Soon after we meet, it becomes apparent that the barrier between Max and me isn't that big pile of pommes frites in the middle of the table. It is, rather, my total ignorance of physics.
We are at a patio table at Benita's on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and I am splitting those fries with an 18-year-old in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. An 18-year-old who asks rather offhandedly, "Shall I explain relativity?"
Meet Max Comess, who in the fall will be a senior at Concord High School in Santa Monica and who recently joined a pretty exclusive club: He scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT test.
As he dips a fry into the Dijon sauce, I attempt an ice breaker: "So what did you think while you were taking the test?"
Max's green eyes focus on me.
"I didn't think anything. If you think on those tests, you're going to get screwed up."
It's not that he hadn't given the test some thought beforehand. Indeed, he took the Princeton Review, a preparatory class offered in Los Angeles.
"They said, 'You're too advanced, so we're going to give you a private tutor,' " one who came to his home in Marina del Rey.
Did it help? Max shrugs.
"It's hard to say," he says.
He does know that he missed one question on the verbal section and none on the math. Because of some rejiggering of the scoring a few years ago to make interpretation easier, it is possible to miss one math and four verbal questions and still rack up the maximum score.
In any event, a 1600 is "an academically significant event, certainly," says Kevin Gonzalez, spokesman for Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., which administers the SAT. In the 1996-97 test year, the latest for which such data are available, only 453 of the 2,050,000 students taking the test scored the maximum. Of the 134,750 who took it in California that year, 47 scored 1600.
The average SAT scores for 1998, released this week, were 505 verbal and 512 math, a total of 1017. Test-takers in California averaged 497 verbal and 516 math, a total of 1013.
Susan Packer Davis-Hille, administrator of Concord High, a 60-student private school, remembers opening the envelope with Max's test results.
"I just started wearing glasses this year, and I didn't have them on." She thought she'd misread the score, but sure enough, with glasses, it was 1600. "I screamed, 'Somebody get Max, quick!' "
"Sit down," she told him. "You have to hear this." Max's reaction? Max says he "was amazed."
Though he tends to downplay the significance of such tests as predictors of college success, it has not escaped Max's attention that an SAT score of 1600 is apt to get the attention of admissions officers at the colleges on his wish list.
"Caltech is probably my first choice" on a short list that includes MIT, Stanford, Harvard and UC Berkeley, he says.
Still, he adds modestly, the SAT "is not really a knowledge test. It's more a test of how you take tests. People can have different kinds of intelligence. Some can be very good at music and art and not be very good on an objective timed test."
He determined years ago that he wanted to be a physicist. Why?
"It may sound a little bit silly," he says, "but I want to travel faster than light," to probe gravity, maybe even generate it, to explore the connection between electromagnetism and gravity.
Before I can conjure up an appropriate question, Max is talking about negative radicals and gamma rays and black holes and wormholes. Wormholes?
"It's where you don't have to travel faster than light, just in a different way, a higher dimensional space where the laws of space could be different."
The conversation segues to such things as the fourth dimension and the gravity well. By now, Max is scribbling formulas on my note pad. They might as well be Sanskrit. Let's see, this looks like p = mvj.
So, what's the ultimate challenge for a future physicist? Max doesn't hesitate: "Contact with an extraterrestrial species."
Do they exist?
"I'm not sure, but I think there's a pretty good chance that there could be intelligent life out there and, no, I don't think they came to Earth. I've never seen little green men."
About that wish to travel faster than light, presumably we're talking about being shot into space? Yes, Max explains, not by rocket but "through a better means of propulsion. Instead of using Newton's Third Law, which is kind of a tired old way to get around," he's talking about "using some sort of drive, like antigravity drive. It's more like curbing space. . . ."
Earlier, at Concord, I'd asked Davis-Hille and her mother, school administrator Sonya H. Packer, about Max.
"Max is generally head and shoulders above any of the kids," Davis-Hille said. "Brilliant, insightful. And a bit of a loner."
