Science Prodigy Zhao Bowen

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Chinese science prodigy Zhao Bowe has decided to study the genetics of intelligence:

After being identified early as a science prodigy, Zhao raced through China’s special programs for gifted students and won a spot in Renmin, one of the country’s most elite high schools. Then, to the shock of his friends and family, he decided to drop out when he was 17. Now, at 21, he oversees his own research project at BGI Shenzhen — the country’s top biotech institute and home to the world’s most powerful cluster of DNA-sequencing machines — where he commands a multimillion-dollar research budget.

Zhao’s goal is to use those machines to examine the genetic underpinnings of genius like his own. He wants nothing less than to crack the code for intelligence by studying the genomes of thousands of prodigies, not just from China but around the world. He and his collaborators, a transnational group of intelligence researchers, fully expect they will succeed in identifying a genetic basis for IQ. They also expect that within a decade their research will be used to screen embryos during in vitro fertilization, boosting the IQ of unborn children by up to 20 points. In theory, that’s the difference between a kid who struggles through high school and one who sails into college.


Zhao’s improbable rise at BGI began in the summer of 2009, when one of the firm’s founders, a geneticist named Wang Jian, noticed a skinny stranger lurking in the hall. “Hey, what are you doing here?” Wang asked the high school student with a spiky mess of hair. Zhao was 17, and he was there taking part in BGI’s science summer camp. “Why aren’t you in class?” Wang pressed.

“It’s boring,” Zhao said.

Wang took an immediate liking to him. On a hunch, he pushed Zhao into the hands of Li Yingrui, a recent college dropout who was already one of BGI’s leading scientists. “Do you know any Perl?” Li asked him. Perl is a programming language often used to analyze genomic data. Zhao admitted he did not; in fact, he had no programming skills at all. Li handed him a massive textbook, Programming Perl. There were only two weeks left in the camp, so this would get rid of the kid for good.

A few days later, Zhao returned. “I finished it,” he said. “The problems are kind of boring. Do you have anything harder?”

Perl is a famously complicated language that takes university students a full year to learn. So Li gave him a large DNA data set and a complicated statistical problem. That should do it. But Zhao returned later that day. “Finished.” Not only was it finished — and correct — but Zhao had even built a slick interface on top of the data.

The next morning Li marched into Wang’s office. “This guy is a genius,” he said. “You have to keep him.” So Zhao dropped out of high school, said good-bye to his mother and father — he is an only child, like most Chinese of his generation — and moved to Shenzhen to begin a new life.

Despite Wang’s open-door policy for young dropouts, BGI doesn’t provide much of a safety net for its incoming prodigies. Zhao had a rough arrival. His starting salary was minimal. He had no friends. “It was hard,” he admits. It was also crazy. Zhao didn’t drop out of just any high school. He dropped out of Renmin, one of the best prep schools in China. He had won his place there by acing a series of academic tests when he was in sixth grade. Zhao seemed to be forfeiting his future. He asked his parents for their blessing and they agreed, but with one condition: He had to get permission from Renmin.

The Renmin principal, Liu Pengzhi, had watched Zhao’s growth with pride; she had identified him early as one of the school’s — and hence the country’s — most gifted science students. She flew down to Shenzhen to tour BGI and meet Wang in person. Only then did she give Zhao her official approval, as well as a parachute: “If you change your mind, you can come back to Renmin and finish your studies anytime,” she told him.

That bit about Perl’s complexity cost the piece some credibility.


  1. Pax Dickinson says:

    “Perl is a famously complicated language that takes university students a full year to learn.”

    Umm, what? No.

  2. L. C. Rees says:

    True. The Camel Book is large. This makes it sound like a complete set of encyclopedias.

    Perl isn’t complex. It’s deranged. I’m advised that, if you drink the Kool Flavor-Aid, obfuscated line noise comes to seem normal.

  3. Haha. Exactly right. I was scratching my head when I read about Perl’s ‘complexity.’ Sure it’s complex in a deranged way like L.C. Rees above noted, but you can get cracking on code after an hour or so of tutorials.

  4. Ross says:

    Let’s not leap to judge these Perl comments without considering the lens through which we read them.

    Anglophones have the benefit of an alphabet the elements of which serve as symbolic markers for sounds. Chinese have an ideographic written language, which are deep abstractions of pictures of ideas. While this has enormous benefits (the guys from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing have no idea what the other guy is saying, but they all read exactly the same intent in a given sequence of symbols. (Needless to say, this doesn’t work with German, English and French.)

    Perl is more like a Western symbolic alphabet than Chinese. This would tend to ramp up the average Chinese evaluation of its complexity. Turn the tables: if there was a Chinese programming language whose symbols were deeply abstract pictures for actions, how quickly would a mono-lingual anglophone pick it up?

    But, yeah: Perl is pretty basic, no pun intended.

  5. Space Nookie says:

    This is that thing where the media starts talking about something you know personally and you laugh at what a bunch of idiots they are, and then they change the subject and you go back to assuming that they’ve done their homework and you can trust what they have to say.

  6. Steve Johnson says:

    “A few days later, Zhao returned. ‘I finished it,’ he said. ‘The problems are kind of boring. Do you have anything harder?’”

    There also aren’t problems in the camel book — because it’s not a text book; it’s a reference.

  7. L. C. Rees says:

    There also aren’t problems in the camel book — because it’s not a text book; it’s a reference.

    He was talking about the Camel Book in the singular. And putting it down is the first solution to the problem.

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