From the start of class, it was obvious that Austin was exceptional. Though he was in the ninth grade when he took my class, based on his slight build and small stature, you might have wondered why a mid-schooler was taking Chemistry. But when you heard Austin speak, the question you were more likely to ask was “what is a college student doing in high school?”
When I’d pose the most difficult questions to the class, the questions nobody else could answer, Austin would always have some thoughtful and insightful discourse on the matter. And he was frequently able to expound far beyond the intended scope of the question. How Austin was able to do this without being regarded by his classmates as a “super nerd” was somewhat mysterious to me at first.
I’ll never forget one incident when I presented a question to which I naively thought I knew the answer. (Not that this was the first time I’d ever been stumped, mind you, but in the past I’d been able to avoid the appearance of ignorance). I was lecturing about subatomic particles. I presented the class with the masses of protons, neutrons, and electrons. I then posited that an atom’s mass should be the sum of the masses of the particles comprising it. Now the masses you’ll find in any periodic table are based on the standard of a single carbon-12 atom weighing exactly 12 amu. And a carbon-12 atom contains six protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons. So, without having tried this calculation myself beforehand, I asked the class to add up the combined masses of 6 protons, 6 neutrons and 6 electrons. To my dismay, the result was NOT exactly 12 amu. It was slightly more.
I was befuddled. I had a feeling that, this time, blaming “rounding error” just wouldn’t cut it. I was stammering, deciding whether or not to succumb to panic, when Austin came to my rescue. Raising his hand, he looked me calmly in the eye and stated, “I think I know where the extra mass goes.” To my great wonder, amazement, and delight, Austin wrote the equation E = mc2 on the board and proceeded to expound on relativity, and how the formation of elements from their subatomic particles produces energy. That this energy comes from the conversion of mass, and it can be calculated from the mass defect using Einstein’s most famous equation. Now I had just finished my PhD in physical chemistry, and I thought I knew the subject pretty well, but apparently, there were some holes in my education. To be upstaged by this diminutive ninth-grader should have been humiliating. And I was humbled, but Austin delivered his brilliant explanation with such a sense of wonder, intellectual curiosity, and joyful enthusiasm, that I totally forgot that I was supposed to feel humiliated.
The lessons Austin taught that day have become a part of my teaching. Even now, I present the subject of mass defect the same way: having the students perform the calculation and then discussing why the result is not as expected. Turns out that these are the instances when you learn the most in science, when a result is different from what you expect. Moreover, having been gently humbled by Austin, I’ve learned that my students have just as much to teach me as I have to teach them.
Even as a small child, Austin was an eager student of anything and everything he found interesting. Observing the world around him, Austin would hypothesize about its behavior, make careful observations, and revise his hypotheses as necessary. Not taking anything for granted, Austin became proficient at using the scientific method at an age years younger than most people are when they first hear the expression “Scientific Method”. As deeply as Austin’s loss hurts, we can at least derive some comfort in the fact that he spent his final moments engaged in the activity he loved most. That’s something we should all aspire to.
Now, ninth graders with a working understanding of relativity are still somewhat rare, even at the Academy. But the spirit of inquiry that Austin brought to class every day, the sense that the universe is comprehensible if we only care to observe, is alive and well. If Austin were here today, I’m sure he’d agree that among the greatest joys in life is learning about ourselves and this beautiful world we inhabit, and sharing that understanding with others. Saying “yes” to new experiences rather than putting them off for later. And it’s not just science – Any idea that piqued his interest, Austin would engage with fully. For instance, he also loved Nascar (Right? From early childhood, Austin loved anything with wheels). Studying drivers’ past performance on different courses, he would predict the outcome of the current race. He loved politics – Austin would get the numbers from county elections and try to use them to predict the results of national elections (mind you, this was before anyone had even heard of Nate Silver). He was even a formidable opponent in the game, Scrabble. Austin’s example urges us all, regardless of what our passion may be, to seize opportunities to learn and to share our learning and enthusiasm with others. That’s the true joy in learning – the Joy that nobody knew better than Austin.