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When he was in elementary school, Scott Aaronson, like many mathematically precocious kids of his generation, dreamed of making his own video games. He had only the foggiest notion of what that entailed, however.

“I could try to imagine making my own game — I could draw a picture of what it should look like — but how does it come to life?” Aaronson recalls. “Maybe there’s some factory where they do all kinds of complicated machining to make Mario move around in the right way. Then a friend showed me this spaceship game that he had on his computer, and he said, ‘Here’s the code.’ Well, what is this? Some kind of summary of the game? ‘No, no, this is the game. If you change the code, the spaceship will do something different.’”

“I like to say that for me, this was like learning where babies came from,” Aaronson adds. “It was a revelation. And I was incredibly upset at my parents that they hadn’t told me earlier that this exists. Because I was already 11, and other kids had known programming since they were 8, and how would I ever catch up to them?”

As that anecdote attests, Aaronson was a young man in a hurry. Also at 11, he taught himself calculus, because he was intrigued by the mysterious symbols in a babysitter’s calculus textbook. The next year, when Aaronson’s father — a science writer turned public-relations executive — was transferred from Philadelphia to Hong Kong to spearhead a new marketing push by AT&T, Aaronson enrolled in an English-language school that offered him the opportunity to skip a grade and leap several years ahead in math.

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