Every Stanford student has his or her own story of discovering that their roommate, friend, RA or that-girl-in-section-whose-name-I-can-never-remember is actually ridiculously amazing and even somewhat famous. One of my friends met “the Toby Gerhart” a few months ago. My circle of computer scientist acquaintances speaks with a certain awe about some of their entrepreneurially successful compatriots. My own such friend — well, perhaps you might recall “Cube Boy” of frosh talent show fame.
Judy Dutton, in her new book “Science Fair Season,” provides an in-depth exposé on another breed of mini-celebrity quite familiar on this campus — those students who made their names on the high school science fair circuit. The Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF to those in the know) is a high-stakes game: one in five competitors have patents pending on their work, winners are eligible for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money and university and professional recruiters prowl the arena. Talent is abundant, judging opaque and it feels as though the whole world is watching.
Against this backdrop, Dutton chronicles the lives of 12 teenagers leading up to their ISEF debuts. They are a diverse bunch and certainly not the stereotypical lab-coat-and-specs that one might expect to find; among them is a child actress, a Navajo boy living on a reservation, a leper (yes, you read that correctly), a juvenile delinquent, numerous child prodigies and Stanford’s own Kayla Cornale ’11. Dutton devotes a chapter to each student’s story, and this is where the author’s inner journalist — and suspense novelist — shines. Her research is meticulous and thorough without being tedious, and her pacing, both within each episode and throughout the book, is superb. The reader ends each chapter rooting for its protagonist, and by the time the Intel chapters roll around, it feels like the season finale of a reality television show — you can cut the tension with a knife. Dutton writes about a science fair — the science fair — with all the glitz, glamour and nail-biting suspense of an Oscars presentation, leaving the reader hanging onto every word.
Dutton’s inspired treatment of this niche subject is just what today’s America needs; she has turned science into a sport as competitive and compelling as football. Given all the recent White House initiatives to galvanize science education across the country, “Science Fair Season” is perfectly poised to become the “Spellbound” of our generation.