First things first: Elliot Tanner is an amazing 13-year-old boy. On Thursday, he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in physics, and is among the youngest college graduates in American history. The graduate program there will begin in the fall.
After receiving his Ph.D., he wants to become a high-energy theoretical physicist. It may be the most widely known discipline of the mind—a field that aims, as the U College of Physics and Astronomy has formulated it, to “understand the fundamental forces of nature and cosmology.”
While some 13-year-olds consume exercise, dance, or TikTok, Elliott’s obsession is understanding nature and how it works. One day, he wants to become a physics professor, hopefully at the same university where he started taking lessons when he was 11 years old.
But in other ways, Elliot is 13 years old.
He lives with his mother, father, and Shih Tzu in the leafy neighborhood of St. Louis Park. He likes to play board games on Saturday mornings with the neighbor boys, like Monopoly or Codenames. His bookshelf is littered with fantasy books: Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Land of Stories” (and, well, a three-volume collection of “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”). He makes cardboard suits with friends, they organize sword fights outside. He’s excited to go to the Valefair theme park this summer. His mother gets angry at him for not cleaning his room. His voice breaks sometimes.
Like any other 13-year-old boy.
Except… Check out the first question about homework for one of his last college classes.
“Consider the tensor,” read Physics Task 4303. An equation involving electromagnetic stress tensors and the Minkowski scale followed. Then: “Write its components in terms of normal electromagnetic fields and relate this tensor to the quantities discussed earlier in the class, such as the Poynting energy density vector and the Maxwell stress tensor.”
This is the Elliott dual: that homework is just as normal as playing with the neighborhood kids is.
“I’m just a normal kid who goes to a different school,” he said.
Elliot’s accelerated flight was the one his parents initially resisted.
It was clear from his early days that Elliot was different: reading books on the board at three, reading high school books at five, and talking about quantum physics when kindergartners were talking about superheroes.
His parents aren’t those arrogant ones, who push the types that force Elliot to do things he doesn’t want to do. If anything, it was the opposite, with Elliot dragging his reluctant parents. He was given a professorship at Hamlin University to teach at the age of six. He started at Normandel Community College at nine and enrolled at U University two years later. The family heard people suggest they’re ruining Elliot’s life, and that he needs to be a kid. “Death and taxes and people think I don’t have a social life,” Elliott said wistfully. He hates when people assume about him.
Things were going smoothly in U until the Tanner family suffered the same pandemic-related struggles as any family. Elliott’s average grades suffered relatively. He insists his GPA would have been higher than 3.78 had it not been for the pandemic.
“It is much more difficult to focus on a Zoom lecture than it is to focus on a lecture right in front of you,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t as far apart as you had to work more on focus.”
His parents’ business dried up overnight from the pandemic. His father is a professional musician. All the carriages are gone. His mother is a photographer. After canceling most of her weddings, she started freelance website design and social media business. Things have improved, but the finances are not perfect.
Now there is the cost of high school. This is usually paid for by teaching or research. Not for Elliot. He’d probably be in trouble for all of his higher education—maybe $100,000—a surprise to Tanner.
“Everyone thinks he’s just going to be taken care of, that he’s going to get all these approvals, he’s going to get all these grants and grants and fellowships,” his mother, Michelle, said. “It’s just the opposite. Because people still think he has to prove himself, I guess?”
“There is no frame of reference, and I think that makes people anxious,” his father, Patrick, said. “Even though he has the same qualifications as everyone else, they just skip the qualifications and say, ‘Yeah, yes, yes, yes, yes – but – 13 years old, how can that be? “…we just want to be on the same level as everyone else.”
The family’s latest effort in college finances is a GoFundMe account that has raised nearly $50,000. Elliott will also apply for the National Science Foundation scholarship later this year.
One morning shortly before graduation, his mother was driving Elliot to class when Elliot impromptu stated that he had only a week left before the finals. Michelle froze. That was the moment when she realized that her 13-year-old son would soon graduate from college at an age where he would normally complete seventh grade. cried.
“Don’t stop to think about it – it’s just our life,” she said. “But it was just a beautiful moment to realize the grand scheme of everything.”
“I don’t think in the last 10 years there has been a lot of time to think, because there is always something coming very, very quickly,” Elliot’s father said. “General time frame, everything has been condensed.”
Elliot was Elliot, he put it into a physical perspective, about his place in the space-time continuum: “If my time passes so fast, I can hardly wander in space!” He paused, then paraphrased. “I just go at non-relativistic speeds.”
This summer, he won’t have lessons for the first time in a long time. His research project is over. Undergrad in his past.
On Thursday morning, Elliot’s father unbuttoned his son’s shirt and pulled his tie while Luigi’s stuffed animal, Nintendo’s character, watched from Elliot’s bed. “It’s hard for me to let go,” Patrick told his son.
In Mariucci’s 3M Arena on the U campus, Elliott sat amid a sea of about 1,200 graduate students from the College of Science and Engineering. His parents tried to find him. Michelle was holding a pack of travel tissues. Elliott’s name was finally called, one of the final graduates to have passed the stage. His parents and grandparents shouted and waved. Then, after a lot of texting to find out where his parents were sitting, Elliot found them. They hugged and said how proud they were.
“This was his culmination, realizing that he had made it, and that he had proven himself,” his mother said.
The family headed home before heading to Wildfire in Eden Prairie for a celebration dinner. While driving, Elliot was asked what he would order. Meditate, steak or fish?
“Nothing is too expensive!” His mother laughed. “We have a graduating school to pay for!”