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Nate Sassoon ’18 Tackles the Origin of the Universe
When he was just three-and-a-half, Nate Sassoon recalls looking into the telescope in his apartment and asking himself, “How did the moon get here? How did the Earth get here? How did I get here?” It was around this time that he also performed “chemical experiments at home” that involved things like putting copper chloride on fire to watch it turn green. “I have always loved to learn. I have always loved to ask questions,” he says. A few years later, he voluntarily dissected a frog at home – the legs, the heart, the stomach, paying particular attention to the brain.

Now a BWL seventh grader with many more experiments, science tomes, and NOVA programs under his belt, Nate has completed his latest foray into science, an independent study called “The Origin of the Universe,” which culminated in a presentation to school administrators, science teachers, and his parents, who gathered around the long Conference Room table.

“I always feel like something needs to be created by something else,” he says of his life-long celestial wonder. “Some people have theories, but this just brings up more questions.” So, during the fall of his sixth grade year, Nate was pleased to learn that he would have the rare opportunity for a middle schooler to undertake the independent study and, perhaps, “ease these questions.”

Each Monday during his lunch period, Nate met with science teacher Tim Hoffman, who recalls how Nate would “quickly get his food and enthusiastically run up to my room, showing and telling me the progress of his project in between bites.” On Tuesdays, during the Middle School activity period, Nate worked independently in the library, researching popular theories about the origin of the Universe.

“The biggest challenge,” recalls Mr. Hoffman, “was to organize all the different theories into understandable pieces of information. Neither of us has a degree in astrophysics, yet Nate will not have trouble achieving one at this rate.”

If he was nervous to present his discoveries to the Headmaster, the division heads, his teachers, and his parents, it did not show. With deft use of a PowerPoint clicker and hand gesticulations, he shared his loyal, accessible interpretations of Universe theory: The Big Bang (he was “skeptical of how something so small” as one atom “could turn into something so big”); The Big Bounce, which presupposes the collapse of a previous Universe (it “solves some flaws of Big Bang, but it does not get around the ‘singularity problem’”); The Cyclic Universe Theory, which imagines an endless cycle of explosions and crunches (he’s attracted to its notion that the Universe is expanding and accelerating).

He looked into String Theory (his favorite among them as it “allows the possibility of an eternal Universe”); he was more dismissive of Intelligent Design Theory (“If there is a ‘perfect being,’ then how can the extinction of animals be explained?”) and The Steady State Theory, which establishes that the Universe has always been here (“It doesn’t make much sense”).

He concluded, “I think all of these theories have gaps and problems that cannot be explained yet. Due to the fact that none of these ideas can be tested and that all of them defy the laws of physics, nobody can say for sure what or who created our Universe.”

And, with speech that ran at the speed of light he referenced amply in his talk, he closed with his own theory of the Universe: “In the beginning, the primordial soup of quarks, electrons, gluons, nuons, and other subatomic particles was just loose and spread out. … Eventually, with time passing, this combined into atoms and molecules and different elements. Huge amounts of energy were released. Energy then transformed into matter. … While the gravity attracted the matter, dark energy pushed matter away, like in the Cosmological Constant, thus expanding the Universe … Gravity caused matter to clump together to form celestial bodies like planets and asteroids. Then, hydrogen and helium gas clouds clumped together to create stars. Then, the core heated up when the gravity pulled them enough; it started to initiate fusion that would go on until the death of the star.”

Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III commented that Nate’s presentation was “detailed, layered, and brilliant.” A few weeks after this, Nate won the Headmaster’s Prize at Middle School Arch Day.

Nate describes the chance to share his discoveries as a “big breakthrough” that encourages him to learn more. Time travel, space travel, evolution, and entropy are all ideas that pique his nascent mind. He credits BWL’s WISE (Women in Science Education) program for furthering his own scientific pursuits, recalling “Science Round Table” discussions with professional scientists on bioethical matters concerning cloning, dolphins, and food.

But even with all that, Nate makes it clear that his principle avocation is music. Accomplished with voice, cello, and piano, he has performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, Steinway Hall, with New York City Opera, and with the Interharmony Music Festival in Germany and San Francisco. This summer, he played piano at the Cremona Music Festival in Italy, and he currently studies at the Mannes School of Music. Though he says, “Until the day I die, I will always love science,” he also says, “If music fails me, I can become a scientist.”

Time will tell. Like the Universe itself, Nate will keep evolving. He recently has taken interest in film, for instance. As he aptly puts it, “When you learn something, it usually brings up more questions. There is never a full satisfaction of knowing.”


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