Breakfast of Champions

He scaled an intellectual Everest at age twelve. What's he like at sixteen? Meet George Thampy.

A broader base is what Thampy is seeking as he and a group of two dozen whiz-kid peers from the heartland tromp past Phog Allen Field House on a chafing July day in Lawrence, Kansas. What would otherwise be a sleepy summer pace on the University of Kansas campus has received an injection of glitterati with the weekend dedication of the Dole Institute of Politics, an edifice that features what is said to be the world's largest stained-glass American flag. The building's namesake, ex-Senator Bob Dole, has come to town to observe the dedication in person.

Thampy has trekked to Lawrence to attend a prestigious three-week academic workshop for budding intellectuals known simply as TIP (Talent Identification Program). While the program is held in KU buildings, it is run by Duke University -- an intriguing juxtaposition in light of the two schools' longstanding rivalry in men's basketball. Here George is part of an intensive curriculum cluster dubbed "Investigations to Physics." Every weekday morning for three weeks, he joins a battalion of similarly gifted kids shepherded around campus by Columbia University graduate and TIP teaching assistant Wendy Yip.

Before she arrived for the Lawrence TIP session, Yip had not heard of George Thampy. Upon touchdown, however, one of Yip's fellow TA's recognized George's name on her roster and remarked that he'd competed against him a few years back at the Scripps Howard bee. And when Yip and some residential counselors wandered downtown to catch a flick, Spellbound was the featured fare. For Wendy Yip, George Thampy is ubiquitous in Lawrence.

Jennifer Silverberg
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition

"My friends were impressed when I told them he was my student," says Yip, who plans to continue her studies overseas, at the University of Cambridge.

On the walk to class, a diminutive girl from Greenville, South Carolina, is chatting up Thampy. It's fairly evident that she has a crush on the Maryland Heights prodigy. It's difficult to tell whether the feeling is mutual, though Thampy converses politely about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -- "my kind of movie," he says, because of "all the literary figures."

Upon reaching his classroom on the second floor of Malott Hall, Thampy holds the door open for sixteen-year-old Georgia resident Emilie Hermann, who thanks him loudly and sincerely for his chivalry. An hour later, in front of the class and TIP physics instructor Oather Strawderman, Hermann delivers a polished oral presentation on quantum foam, a "relatively new theory that can help explain the earliest moments of the Big Bang and is at odds with Einstein's theory of relativity," the young Atlantan notes.

Just the day before, Thampy had made his presentation to the class. The topic: Einstein's theory of relativity. Despite the seemingly contradictory nature of Hermann's spiel, the question Thampy poses to his colleague is hardly combative.

"I once read a book -- Timeline, by Michael Crichton -- where a man travels back into time through wormholes," Thampy prefaces. "How would you explain that?"

"I read it, too, and the way he described quantum foam was pretty accurate," replies Hermann. "If you could freeze time at that second and stuff exotic matter into [the wormhole], who knows what could happen?"

Right. We all remember that stuff from high school. (Not.)

After oral presentations, Yip's cluster takes a breather to play Frisbee outside. The Frisbee circle consists of a half-dozen kids, joined occasionally by the likes of Thampy. George is not a graceful athlete, yet he competently cradles the first disc thrown in his direction, and his return fire is more or less on target. The second time, however, is not the charm, as George flubs the catch and the yellow disc falls to the ground. To Thampy, such a motor-skills shortcoming is trivial: In the grand scheme of things, there's only so much that can be accomplished in the Frisbee-tossing arena, unless you're a show dog on Letterman.

After lunch the group gathers for a guest lecture on solar neutrinos from KU professor Bruce Twarog. Save for his hippie hairdo, Twarog looks and sounds faintly like a Midwesternized Campbell Scott, actor son of George C. Twarog ditches the podium and darts around the front of the room and the first few rows of students, peppering his lecture with animated, off-the-cuff quips.

"What they expect is a podium lecture -- relatively dry," explains Twarog, whose son, Nat, is a TIP alum who'll be starting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall. "The hard part is to try and get kids engaged on their own, rather than what they've heard in class. Textbooks are probably the worst offender when it comes to education, because they're so prepackaged. The textbook gives you questions rephrased from the textbook. So kids focus on keywords. The biggest challenge is getting students to think through problems themselves and arrive at an answer that they haven't been told before."

Twarog's ideal student is one who is driven not by textbook cues but instead by "intrinsic motivation," a catchphrase uttered by Strawderman in his lab as he chastises some students for half-assing their oral presentations. "Intrinsic motivation -- the presentations you give will be only as good as you want them to be," he says, encapsulating the essence of the term. "TIP is about wanting to learn."

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