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‘Just a normal kid going to another school’: 13-year-old U student graduates in physics


First of all, Elliott Tanner is a remarkable 13-year-old boy. On Thursday afternoon, he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Minnesota, one of the youngest college graduates in American history. He will begin a graduate program there in the fall.

After obtaining his doctorate, he wishes to become a high-energy theoretical physicist. It is perhaps the most expansive discipline known to mankind – a field that aims, as the University of Minnesota School of Physics and Astronomy website puts it, to “understand fundamental forces of nature and cosmology”.

While some 13-year-olds are obsessed with sports, dancing, or TikTok, Elliott’s obsession is understanding nature and how it works. One day he wants to be a professor of physics, hopefully at the same university where he started taking classes when he was 11 years old.

In other ways, however, Elliott is just a perfectly normal 13-year-old boy.

He lives with his mother and father and their Shih Tzu in a leafy area of ​​St. Louis Park. He loves to play board games on Saturday mornings with neighbors, like Jenga or Monopoly or Code Names. His library is full of fantastic books: Harry Potter, JRR Tolkien, “The Land of Stories” (and, OK, a three-volume set of “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”). He makes cardboard armor with neighbor friends and they organize sword fights outside. He is excited to be going to Valleyfair amusement park this summer. His mother gets mad at him for not cleaning his room. His voice cracks sometimes.

Like any 13 year old boy.

Except… check out the first question of an assignment for one of his latest undergraduate courses.

“Consider the tensor”, read Physics assignment 4303. This was followed by an equation involving electromagnetic stress tensors and Minkowski’s metric. Then: “Write its components in terms of ordinary electromagnetic fields and relate this tensor to quantities discussed earlier in the semester, such as Poynting’s energy density vector and Maxwell’s strain tensor.”

This is Elliott’s duality: these duties are his norm as much as playing with the neighborhood kids is his norm.

“I’m just a normal kid going to another school,” he said.

Elliott’s accelerated journey was one his parents had resisted at first.

From the start, it was clear that Elliott was different: reading class books at age 3, reading textbooks at age 5, talking about quantum physics when his kindergarten classmates were talking about superheroes.

His parents aren’t those bossy types who push Elliott to do things he doesn’t want to do. If anything, it’s the opposite, with Elliott dragging down his reluctant parents. He asked a professor from Hamline University to guide him when he was 6 years old. He started at Normandale Community College at age 9 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota two years later. The family heard people suggest they were ruining Elliott’s life, that he must be a child. “Death, taxes and people thinking I don’t have a social life,” Elliott said sadly. He hates when people make assumptions about him.

Things were going great at the U until the Tanner family experienced the same pandemic-related struggles as any family. Elliott’s GPA suffered, relatively speaking; he insists his GPA would have been above 3.78 if not for the pandemic.

“It’s much harder to focus on a Zoom conference than the one right in front of you,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t quite spaced out so much that you had to work more on focus.”

During COVID, her parents’ work dried up overnight. Her father is a professional musician; all his concerts have disappeared. Her mother is a photographer; after most of her marriages were annulled, she started freelancing in web design and social media. Things have improved, but finances are not ideal.

Now there is the cost of higher education. This is usually paid for by teaching or research. Not for Elliott. He’s probably responsible for all of his higher education — possibly $100,000 — a surprise to the Tanners.

“Everyone thinks he’s just going to be taken care of, he’s going to get all these acceptances, he’s going to get all these scholarships and grants and scholarships,” his mother, Michelle Tanner, said. “It’s completely the opposite. Because people always think he has to prove himself, I guess?

“There’s no frame of reference, and I think that makes people nervous,” said her father, Patrik Tanner. “Even if he has the same qualifications as anybody else, they go straight beyond the qualifications and say, ‘Yeah, but, you’re 13, how is that possible? … We just want to be held on the same level as everyone else.”

The family’s latest push for college finances is a GoFundMe account that has raised nearly $50,000. He will also apply for a grant from the National Science Foundation later this year.

One morning shortly before graduation, Michelle Tanner was driving Elliott to class when Elliott casually mentioned that he only had one week left until the finals. Michelle froze. It was then that she realized that her 13-year-old son would soon be graduating from college at an age when he would typically be finishing his seventh grade. She cried.

“You can’t stop thinking about it — it’s just our life,” she said. “But it was just this nice moment to realize the grand scheme of it all.”

“I don’t think in the last 10 years there’s been a lot of time to reflect, because there’s always something that happens very, very quickly,” Elliott’s father said. “The general time frame, everything has been condensed.”

Elliott being Elliott, he put it in a physical perspective, about his place in the space-time continuum: “If my time is going too fast, I’m barely going through space!” He paused, then rephrased. “I just go at non-relativistic speeds.”

This summer, he will not have class for the first time in a long time. His research project is complete. The first cycle is in its past.

On Thursday morning, Elliott’s father buttoned his son’s dress shirt and tightened his tie as a stuffed animal of Nintendo character Luigi watched from Elliott’s bed. “It’s hard for me to let go,” Patrik told his son.

At Mariucci’s 3M Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, Elliott sat amid a sea of ​​some 1,200 College of Science and Engineering graduates. His parents tried to track him down. Michelle clutched a pack of travel tissues. Elliott’s name finally came through, one of the last graduates to cross the stage. His parents and grandparents shouted and waved. Then, after numerous texts to find out where his parents were sitting, Elliott found them. They hugged and said how proud they were.

“It was a culmination, a realization that he had succeeded, that he had proven himself,” his mother said.

The family returned home before heading to Wildfire in Eden Prairie for a celebratory dinner. As they were driving, Elliott was asked what he would order. Steak?, he thought. Or fish?

“Nothing too expensive!” his mother laughed. “We have to pay for higher education! »

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