In some ways, Jacob Barnett is just like any other 12-year-old kid. He plays Guitar Hero, shoots hoops with his friends, and has a platonic girlfriend.
But in other ways, he's a little different. Jake, who has an IQ of 170, began solving 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles at the age of 3, not long after he'd been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. A few years later, he taught himself calculus, algebra, and geometry in two weeks. By 8, he had left high school, and is currently taking college-level advanced astrophysics classes—while tutoring his older classmates. And he's being recruited for a paid researcher job by Indiana University.
Now, he's at work on a theory that challenges the Big Bang—the prevailing explanation among scientists for how the universe came about. It's not clear how developed it is, but experts say he's asking the right questions.
"The theory that he's working on involves several of the toughest problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics," Scott Tremaine of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Studies—where Einstein (pictured) himself worked—wrote in an email to Jake's family. "Anyone who solves these will be in line for a Nobel Prize."
Here you can watch Jake question some of the key elements of Albert Einstein's theories on quantum physics:
It's not clear where Jake got his gifts from. "Whenever I try talking about math with anyone in my family," hetold the Indianapolis Star, "they just stare blankly."
But his parents encouraged his interests from the start. Once, they took him to the planetarium at Butler University. "We were in the crowd, just sitting, listening to this guy ask the crowd if anyone knew why the moons going around Mars were potato-shaped and not round," Jake's mother, Kristine Barnett, told the Star. "Jacob raised his hand and said, 'Excuse me, but what are the sizes of the moons around Mars?' "
After the lecturer answered, said Kristine, "Jacob looked at him and said the gravity of the planet ... is so large that (the moon's) gravity would not be able to pull it into a round shape."
"That entire building ... everyone was just looking at him, like, 'Who is this 3-year-old?'"