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Achievement to the Max : Max Comess Aced the SAT; Now He Can Get to Work on the Universe

September 04, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

Oh.

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. .

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