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Every once in a while you see a headline similar to "17 year old student finds a cure for cancer!". Here are some examples too.

What's behind this? I find it hard to believe that a teenager without any academic education (or minimal education) can solve a problem that many experienced, well-funded, scientists have been working on for years. Or make a technological breakthrough that billion dollar international tech firms could not reach by themselves.

Are they really teen prodigies with brilliant minds or are they working in a team of people who know what they are doing that actually do all the work?

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    I'm not absolutely sure, but this looks more suited to Skeptics.SE than Academia.SE. No offense meant :) – 299792458 Oct 24 '14 at 14:00
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    And yet, we still have cancer... usually (IMO) these are basically a science fair project with basically no original content getting blown out of proportion by news writers (or the student has an idea which they think is original, but simply no scientist has published it because it doesn't work). – Max Oct 24 '14 at 14:01
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    @Max - Sometimes, but not always... see my answer below. I'm sure there are crackpots, but some are the real deal. – eykanal Oct 24 '14 at 14:46
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    I wouldn't characterise what I'm saying as crackpottery... first, I would be reluctant to call any high-school student a crackpot before they have had a chance to learn better. Having an idea can be "real" science even if it turns out not to work; it's only crackpottery when it continues to be pursued without taking into account the feedback of the community when they point out the mistakes. – Max Oct 24 '14 at 14:56
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    The fact that scientific achievements by high school students, however modest, are valued and given exposure to is a good thing IMHO. That being said, outsiders stories sell very well and news gigs know how to make you click on their links. – Cape Code Oct 24 '14 at 15:16
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I actually disagree with the answer given, and having judged a fair number of high-end science fairs myself (not Intel, granted, but the all-Chicago science fair, which is essentially an Intel qualifier), took something different away from it. I am also close friends with a number of Intel finalists, and have discussed their experiences in depth.

While most of the high schoolers at this level of science fair are extremely intelligent and will eventually become great, independent drivers of research, at this level they typically are not there yet. Their projects, for the most part, are designed by a faculty member or senior grad student/post doc, and the student is guided through the many experimental steps involved until they find something, at which case, because the research was done in a university lab and it is already better than 98% of other science fair projects (which are usually done at home with minimal resources), they typically do very well in science fairs.

Occasionally, one of the students is truly head and shoulders above everyone else, and can operate somewhat autonomously in a lab setting and can ask and answer their own questions - essentially at the level of an older graduate student. But, like a graduate student, they typically still need the oversight of a senior person who "gets" research.

I realize that this response is mostly to the answer given above, and not the the main question, but I felt strongly that the answer needed to be addressed.

As for prodigies:

  1. In the sciences, which require tons of background knowledge to even know what's going on (see: cancer), I have never, ever, heard of a true prodigy who could, for example, be running a 15 person cancer research lab, writing papers, etc. You don't just "understand" cancer the way some people "understand" math, innately.

  2. In math, the story is much different. There are always math prodigies, and they typically get tenure in their early twenties (see: Manjul Bhargava, Charles Fefferman, etc.)

  3. There are, of course, CS "prodigies" who are good at coding and creative enough to think of something that hasn't been done. But this isn't really what you are talking about.

tl;dr: there are no true "prodigies" in science. There are in math, though.

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    It reminds me of parents doing all the work of a child's science project and trying to pass it off as entirely the result of their kids. – Paul Oct 24 '14 at 15:16
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    "There are, of course, CS 'prodigies' who are good at coding [...]" Computer Science is not coding. – David Richerby Oct 24 '14 at 15:37
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    Even in mathematics, prodigies rarely do particularly great research in high school. Some do publishable work, but it's usually pretty pedestrian (and often heavily guided by mentors). There exist exceptions, like Jacob Lurie's high school research, but they are very rare. When you see a press release about a high school student winning a high-level science fair with a math project, it's still rarely a project that would be noteworthy if done by a professional. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 24 '14 at 15:53
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    Note that the question was explicitly about prodigies, who presumably are assumed to not need help and/or be acting on their own. For example "teen cures cancer" type headlines. I am NOT dismissing the average very high achieving students intelligence, but I have never, ever seen a case where a teen did, in fact, cure cancer without substantial oversight and advice - they weren't the ones "driving" the research. – Danny W. Oct 24 '14 at 20:48
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    Which answer is this answer referring to? Unfortunately, "the answer given above" is not a very good reference in SE because the order the answers are shown changes. – JiK Oct 25 '14 at 21:53
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The most important statement in your question is "What's behind the headline..."

Let's split this up into two questions:

First: are teens doing cool science?

Teens, like anybody else, can do science. A lot of teens are actually in a good place to do really creative work (scientific or otherwise), because they're young, have relatively few responsibilities, and are brash enough to try things that will probably fail. Sometimes, those things don't fail.

In some problems, it's easy to get to the edge of science: my favorite example is the iGEM genetic engineering contest. Another great example of an "easy" problem is how cats drink water: that's a paper in Science whose key laboratory equipment was a good high-speed camera---the key innovation was how they thought to ask the question, and it could just as easily have been a teen as a bunch of folks as MIT (though the teen would have a harder time getting it published so well). Other problems, though, e.g., "prevent cancer", are really pretty hard to do anything about.

A good heuristic for understanding what's going on in a particular case is to look at how much background and resources is required in order to take a particular approach to a problem. The more that's necessary, the more likely it is that any teen involved is a small (though possibly still quite smart and creative!) part of a big organization.

