The question was a snap: "State and compare the laws of mass energy and momentum conservation in Newtonian and relativistic mechanics . . ." At least it was a snap for Ruth Lawrence, who scribbled the answers to this and 80 other mind bogglers in a four-week Oxford University exam "as if taking dictation," in the words of an awed fellow student. When the marathon test ended, Lawrence had finished first in a field of 192. The average student struggles through just 31 such questions. Lawrence's feat was remarkable for anyone, but all the more so for her, since she is only 13 years old. This month she became the youngest person ever to graduate from Oxford, taking an honors degree in math. Said her tutor Mary Lunn, of St. Hugh's College, Oxford: "Ruth is exhausting. It takes all my time to keep up with her."
Lawrence's amazing ability has been nurtured by her father Harry and her mother Sylvia. A onetime computer consultant, Harry quit work in 1977 to concentrate on making prodigies of the girl and her younger sister Rebecca. Neither child has ever been to school. All their primary and secondary learning has come from Harry and Sylvia, at desks set up in the family kitchen in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. Partly as a result of this cozy tutorial, Ruth passed her high school-level exams at nine. Two years later, she won a scholarship at St. Hugh's College, scoring first in a field of 530 candidates on the university's entrance examination. Harry moved her into an off-campus rented flat, which he shares as academic coach and Praetorian Guard.
On campus, Harry conveys Ruth to and from classes on a tandem bicycle, he in front and she in scholar's mortarboard and gown in the back. Harry has won little public admiration with his protective and often garrulous ways, dropping a parental curtain between Ruth and the journalists trailing the celebrity scholar. "Her father . . . never closes his mouth," wrote a frustrated London Daily Express reporter, and "clings to his priceless pearl like a limpet." Meanwhile, in Huddersfield, Sylvia manages a job as a computer consultant and programmer while teaching Rebecca, who finished high school last month at eleven.
Ruth has astounded the faculty at St. Hugh's with the range of her intellect and the ease with which she masters subjects. In one seminar, while other students were struggling with a complex theorem that an academician was elaborating on a blackboard, Lawrence pointed out an error that the lecturer had made. She raced through Oxford's three-year course in two years. Her test papers were spun out with little apparent need to pause over the most puzzling problems. "I think while I write," she explains with a shrug. Mathematics appeals to her spirit of discovery, she says, because "it's all to do with how things fit into interesting patterns and then working out how and why they do."