college, let alone a 13-year-old to graduate school, so we never had the time to build up a college fund," Tanner's mother said. To her, the only option left was to start a GoFundMe campaign.

And Tanner's parents estimate that the entire doctoral program will cost around $90,000 to complete. As of May 4, Elliott's GoFundMe page has raised more than $40,000. "We are so grateful that our friends, family, community, and the general public have supported Elliott," Tanner's parents said. "He wouldn't be able to continue his studies without the support."

Meanwhile, Elliott himself, who's friends with the "Young Sheldon" star Iain Armitage, hopes that his story will encourage people to get excited about Physics. "I would love to be able to spread some of this joy for physics and this enthusiasm for it around,” Tanner said.

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