Elliott Tanner will formally graduate with a BS degree in Physics and a Minor in Mathematics on May 12, 2022. He is one of the youngest students in the university’s history, and he will be one of the youngest Bachelor of Science holders ever globally.
His final undergraduate research project was on “Determining the Momentum Distribution of Cosmic Muons.”
Elliott is an only child, so his parents did not have any way to compare Elliott’s early advanced learning. “We thought it was just natural progression but he hit milestones early,” said Michelle.
Elliott spoke his first words at seven months. In a year, he was completing short sentences. By age 2, Elliot could recite the alphabet. “And then he learned it in Swedish right after that,” his father Patrik pointed out.
Elliott’s mom said that her son started reading on his own and doing math by age 3. “I think the thing that made us go ‘Oh wow, he is different,’ were his math abilities at age 3,” she noted.
“He would have these little magnetic numbers, they were his little lovies instead of stuffed animals,” Michelle Tanner revealed.
She said that Elliott carried his numbers wherever he went. At age 3, he was doing addition with them on the play rug in his room. By age 4, he was giving math lessons to anyone who would listen.
When he was 5, Elliott was briefly enrolled in the local kindergarten but was quickly taken out of school when it became clear that a traditional education experience would not be a good fit for him.
“He was talking about particle accelerators when he was 5 years old, when other kids were pretending to be Superman on the playground,” said Michelle.
She acknowledged, “I think we kind of have to step out of the box sometimes to realize that this isn’t a normal situation.”
“We knew early on that Elliott was gifted and that he wouldn’t get what he needed in a regular school setting,” recalled Patrik Tanner about his academically advanced son.
So, Elliott’s parents looked to homeschooling, followed by online classes, to support his inquisitive nature and appetite for knowledge.
“He just consumed curriculum faster than I could buy it. He was done with algebra in a month and done with geometry in two weeks,” explained Elliott’s mom.
“As parents, we were terrified,” Michelle Tanner admitted. But Elliott excelled, and she became active in the gifted community, serving four years on the board of the Minnesota Council of Gifted and Talented Choices Chapter as Recorder, Vice President, and ultimately President.
Elliott became a member of Mensa, the High IQ Society, at age 6.
Following a few years of homeschooling and a high school curriculum that he breezed through at age 7 and 8, Elliott was only 9 when he began taking community college classes, and he earned an associate’s degree two years later.
Patrik said that “Michelle spent countless hours researching our best options for his schooling and [drove] him to and from Normandale College four days a week.” While Elliott was in class, his mom would sit at a table in the hall and work on her laptop.
Elliott aced College Algebra, Physics for Scientists & Engineers, Trigonometry and Calculus — earning a 4.0 GPA while also tutoring students twice his age.
Elliott Tanner discovered his passion for physics when he took an Introductory Physics class at the community college. “For a long time, I wanted to be a mathematician,” Elliott told LiveScience. “Then I was exposed to a physics class that really intrigued and inspired me.”
“I started taking some of the introductory physics courses they have you take to go through the math major and I realized that it was just so amazing and cool,” he recalled. “It can tell you how the world works, and I just sort of fell in love with it.”
“Physics is just a lot more interesting to me, it is math but with intuition.”
When he was 11 years old, Elliott transferred to the University of Minnesota to major in physics and math. The ease with which Elliott transitioned to college life came as a shock to his professors and his significantly older classmates.
For Elliott, “being exposed to people that are just as passionate about physics as he is has been incredibly rewarding for him,” according to his mom.
Elliott stated that he wants to understand the deepest secrets of the universe. “I have an incredible passion for physics,” he declared. “It’s been one of my favorite things to do.”
Elliott Tanner maintained a 3.78 grade point average and participated in undergraduate research as well as tutoring classmates. “I just take great pleasure in teaching people,” Elliott said.
Elliot remains one of the youngest students at the University of Minnesota. Now that he’s about to finish his undergrad degree, Elliott has been accepted into the University of Minnesota’s Physics PhD program. He will be the university’s youngest-ever Ph.D. candidate.
Elliott wants to be a High Energy Theoretical Physicist – an expert in the study of the building blocks of matter and the fundamental forces between them – and ultimately a professor of physics. He is particularly interested in neutrino physics, or subatomic particles with no electric charge, often nicknamed “ghost particles” for their speed and mysteriousness.
Some people may wonder if, perhaps, the Tanners are pushing their son too hard.
“We’re not pushing, we’re being pulled,” Michelle Tanner emphasized.
His parents just want the best for Elliott.
Unfortunately, Elliott’s acceptance into the PhD program has not come with the financial support students would normally receive from the university. Graduate students often work as Teaching Assistants for free tuition and a salary to help fund their studies.
However, Elliott wasn’t offered any financial aid or a tuition waiver from the University of Minnesota. While Pell grants, financial aid, and a presidential scholarship helped fund his undergraduate education, his family wouldn’t be able to afford the full tuition cost of graduate school – roughly $100,000 for the five-year program, even as an in-state resident.
“We were shocked to discover the university did not extend a financial package to Elliott,” said Michelle Tanner. “Only 3 percent of incoming physics PhD students in the US do not receive a tuition waiver and/or financial package.”
You would think if Elliott Tanner is that brilliant, the university would surely pay for him to attend. But despite Elliott’s tutoring experience, the physics department opted not to extend a financial package to Elliott because they have apprehensions about giving him teaching responsibilities, which is a big part of the program.
“We never imagined sending a 9-year-old to college, let alone a 13-year-old to graduate school, so we never had the time to build up a college fund,” said Elliott’s mom.
On behalf of her son, Michelle tried contacting physics societies, corporations, The John Kent Cooke Foundation, The Davidson Institute, and many other avenues in search of scholarships, fellowships, or grants, but was unsuccessful.
“It was worrying but my mom has always advocated for me. She is completely awesome and super cool, and she has helped me get through tough times and struggles and she has always been one of my greatest supporters,” said Elliott.
Elliott’s parents finally decided to launch a GoFundMe campaign, and as a result of all the media coverage, they have already raised enough funds to cover the first two years of his doctoral program.
“We are so grateful that our friends, family, community and the general public have supported Elliott,” said Michelle Tanner. “He wouldn’t be able to continue his studies without the support.”
Age is Just a Number
When Elliott isn’t busy studying, he enjoys playing guitar, Minecraft, and hanging out with his neighborhood friends – even though they’re in middle school and he’s in college. They ride bikes together, play Dungeons and Dragons, and make armor out of cardboard. And just like the other kids, Elliott goes trick-or-treating on Halloween. He likes to dress up as Albert Einstein or theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, his favorite scientist.
“People seem to have a preconceived notion that Elliott’s childhood has been stolen from him,” Michelle Tanner told LiveScience. “People also assume he must be lacking in social skills.” But this couldn’t be “further from the truth,” she asserted. “He still very much is a kid and the only difference is he goes to school in a different building.”
“He’s just a super sweet kid,” Patrik Tanner said about his son.
According to Elliott’s personal website, which labels him a “radically accelerated learner,” his favorite musical artists are Steely Dan, Billy Joel, and The Beatles. He is a big fan of “Young Sheldon,” which chronicles the life of young Sheldon Cooper as a whiz kid before he goes on to be a physicist in “The Big Bang Theory.”
“Young Sheldon has shown some of the hardships I have faced,” Elliott said. “And I do appreciate seeing other gifted people on shows.”
Congratulations, Elliott! You have a bright future ahead. We look forward to hearing about your accomplishments in furthering the field of physics and becoming a young professor. No doubt you will teach physics at the University of Minnesota someday!