They also might just be wrong. Lots of ways to be wrong in science, for teens and anybody else. You should judge the science of a teen just like you'd judge the science of any other researcher.

Second: Do the headlines have much to do with what teens are doing in science?

In a word: No.

In a few more words: science reporting is often pretty dismal, and in popular sources usually has much more to do with fitting something into a societal narrative. And one of our cherished narratives is the Teen Genius. Also, don't forget that both teens and their mentors are just as capable of being self-promoters, self-deluded, or frauds as anybody else.

Bottom line: if a headline sounds like one of those terrible "One weird trick..." internet ads, it's probably about the same level of reliability.

  • An example of a misleading headline I saw once: 'Work experience student discovers new species' (I forget if there was more along the lines of 'missed by scientists'). When I checked the details, this 'work experience' was a year-long internship at Kew Gardens, so finding a new plant species is cool but not stunningly unexpected. – Jessica B Oct 25 '14 at 5:59
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I was a judge at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in 2012, and I've seen some of what happens here. For those who aren't familiar, ISEF is the "Olympics" of science fairs. Everyone here has already won numerous local, regional, and national awards.

The level of science being displayed here is frankly ridiculous. Many of the students at the fair are completing work at or beyond PhD level. Many of them work with well-known and highly capable research labs or university faculty, and a good number of them perform research on their own using their ginormous brains.

Some of the research being performed here is, in fact, things like cancer cures. To give you an idea of the level of research, browse this award listing. Some good ones to call out from the 2012 fair:

These high school students are coming from across the globe and are performing top-notch research. So yes, there are definitely some teens who build lots of stuff, and they do it the same as you and me... find a problem, research it, and solve it.

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    What kind of research is "beyond PhD level"? But seriously, I have never heard of a serious achievement (for example something publishable in a high-profile scientific journal) in my field by a high-school student. – Bitwise Oct 24 '14 at 14:52
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    You are talking about "Some of the research being performed here". But who is performing the research? If this is just a student working (mostly) alone, how can they do it? The examples you gave usually require a well designed research that is years-long. If the student got the prize at 17, then what? He or she started doing PhD level research when they were 12 or 13? And if they are part of a large lab, how much of it is really their own independent work and not the work similar to an undergrad doing basic research assistant work? – Gimelist Oct 24 '14 at 15:32
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    @Bitwise Blackawton bees. – gerrit Oct 24 '14 at 15:58
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    I feel like there's some goalpost adjustment in this answer. The question is "Are there really teenagers who make scientific breakthroughs that leading researchers cannot?" And this answer describes high school students who are tremendously bright and do things which, from the perspective of a high school science fair, are ridiculously impressive, up to the point of actually being publishable, cited scientific work in some cases. But that's not what the OP was asking... – Pete L. Clark Oct 24 '14 at 17:54
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    I'm only qualified to comment substantively on the math part, but "doing wicked advanced math" is not what the OP is asking. The linked article mentions that two science fair kids went on to win the Fields Medal. So yes, they're talented! But the OP is basically asking if anyone has ever won the Fields Medal for their high school science project. Answer: not even close. The most impressive high school science fair math I know is a nice published paper by Steve Byrnes. It might be worth a PhD somewhere; it would not be worth a PhD at any school attended by a luminary like Steve Byrnes. – Pete L. Clark Oct 24 '14 at 17:58
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In some cases, it really is the case that a young child came up with some truly novel contribution.

George Bergman (now professor emeritus at UC Berkeley) published a paper about a number system with an irrational base. He wrote this paper when he was 12; you may note that the bottom of the last page, he writes what I assume is his academic affiliation: "Jr. High School 246, Brooklyn NY". He was interviewed by Mike Wallace, in which the introduction was very similar to what you've mentioned.

George Bergman is my father. I asked him once how that happened and I recall that he thought this idea was somewhat clever at the time and discussed it with his math teacher. The teacher agreed that it was clever and suggested that he write it up as an article for submission to a mathematics journal. He did so and it was accepted.

Do I think my father is smart? Of course. Do I think he's some sort of super genius who operates in a totally different manner than all of us other humans? Not really, I think he's someone who just naturally likes to mentally explore various spaces. He happened to be curious about mathematics as a kid (and still as an adult!) and happened to run into someone who encouraged him publish that idea at the right time.

Later on in life, he has certainly achieved quite a bit in the academic world, but at the same time has jokingly referred to research as "banging one's head against a wall until you find a soft spot", implying you can try hard for a long time and get nowhere, and then by chance have a huge breakthrough that leads to further huge revelations. Sometimes, a relatively blank slate with a lot of curiosity thrown at a problem can find that soft spot.

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In my experience there is a wish in the press to report science as spectacular as possible:

Instead of saying that some teenager did excellent research far beyond the level of his peers, i.e. something which may be suitable as a PhD topic, it has to be a "working fusion reactor". I guess that the guy knows exactly that he did not build a "fusion reactor" in the usual sense, which in my opinion does not make his achievement any smaller. The young woman working on the nanoparticles probably know exactly that this is not a "cure for cancer", but that it is a small building block of a huge technological/medical task-this does not make it less cool or amazing in my opinion, and any scientist would be happy to work with such talented and motivated people.

But saying that somebody does something absolutely amazing, and is in the top 1% of his age class seems not spectacular enough.

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