"He won't come into his own until college," Packer added.
As the pommes frites dwindle, Max talks about his future.
"I'd either want to work for a university or for the government." Teaching doesn't intrigue him: "I'm interested in research." And working for a big corporation definitely doesn't interest him. .
For now, the conversation has turned to nanotechnology, which, Max explains, has to do with things like the potential for developing tiny robots to repair human cells or alter DNA.
"Nanotechnology might make it possible that you could eat anything you want, be perfectly healthy and live forever," he says.
Would he want to live forever? "Well, forever's a long time, but I think a few thousand years might be nice. The universe is a big place, and I want to see it before I die."
Born in Santa Monica, he so far has made it to England, Israel and Alaska.
His scientific bent does not appear to be genetically predestined. His father, Richard, who had a small stereo cable manufacturing business, is making a midlife career switch and just took the bar exam. His mother, Peggy Rex, is a set lighting technician.
He Hopes to Make the World Better
Max holds up his right arm to show the initials on his silver ID bracelet: MDC, for Max David Comess.
"They're also Roman numerals," he points out. "For some reason they add up to 1600," his SAT score.
Not that Max (a Cancer) is into numerology or star signs or sun signs.
"I put very little faith in astrology. Zero. I'm a skeptic. I like empirical evidence. I'm not very good at taking anything on faith."
I glance at the paperback he is carrying: "The Mageborn Traitor," a fantasy novel by Melanie Rawn. Max shrugs.
"It's escapist. It's not what I would consider a classic. My favorite book is 'Lord of the Rings.' I love Tolkien."
As for movies, it's "action. Any sci-fi fantasy. And I like adventure movies like Indiana Jones."
He also loves going to Dodger games and is starting flying lessons. And surely it goes without saying that he's a whiz at chess?
"I never had the need to get good enough that I would sit there and memorize those openings," he says. "I love Monopoly, but you have to play with people who like to do a lot of wheeling and dealing."
We discuss where he might like to be photographed for this article. Max is adamant: "I don't want to be portrayed as some computer geek because I'm not. I use computers, but I'm not particularly happy about it. Computers haven't really fulfilled their promise. I want a computer where you turn it on, and it works perfectly. Something intelligent, something that can learn and can self-diagnose. And can interface with people. People can't interface digitally."
He muses about the possibility of a computer that would be sort of an H.G. Wells time machine, enabling one to travel instantly back or forward in time at the press of a key. This leads us back to physics.
"Do you want me to explain relativity to you?" Max offers again.
Well, yeah, sure.
"For example, if you're going at 50% of the speed of light, you might be going at that speed relative to the Earth but relative to something else you might be going at a different speed." But he loses me among the "blue shift" and "red shift" and gamma rays.
Perhaps sensing this, he asks, "Have you ever heard of the twin paradox? Well, there was one twin on Earth, one on a spaceship at close to light speed." I remember now--when the space-traveling twin returns to Earth, the earthbound twin is older, because of the discrepancy between Earth time and space time. Right?
Max is already on to something else. He tells me (somewhat superfluously) that he is "very curious about the universe, about the laws and forces and how things operate. I'm also very hopeful of the possibility of making a better world, almost a Utopian idea. I hope that there will be another Enlightenment."
For starters, he'd like to see massive political reform.
"I'm tired of the apathy in this country. At the turn of the century, voter turnout was 90%," before people got fed up with big-money campaigns financed by special interests, what Max calls "legal corruption." He thinks all commercials for candidates should be subsidized by the government, with tax breaks to TV networks that air them.
And why, he asks, are big corporations allowed to pay seven-figure salaries to those who lobby for them in Congress?
"It isn't fair."
As the last French fry disappears, Max is thinking once again about nanotechnology. He smiles.
"It would be cool if you could change your species, morph into something else."
And what would he choose to be?
"If I could change, I'd change into a dragon. Dragons are very powerful, majestic, and they breathe fire and they fly."
Does he believe in dragons?
"Well," says Max, "I've never seen one."