Before Michael Kearney could walk, he had started to master the English language. From as young as four months old – when he spoke his first word – Michael bore the hallmarks of a child prodigy.
Home-schooled by his parents, Michael’s intellectual development accelerated at a head-spinning pace. Fast-tracked through high school and college, Michael enrolled at the University of South Alabama in 1992 at the age of eight.
Two years later, aged 10, he walked out with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest ever university graduate – an extraordinary feat that remains unsurpassed to this day.
More academic success – including two master’s degrees – followed in his teens and 20s, culminating in a PhD and a (£759,000).
What happened since then is less well-documented. Beyond the late-2000s, Michael’s online footprint amounts to a few bread crumbs. Nowadays, the BBC understands the 35-year-old lives a private life, his last known whereabouts Nashville, Tennessee.
From master musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to gifted mathematician Ruth Lawrence, no two child prodigies are the same. Yet Michael’s case is a reminder that childhood precocity does not necessarily guarantee enduring success and attention throughout adult life.
Laurent Simons, a nine-year-old Belgian whizz-kid, shows all the same promise that Michael once did. He too possesses exceptional talents that he has channelled into academic pursuits. If Michael’s university record was to be broken, Laurent seemed like the kid to do it.
He first made headlines in 2018, when, at the age of eight, he graduated from secondary school alongside 18-year-olds. Like Michael before him, Laurent, who is said to have an IQ of 145, became the centre of media attention.
With his child prodigy credentials cemented, the next step was a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. As of November, Laurent was on track to complete the three-year course before 26 December, his 10th birthday.
Michael’s long-standing record, it seemed, was in his sights.
But earlier this month, the university said it would not be feasible for Laurent to complete the course before he turned 10, instead offering him a mid-2020 graduation date. His parents, Alexander and Lydia, refused the offer and immediately removed him from the course. He would continue his studies at a university in the US instead, they said.
In its defence, the university said if Laurent were to rush the course, his academic development would suffer. The university also cautioned against placing “excessive pressure on this nine-year-old student” who, it said, had “unprecedented talent”.
Record-breaker or not, Laurent’s academic progress so far has still been exceptional by historical standards. He is still expected to graduate from university, whenever and wherever it happens.
If the pressure to do so has become more intense, Laurent is not showing it. In interviews, Laurent seems self-assured and optimistic for a future flush with endless possibilities. Studying medicine and making artificial organs are among his to-dos.
Laurent has what Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, calls a “rage to master”, an unstoppable motivation to excel in his domain of ability. When Laurent is an adult, he may reach the limit of that ability, allowing other bright individuals of a similar age to catch up. As a result, Prof Winner said, Laurent’s talents as a child may seem less special as an adult.
“When prodigies do not make the transition to adult creator, they may feel like failures,” Prof Winner, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, told the BBC. “No one cares anymore that a 21-year-old can play the violin with great expertise or ace calculus or understand Latin and Greek.”
As a former child prodigy, Gabriel Carroll, now in his 30s, said he feels awkward when others talk about his illustrious past.
“I think gee, have I not done anything since then,” he told the BBC.
But Gabriel’s adult life has been far from a failure. An assistant professor of economics at Stanford University, Gabriel pursued a career in a field related to his gift: solving mathematics puzzles.
In his seventh grade SAT (standard attainment tests) exams, Gabriel achieved the highest score in California, including a perfect 800 in mathematics. In high school, his mathematical prowess was put to the test against the world’s best young minds at the International Mathematical Olympiad, where he won two gold medals in 1998 and 2001.
When speaking about his achievements, Gabriel struck a humble tone, more comfortable pointing out his weaknesses than his strengths.
“I feel less developed in the areas of social and emotional skills than perhaps I would have been had I not been so technically focused,” Gabriel said.
He credited his parents, both tech industry workers in California, with instilling him with that focus. They were “extremely important” in his development, teaching him mathematics and giving him puzzle books to solve from age six. Reflecting on his upbringing, Gabriel said he feels “very lucky on the whole” but does “have a couple of regrets when one thinks about how much agency one has as a child”.