Jonathan Santos has always been a tinkerer, a boy who said it could be done. At age 10 he wanted to control his environment from his bed, so he ran wires across the ceiling to open the door and switch on the lights.
At 13, he wanted a better boomerang. He built one that returns to its master by fluttering gently down from overhead instead of whipping around behind the thrower.
At 15 Santos dreamed of flying, but the $46 an hour he would have had to shell out for lessons kept him to his box kites. While other ambitious youths might have started saving money, Santos, a 17-year-old senior at Bowie High School in Prince George's County, figured out a way to make planes fly more cheaply.
His invention, a special airfoil attachment for the standard airplane wing, made him one of two grand prize winners at the 34th International Science and Engineering Fair in Albuquerque, N.M., sponsored last week by the Washington-based Science Service.
Along with a New Mexico student who won with a project about the structure of crocodiles' teeth, Santos topped some 560 finalists from 50 states and 12 foreign countries--including Japan--in what the fair's sponsors call "the World Series of science fairs."
He brought home $1,000 in cash, an expense-paid trip to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize ceremony this December, $500 worth of scientific equipment for Bowie High School and several free trips to various scientific installations across the country. Not bad for this third child of parents of Philippine descent, whose father is a NASA engineer.
School officials, like his parents, are thrilled. "We don't believe there's ever been another Prince George's student to win the award in the 34 years it's been held," said school spokeswoman Kathleen Snyder.
But Santos, who began his study of aerodynamics "by throwing weird things off a hill to get them to fly," is almost matter of fact about his discovery, which in model airplane tests, increased fuel efficiency by 27 percent.
"I just wanted to do a project to seek a more efficient aircraft," he said yesterday.
"I mean, what happens to all these people with private planes sitting at home under tarps?"
Santos is only a slightly above-average student at Bowie, but his knack for creative problem-solving sets him miles apart from the crowd, according to his chemistry teacher, Linwood Adams.
For example, most Bowie students would carry a small calculator in their pockets. Santos built his into his notebook.
School rules prohibit carrying Walkman-type radios with earphones in the halls, so Santos hollowed out a book with a silver jacket and ran the wires up his sleeve. It worked for a while, but the book's title, "Flying--By Jonathan Santos" eventually gave him away.
"I've always had an interest in defying things," Santos said. "They told me I couldn't bring my Walkman, so I found a way."
Santos, who plans to enter the University of Maryland this fall, doesn't think he is the stereotype egghead, although he acknowledges, "I'm pretty strange." He says he gets a kick out of playing jokes on classmates and amazing them with his wizardry, but otherwise shuns the cars, girls and beer that dominate the life of others at his age. He prefers to work alone instead.
Like generations of inventors before him, Santos studied the flight of birds for years to learn more about aerodynamics.
To a less mechanically minded reporter, he explained that the characteristic oval shape of an airplane wing that produces its lift during flight also causes a swirling vortex of air at the wingtips that inhibits lifting ability. Airplanes use up to 40 percent of their fuel to combat that effect, he said.
Santos noticed that in certain situations, birds extend their feathers in a fashion that virtually eliminates that vortex.
Because he could not duplicate the strength properties of wingtip feathers, Santos tried more than 60 plastic shapes to come up with the best form of airfoil to simulate the wingtip effect. He tested his model wings in a 10-foot homemade wind tunnel.
That's the only problem with having a smart child, says his mother, Lucila. " This prize is okay, if you don't mind having a wind tunnel in your living room for two years," she says. "I hope I can move it soon."