First things first: Elliott Tanner is a remarkable 13-year-old boy. On Thursday, I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in physics, one of the youngest college graduates in American history. He’ll start a graduate program there in fall.
After getting his doctorate, he wants to become a high-energy theoretical physicist. It may be the most mind-expansive discipline known—a field that aims to, as the U’s School of Physics and Astronomy’s website puts it, “understand the fundamental forces of nature and cosmology.”
While some 13-year-olds are consumed with sports or dance or TikTok, Elliott’s obsession is understanding nature and how it works. Someday, he wants to be a physics professor, hopefully at the same university where he started taking classes as an 11-year-old.
In other ways, however, Elliott is just a perfectly normal 13-year-old.
He lives with his mom and dad and their Shih Tzu in a leafy St. Louis Park neighborhood. He loves playing board games on Saturday mornings with neighbor boys, like Monopoly or Codenames. His bookshelf by him is crammed with fantasy books: Harry Potter, JRR Tolkien, “The Land of Stories” (and, OK, a three-volume set of “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”). He makes suits of cardboard armor with friends, and they stage swordfights outside. He’s excited to go to Valleyfair amusement park this summer. His mom gets mad at him for not cleaning his room from him. Her voice sometimes cracks.
Like any other 13-year-old boy.
Except … check out the first question on a homework assignment for one of his final undergraduate classes.
“Consider the tensor,” read the Physics 4303 assignment. That was followed by an equation involving electromagnetic stress tensors and the Minkowski metric. Then: “Write its components in terms of the ordinary electromagnetic fields and relate this tensor to quantities discussed earlier in the semester, such as energy density Poynting vector and Maxwell stress tensor.”
This is the duality of Elliott: This homework is his normal just as playing with neighborhood kids is his normal.
“I’m just a normal kid going to a different school,” he said.
Elliott’s accelerated journey was one his parents initially resisted.
It was clear from his earliest days that Elliott was different: Reading board books at 3, reading high-school textbooks at 5, talking about quantum physics when kindergarten classmates were talking about superheroes.
His parents aren’t those overbearing, pushing types who force Elliott into things he doesn’t want to do. If anything, it’s been the opposite, with Elliott dragging along his reluctant parents. He got a Hamline University professor to tutor him at age 6. He started at Normandale Community College at 9 and enrolled at the U two years later. The family has heard people suggest they’re ruining Elliott’s life for him, that he needs to be a kid. “Death, taxes and people thinking I don’t have a social life,” Elliott said ruefully. He hates when people make assumptions about him.
Things were going swimmingly at the U until the Tanner family experienced the same pandemic-related struggles as any family. Elliott’s grade-point average suffered, relatively speaking; he insists his GPA would have been higher than 3.78 but for the pandemic.
“It’s quite a lot harder to focus on a Zoom lecture than one that’s right in front of you,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t quite spacing out as much as you had to work more on focusing.”
His parents’ work dried up overnight from the pandemic. His father is a professional musician; all his gigs of him disappeared. His mother is a photographer; after most of her weddings canceled, she started doing freelance web design and social media work. Things have picked up, but finances aren’t ideal.
Now there’s the cost of graduate school. This is typically paid for by teaching or research. Not for Elliott. He’s likely on the hook for all of his graduate education from him — perhaps $100,000 — to surprise the Tanners.
“Everybody thinks that he’s just going to be taken care of, that he’s going to get all these acceptances, he’s going to get all these scholarships and grants and fellowships,” said his mother, Michelle. “It’s completely the opposite. Because people still think he has to prove himself, I guess?”
“There’s no frame of reference, and I think that makes people nervous,” said his father, Patrik. “Even though he has the same qualifications as anybody else, they go straight past the qualifications and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah — but — you’re 13, how could this possibly be?’ … We just want to be held to the same standard as everyone else.”
The family’s last-ditch effort for college finances is a GoFundMe account that has raised close to $50,000. Elliott will also apply for a National Science Foundation grant later this year.
One morning not long before graduation, his mom was driving Elliott to class when Elliott mentioned offhand that he only had a week left before finals. Michelle frozen. It was the moment she realized her 13-year-old would soon graduate college at an age where he’d typically be completing seventh grade. She created.
“You don’t stop to think about it — it’s just our life,” she said. “But it was just this nice moment to realize the grand scheme of it all.”
“I don’t think for the last 10 years there’s been a lot of time to reflect, because there’s always something coming up very, very quickly,” Elliott’s father said. “The general time frame, everything has been condensed.”
Elliott being Elliott, he put it into a physics perspective, about his place on the space-time continuum: “If my time’s going too fast, I’m hardly going through space!” He paused, then rephrased. “I’m just going at non-relativistic speeds.”
This summer, he won’t have classes for the first time in a long time. His research project of him has ended. Undergrad is in his past from him.
On Thursday morning, Elliott’s dad buttoned up his son’s dress shirt and tightened his tie as a stuffed animal of Luigi, the Nintendo character, watched from Elliott’s bed. “It’s hard for me to let go,” Patrik told his son.
At the 3M Arena at Mariucci on the U campus, Elliott sat amid a sea of some 1,200 graduates from the College of Science and Engineering. His parents tried to spot him. Michelle clutched a travel package of tissues. Elliott’s name was finally called, one of the final graduates to cross the stage. His parents and grandparents screamed and waved. Afterward, after plenty of texting to figure out where his parents were sitting, Elliott found them. They hugged and said how proud they were.
“This was a culmination, a realization that he made it, that he proved himself,” his mother said.
The family drove home before heading to Wildfire in Eden Prairie for a celebration dinner. As they drove, Elliott was asked what he’d be ordering. Have I mused, steak or fish?
“Nothing too expensive!” his mom laughed. “We have grad school to pay for!”