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(Alessandra Petlin)

The Freshman at MIT Who is Revolutionizing Nanotechnology

Teenager Saumil Bandyopadhyay has harnessed cutting-edge physics to upend industries ranging from automobiles to astronomy

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Saumil toiled away at his infrared detector for more than two years, roughly half of his “professional” career. Because he worked with his dad on the project, the line between laboratory and home life blurred long ago. Anu became accustomed to hearing the key turn in the lock late at night, and her husband’s and son’s voices fill the house as they continued to debate why the gadget wasn’t working yet, scribbling equations at the dinner table. Today, they are co-authors.

Just before leaving for his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Saumil finally passed his driver’s test, though with an uncharacteristically imperfect score. (“The road was really curvy and downhill at the same time,” he explains.) In truth he’d looked forward to traveling around Cambridge mostly by bike and the Boston T. Anu armed him with new sheets and a shower caddy, but she worried that her son had selected a coat that wasn’t heavy enough to ward off the Cambridge winters. It was insulated with an aluminum-containing fabric, and Saumil seemed just as interested in its experimental possibilities as its capacity to keep him warm.

MIT’s culture of cheeky cleverness has agreed with him: For instance, the entryways at one dorm are lettered A-J, but there is no entryway I. “In math, the convention is that the square root of negative one is I,” Saumil explained. “So I is imaginary.” He was Skyping some nights with his parents, who scrutinized his physique for evidence of another Space Olympics-like starvation episode. Luckily, he has located a Bengali restaurant that offers dishes more tempting than the undergrad fare of falafel and ramen, if not quite in the same league as his mother’s.

Semiconductor physics is still his comfort zone, but Saumil is exploring something new in the electrical engineering department. “I don’t even know what that is yet,” he says. For now, he's off to Quizbowl practice. 

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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