Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, September 3, 1999  |  Number 17
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Summer in Cyberspace

by Sharon Butler

Remarkable high-school student shares his computer talent with Fermilab

Benjamin Tsai Seventeen-year-old Benjamin Tsai never wastes a summer day sprawled on the beach. Like a new-age Buddha, he'd much prefer to spend his time lolling on the eight-fold path in cyberspace, sitting contemplatively still in front of a computer screen.

Last spring, Tsai's mother spied the name of one of Fermilab's physicists, G.P. Yeh, in a Chinese-language newspaper published in New York City, where the Tsai family now lives, after emigrating from Taiwan. Could her son come work with Dr. Yeh for the summer?

Tsai arrived just after the July 4 fireworks (with his mother and siblings in tow), and created some fireworks of his own. In less time than it takes to say "Om," he had already scanned the Web, downloaded and installed free software for managing clusters of computers (the kind Fermilab experiments are adopting for their scientific analyses), and written a program to monitor them.

I've been sent to interview this remarkable summer student, and I'm intimidated. His resume is longer than mine, even though I'm old enough to be his mother. For the past three summers, he's been taking courses like contemporary mathematics and mathematical reasoning at the Center for Talented Youth sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. At his high school, the famed Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, he set up UNIX servers and installed the LINUX operating system. Last year, he enrolled in the Science Honors Program to study chaos theory, fractals and calculus in the complex plane. He founded and operated a mini-Internet system from 1995 to 1997, writes programs in various languages, including C, and scored 5 out of 5 on the advanced-placement computer science exam. No wonder: He bonded with computers at the age of 11.

Tsai is parsimonious with his words even when I try to draw him out. Our conversation goes something like this:

"How did you first get interested in computers?"

"I'm not sure."

"Did you have a computer at home (back in Taiwan)?"


"What kind?"

"A 286."

"What did you like about it?"

"Well, I don't like it very much anymore."

"Why not? Is it too slow?"


"But you liked it in the beginning, no?"


"What did you do with the computer?"

"I did a little BASIC programming."

"Did you teach yourself?"

"Yes, I had a book."

"What book was it--Programming for Dummies?" [It's a vain attempt at a joke.]

"I don't think the Dummies series was out then."

"Can you tell me what it is you like about computers?"

"Not really."

"Do you like the logic of it?"

"It's nice."

I suspect that Tsai doesn't want to waste precious uploading time on a computer ignoramus like me, but his scientific colleagues here all have the same experience: Tsai speaks in "short, precise, strong" statements. He is "quiet and moves slowly," they say, "but he thinks fast. "

So I'm not insulted. In fact, Tsai seems mildly amused whenever I ask him to explain the most mundane computer terms. Isn't CONDOR the name of a New World vulture that soars among the peaks in the high Andes? Tsai receives my question with one of his enigmatic smiles.

CONDOR, it turns out, is a batch system, one of several Tsai is evaluating this summer to help scientists solve their data management problems. "He's contributed noticeably, especially given that we asked him to look into very complex things," said Fermilab scientist Igor Terekhov.

And what has Tsai been doing for fun?

In the evenings, when everyone else is watching ER, he might be testing a mail delivery system for his server (which he uses to host Web sites for friends) or writing new programs for his school's Web site. If he has "nothing better to do," he said, he might play an on-line game like Everquest.

But he's not all computerware. He plays the violin, practicing a little every day. On occasion, he might even pull out his 90-millimeter Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope to spot some of the brighter objects in the sky. Still, he concedes, "My computer usually comes first."

When Tsai leaves Fermilab to return to school in September, he'll be back to contemplating more mundane things, like early admission to ˇwhere else?ˇthe Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

last modified 9/3/1999   email Fermilab