From “Santiago’s Brain,” Rolling Stone


Santiago Gonzalez, thirteen years old and a full-time student at the Colorado School of Mines, wakes up at 5:30am every morning during the academic semester so that he can spend an hour and twenty minutes developing iPad and iPhone applications in a programming language called Objective C, which he learned from a textbook when he was nine. That textbook and eighty-six similar volumes—Applied Finite Mathematics, Infinity in Your Pocket, Programming in C++, Dictionary of Physics—sit in a glass-fronted bookcase opposite his bed. A dozen stuffed animals—purple dragons, Donald Duck, a hangdog hound named Patrick, Shamu—reside permanently at the foot of the bed.

Sometimes after Santiago gets up he consults a notepad on his bedside cabinet: useful ideas come to him in the night. 'It might sound a little bit strange,' he told me when I visited him last spring, 'but I program in my dreams. I have a bug and the solution occurs to me and I jot it down.' The notepad is generally covered in lines of notional code ('M inherits from physics body with gravity etc.') and schematics of computer hardware: Santiago can visualize the activity his code kindles inside a machine. But sometimes a whimsical invention shows up on the notepad—an electronic knitting device called the 'Knittingator,' for example. Santiago sketched the complete unit, its subunits and its component parts ('guider,' 'spooler,' 'controller,' 'feed boom,' 'knitboard,' 'rail'), with both side and overhead views. He rendered the diagrams in three dimensions—Santiago can’t remember ever drawing a solid object two-dimensionally—so they made apparent the texture of thread layering itself in ranked diagonals around automated spools.

Having considered any relevant ideas on his notepad, Santiago walks over to his desk and picks up either his MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, depending on the morning’s programming task. He may glance up at a framed periodic table above the desk. He has cherished periodic tables since he was little, but a few years ago they acquired a fresh allure for him: physicists, he learned, had been trying to populate the table's 'sea of instability' by fashioning new elements with 'double magic' nuclei.

The house at that hour is dark and silent. Santiago’s parents, Yago and Vanessa, his little sister, Andrea, and his Boston terrier, Leo, are still asleep. Santiago likes the quiet; it helps him concentrate. In flannel pajamas—one of the tops in his rotation has a big black-and-grey snowplow on it—Santiago walks in a shortest-line path from his bedroom to the living room, where he sits cross-legged ('crisscross applesauce,' in his words) on the couch. He forgoes food, water and light. When the room is chilly he ignores the thermostat, although he has permission to turn up the heat. He does not bother to cover himself with a blanket, because fetching one would consume time and energy, and there are throw pillows within reach. He encircles himself with the pillows in a dubious effort to preserve body heat.

Motionless except for his fingers, lit primarily by his MacBook, Santiago sits and programs. He is a slim kid with a long oval face and luxuriant eyelashes and full, dark, grievously earnest eyes. He wears his short soft brown hair combed neatly forward, unparted; wispy incidental bangs curl at the edges of forehead. He works on a digital metronome app, or a multiplayer slide puzzle app, or an app for viewing the Mandelbrot Set fractal. He recently stopped working on an app that would create multiple coexisting desktops (for clutter avoidance) when he learned that developers at Apple had independently come up with the same idea.

Before his parents’ alarm goes off, Santiago walks upstairs and snuggles with them for twenty minutes. Then everyone gets up and Santiago brushes his teeth and gets dressed and eats breakfast, and Vanessa drops him off at the Colorado School of Mines campus in Golden, which is about thirty minutes from their home in the Denver suburb of Littleton.