Jacob Barnett is largely believed to be a math and science prodigy. He began taking college courses at the age of 8. At the age of 10, he was allowed to sit in on a college-level Calculus class, but in order to prepare for the course and to ensure that he could meaningfully contribute to the conversations that took place, Barnett took it upon himself to teach himself the entire math curriculum of an average middle and high school— in two weeks. That same year, Barnett was fully admitted to Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis to begin his degree of condensed matter physics. Currently, Barnett is studying to complete his PhD in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada; being the youngest student to have ever been admitted to the program.
What is truly amazing about Barnett’s story is its inauspicious beginning. When he was only 2, Barnett was diagnosed with severe autism and many doubted that he would ever do things such as talk or tie his own shoes. Further, Barnett only began speaking shortly before the time he entered the third grade. After his diagnosis, Barnett’s parents enrolled him in a special education program. Reflecting on the experience, he claimed that the program failed to teach him anything. Rather, he was more preoccupied with watching how the world around him worked and figuring out why things naturally happened the way they did. In a Tedx talk he gave titled, “Forget What You Know,” Barnett claimed that an oversight that many people make is that sometimes it is important to take a break from learning in order to just think. Barnett’s largest takeaway from the talk is that people should strive to thoroughly apply the information and knowledge that they know to the world around them.
Going against the advice of nearly everyone around her, Barnett’s mother decided early on to disenroll her son from his special education program in order to home school him. This decision ended up shaping the rest of Barnett’s future as it afforded him the opportunity to focus on the subjects in which he excelled. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Barnett’s parents claimed that nearly all of his autistic symptoms and tendencies disappeared after his mother began homeschooling him.