The button was round, red and small, but most important, it was never alone. Before the first question was asked at the academic competition, before the kids handed their cellphones to their mothers and the rules were read, Aadith Moorthy's finger was on the buzzer. It stayed there even during breaks, or hovered just above it, shaking more than slightly. When a question was asked and he pressed the button, it made its loud, nasal sound, and the judge looked toward Moorthy's table and said his school's name, "Palm Harbor," and Moorthy spoke: "Eight-point-eight-two times ten to the second."
"No," the judge said. "That is incorrect."
Moorthy is 16 and a senior at Palm Harbor University High School. His most defining feature is that he is correct, always.
He recently received a letter from the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT and advanced placement exams, informing him that he was one of 11 students in the world to receive a perfect score on the AP Calculus BC exam. More than 100,000 students took the test in 2013.
"You should be very proud of this extraordinary academic achievement, which reveals both a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding of this foundational college course," wrote Trevor Packer, senior vice president of the College Board.
There is more. Earlier this school year, the Pinellas County School Board honored Moorthy for earning a perfect score of 2400 on the SAT. In 2010, when he was in the eighth grade, he won the National Geographic Bee.
And now, competing against Clearwater and Countryside's academic teams at Clearwater High School on a recent Wednesday, Moorthy explained to the judge that his answer was not incorrect. The judge was.
His answer was equal to 882, the correct answer. He had just given the number in a different form called scientific notation.
"Five points to Palm Harbor," the judge said. "Controversy averted."
Moorthy, who explains without irony that his first name is pronounced "audit," does not remember what he scored on the IQ test he took in first grade. He must have done all right, as he skipped second grade. He took gifted classes and fell neatly into the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor.
"It's been a dream to coach him," says Chris Briggs, a teacher at Palm Harbor and the coach of Moorthy's academic team. "Just see how fast he can answer physics, geography questions. It's very rare to run into students like these. It's rigorous work. There are no weekends."
His father works for Nielsen Catalina Solutions, aligning advertisements with people's interests. His mother is a homemaker. Aadith is an only child. "My parents push me to succeed, and they have been very supportive of me," he says.
When he is not at school or an academic meet, Moorthy is tutoring elementary school students, researching energy at the University of South Florida, or studying.
He studies a lot. He does not love studying, but he appreciates the role it plays in allowing him to do his absolute best. "Perfect practice makes perfect," he says. "The practice has to be appropriate and performance-prepared."
Before he sat for the SAT, Moorthy took more than 25 practice exams. He said he taught himself more than 5,000 new words. "Pulchritudinous," which means beautiful, and "recalcitrant," defiant of authority.
"Brain power is humanity's most important asset," he says. "It's the one asset that never dies."
Most of all, Moorthy is fascinated by energy. He wants to study how to store energy such as sunlight so that it can be used later, and he wants to do this at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He believes this is the most important thing he can use his brain for, and the most efficient use of his life. He is a big believer in efficiency, eschewing shopping malls because they take too much time. He eats cupcakes by cutting them into pieces.
But his quest for efficiency creates something of a paradox. To be at his best, to get the most use of his computer-like brain, he has to shut it off. He has to go to sleep.
How to relax?
Moorthy does not remember the last movie he saw in theaters. The last book he read for fun was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. He does not date. "I believe that's for a later time in life, when I can be less distracted."
But there is one thing he loves to do, one thing that clears his head every time. He sings.
He has been doing it since he was 4, mostly South Indian classical music, sometimes even performing at festivals.
Every evening, when all the kids have been tutored and the college stuff has been researched, when the floor at the academic competitions has been wiped clean with his victory, Moorthy takes an hour. He sits cross-legged on the floor of his room. He looks out the window. Sometimes, when it's the right season, he sees hummingbirds. He sings. His mind, he says, "drifts to a calm world." Here there are no buzzers, so he sleeps.
He dreams about school, just like his classmates. But whereas they might dream about showing up in their underwear, or forgetting their homework, Moorthy does not. He dreams of bubbling in the correct answers. He dreams of acing tests.
Lisa Gartner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @lisagartner on Twitter.