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10-year-old is co-author in MIT conference

Carlos Kaufman explains plasma fusion to his third-grade class.
Carlos Kaufman explains plasma fusion to his third-grade class.

He may be co-author of a paper from a national scientific conference on nuclear fusion, but this little scientist still uses red and blue Styrofoam balls to make his scientific models.

Ten-year-old Carlos Kaufman, a fourth-grader from Dalton, MA, who contacted the MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) for help with a class "wonder pro-ject" last spring, became part of an MIT presentation planned for this week's plasma physics conference in New Orleans.

Carlos will be there with his parents, Liliana Gutierrez and Daniel Kaufman, and little sister, Carina. Like most scientists, he looks forward to mingling with fellow researchers.

"I'll probably be the youngest one there," said Carlos, whose mother described him as "just a peewee little boy who doesn't quite understand all this. He decided what he wanted to do and thinks it's fun that everyone helped him."

According to Ms. Gutierrez, her son spends his time much like any elementary school boy, taking "karate lessons and playing hockey. On his tour [of MIT's facility], they gave him cookies, so Carlos walked around with chocolate on his mouth. Just like a little boy would."

"At age 10, Carlos will be a published co-author in the proceedings of a scientific conference," said graduate student Robert Nachtrieb, who served as Carlos's mentor on the wonder project, teaching the youngster about neutrons, protons, electrons and nuclear fusion as a potential source of energy. Mr. Nachtrieb, who often gives tours of MIT's plasma fusion reactor to high school groups, said this was the first time he'd worked with someone as young as Carlos, who was just nine at the time.

"Part of the trick was to put things in terms he'd understand," said Mr. Nachtrieb about the three-hour tour he gave Carlos. "His concentration was remarkably good for a third-grader. But he went away with his head full of details and his mother said he fell asleep on the drive home."

Carlos became interested in nuclear power after reading about World War II and the nuclear bomb. "I wanted to know how and what fission was," he explained. As he began his research, he learned that nuclear fusion, as opposed to the fission used in the atomic bombs of World War II, would be an even more powerful form of energy than fission, if and when scientists come up with a method of making it work.

Carlos thought fusion would make a good topic for his wonder project, a school research assignment requiring a short written paper and 10-minute presentation to his third-grade class on a topic of his choice. But understanding and explaining nuclear fusion turned out to be a pretty lofty goal for an elementary school child.

Nuclear fusion involves the joining -- or fusing -- of the nuclei of atoms in a very hot gaseous -- or plasma -- state. Because it only works in the plasma state, fusion energy is often referred to as plasma fusion. Traditional nuclear energy is made by fission, the process of splitting nuclei in a solid state.

Encouraged in his research by his teacher, Beverly Favreau of the Crane-ville Elementary School in Dalton, Carlos contacted the PSFC after finding its web site. The PSFC has a considerable public outreach program run by Outreach Coordinator Paul Riven-berg, who arranged the tour for Carlos and his mother.

Mr. Rivenberg will help make the poster-session presentation at next week's conference. He explained his decision to include Carlos's name in the list of co-authors.

"The poster is about Carlos and how he learned about fusion," said Mr. Rivenberg, who also included Carlos's teacher and mother as co-authors -- "anybody who had something to do with educating Carlos" on the topic.

Carlos's poster will be on display at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans on November 17 as part of the Education Poster Session following Science Teacher's Day, a day of teacher training conducted by research scientists.

This year the educational components of the meeting -- which also include a plasma sciences expo of hands-on physics demonstrations later in the week -- are being organized by MIT, specifically by Mr. Rivenberg. Professor Miklos Porkolab, director of the PSFC and chair-elect of the American Physical Society's Division of Plasma Physics, is overseeing the entire 40th annual meeting (November 16-20) as this year's chair of the program committee. The presentation about Carlos's work will be a three-hour segment during this week of scientific discussion.

Carlos, who said his favorite subjects in school are "science -- and art and math -- but my real favorite is probably reading," will be at the conference with his family this time. But one day he could be there on his own. When he grows up, he's "gonna be a scientist on fusion," he claims. And does he plan to study at MIT? "Definitely. I'll go."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 18, 1998.

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