When his peers were just starting high school, Hjalmar Rall was enrolling to study physics at the University of Pretoria (UP).
And having just collected his second degree, the 18-year-old boffin is the varsity’s youngest two-time graduate.
He recently graduated cum laude with a BSc Honours in physics and now he’s studying towards a master’s degree in physics at Stellenbosch University.
For his parents none of this comes as any surprise because from a young age it was clear Hjalmar, who hails from the little town Riebeek Kasteel in the Western Cape, was different from his classmates.
“I was mostly just cruising along,” he says of his school career, which he admits was not much of a challenge for him.
“It’s something you had to do, sit through all the years of it,” he adds.
At school, he always had a book with him so he’d have something to read after finishing his schoolwork ahead of his classmates.
“At first it wasn’t so bad, but in Grade 5 it just got so boring. I got 90s for all my maths things, and the rest was pretty much the same – it was too easy,” Hjalmar tells us.
His remarkable academic aptitude spurred his parents, Annette and Heinrich, to start home-schooling their only child from the age of 11.
In three years, Hjalmar completed his Cambridge A-levels, having raced through high school at twice the pace of most learners.
Heinrich, a consultant in the print industry, would spend his mornings teaching his son and the rest of his day working.
“He’s a very good teacher and he is at least partly responsible for where I am now,” Hjalmar says.
The family moved to Pretoria in 2017 after Hjalmar registered for a BSc in physics at UP.
While it was strange not being home-schooled, being at university didn’t feel too overwhelming, he says.
“University was busy – lots of studying but it was fun. I never felt like I was overwhelmed or anything and I never felt out of place.”
Suddenly being surrounded by older kids, and older new friends, also didn’t faze him.
“At that stage I had grown up a bit quicker and I’d always had friends who were older. I fitted in quite well, we were all writing the same exams, and we all had the same woes about how we hated the same subjects and so on,” Hjalmar explains.
Peer pressure was never an issue either, he says.
“I would have lunch with them in the cafeteria in the afternoon and we’d study together. I’d have coffee with some friends from maths every now and then so I was part of the social scene, but I would never go out at night or anything like that.”
Hjalmar has steadily kept his eye on his ultimate goal, which is to one day become a physics lecturer – just like his inspiration, the late American physicist Richard Feynman.
“The Feynman lectures are still considered something that every person must read at some stage,” Hjalmar says.
“The whole point is we’re trying to learn as much as possible about how the world works, and if you're learning all of that you can't help but share it. That’s the best part of this whole thing – sharing all this knowledge, [and that’s why] I want to be a lecturer in physics.”
The next step for Hjalmar is a PhD. He’s planning to specialise in quantum information theory, which he says is not really explored in South Africa.
It’s a little like computer science, he explains.
“It deals with how efficiently can you run algorithms and calculate equations. At the moment quantum computers can't do very much, so we are calculating the theory to improve them so we can do more with them.
“Other fields are relying on this one too, so if you advance quantum information theory you're going to do a whole lot for quantum computing in general,” he adds.
“Maybe there’s a big discovery to be made,” he muses, “But at the moment there are a few big questions everyone is hoping to answer and maybe I'm one of the people who’ll contribute to solving one of them.”
For now, he’s working on his master’s degree, occasionally catching up with friends in Pretoria via long WhatsApp calls and having coffee dates with his old school friends from Riebeek Kasteel, where he’s living again.
Despite his many accomplishments, he doesn’t consider himself a whizz-kid or a genius.
“I do find physics a bit easier than a lot of people, but I prefer to be humble because physics is a very humbling field,” Hjalmar says.