10 Standout Nerds of 2011


It was the year of the nerd -- even at the Emmy Awards. Actor Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" won outstanding lead actor in a comedy series.
It was the year of the nerd -- even at the Emmy Awards. Actor Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" won outstanding lead actor in a comedy series.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for TV.com

Sure, there was a time when being labeled "nerd" -- a broadly-encompassing term for a person who's myopically devoted to science, computers, and/or esoteric cultural pursuits like "Star Wars" trivia or "Dungeons & Dragons" -- was the nadir of uncoolness. Nerds were considered clueless about fashion and, well, to put it politely, socially and romantically challenged. Think of Anthony Michael Hall, the archetypical teen science nerd in 1980s movies "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club," and it's easy to understand why only the truly brave dared to fly their nerd flags high -- revealing their enthusiasm for trigonometric functions or disclosing their desires to compile a thesaurus for one of J.R.R. Tolkien's elf languages.

But since then, things have changed. In 2011, nerds ruled -- totally. Maybe it had something to do with the smash success of the CBS TV sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," which depicts the adventures of three physicists and an aerospace engineer who are as charmingly endearing as they are geeky. Or perhaps it was recently-deceased former Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs' influence that instilled in us a healthy respect for the transformative power of nerdiness. After all, his obsessive focus on perfection and occasional disinterest in personal hygiene and social graces certainly didn't stop him from launching revolutionary and wildly popular computers and mobile gadgetry.

In fact, even the world's celebrities seem to have realized that the nerd's characteristic disregard for fashion dos and don'ts is, well, a pretty cool fashion in itself. Many of today's young male heartthrobs are skinny, bespectacled, awkward -- in a word "nerdy."

So, without further ado, in no particular order, here are 10 nerds we held dear in 2011.

10
David Saltzberg
Actors Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar of "The Big Bang Theory" fame hang out at Comic-Con.
Actors Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar of "The Big Bang Theory" fame hang out at Comic-Con.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for TV.com

If you wrote a TV comedy about baseball players, you'd get a zillion complaints from baseball fans if the characters incorrectly explained the infield fly rule or confused Bobby Bonds with Barry Bonds. So it's only logical that for a TV show about nerds, who by definition are obsessed with minutia, you'd need to get every last detail correct.

That's why producers of the hit CBS comedy "The Big Bang Theory," which centers around a group of fictional physics nerds at California Institute of Technology, have enlisted the guidance of an actual credentialed physics nerd, University of California Los Angeles professor David Saltzberg. A product of Princeton and the University of Chicago, Saltzberg did his post-doctorate research at CERN, the prestigious European research center. When he's not teaching classes at UCLA or traveling to Switzerland to work with the Large Hadron Collider, a massive device that scientists are using to answer some of the most fundamental questions in physics, the 40-something professor peruses the show's scripts, looking for science-related mistakes.

As Saltzberg explained in an interview with Wired, writers for the series also often call upon him to suggest a particular experiment or problem that the characters should be working on. For example, in one instance, Saltzberg actually supplied the show with a physics problem about the axion -- a hypothetical elementary particle -- that he'd been trying to solve in his own work. He's also on the set during tapings and sometimes rehearsals, in case one of the fictional science nerds needs some help writing an equation on the whiteboard [source: Watercutter].

9
Simon Pegg

British actor, writer, producer and comedian Simon Pegg has appeared in two of the "Mission: Impossible" films with Tom Cruise, in addition to the 2009 remake of "Star Trek," and co-wrote and starred in the 2004 comedy hit "Shaun of the Dead," among other movie credits [source: Alejo]. But Pegg's steadily-rising success hasn't caused him to forsake his geeky roots.

To the contrary, in 2011, Pegg published a memoir, "Nerd Do Well," which, among other things, celebrates his youthful obsession with "Star Wars." He took to kissing a picture of Princess Leia each night before going to sleep, and eventually got the opportunity to reveal that tidbit to the princess herself, when he met actress Carrie Fisher while appearing at a Comic-Con convention [source: Penguin Group].

He calls the book "an account of my journey from ordinary nerd to nerd participating in the world that made him nerdy in the first place," but admits that his first desire was to depict himself as "a suave, handsome superhero and his robot butler ... a tricked-out vigilante with innumerable gadgets, a silver tongue and deadly fists." Unfortunately, he quips, "I don't even have a robot butler. Not any more" [source: Pegg].

8
Jad Abumrad
Jad Abumrad won a genius grant in 2011.
Jad Abumrad won a genius grant in 2011.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Winning a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship -- popularly known as a "genius grant" -- is one of the greatest accolades that a nerd can receive. It's not just an official certification that you have a brain so irrepressibly awesome that your mere presence should prompt mere mortals to kneel down and shout, "We're not worthy!" But it's also recognition that the esoteric thing -- whatever it is -- that you've been devoting so much neural activity to over the years has turned out to be really important and worthwhile.

In 2011, one of those elevated to this brainiac pantheon includes Jad Abumrad, a radio host and producer for the nationally syndicated program "Radiolab." Abumrad is an upgraded, multimedia version of Bill Nye or the late, great Carl Sagan. He's a radio documentarian whose gift is to be able to take complex topics -- the nature of numbers, the evolution of altruism -- and make them not just comprehensible but entertaining, even to those of us who normally struggle to follow the plot developments on "Fringe."

Abumrad happens to be a talented composer on the side, and he draws on his musical skills to orchestrate the dialogue, music and sound effects for his documentaries, weaving all these elements together in a pleasing symphony of data. Moreover, he's also astute and enough of a broad-ranging autodidact to be able to conduct skillful interviews with experts in a dizzying array of fields [source: MacArthur Foundation].

7
Adam WarRock

In recent years, nerds have become so cool they've developed their own music subgenre -- Nerdcore hip-hop -- that provides a startling lyrical contrast to conventional rappers' celebrations of street toughness, bling and beautiful females. The rhymes of Nerdcore rappers more frequently deal with typical nerd obsessions like science fiction and fantasy games like "Dungeons & Dragons." One of the founders of Nerdcore hip-hop is a Web designer-turned rapper named Damian Hess, more famous by his stage name of MC Frontalot, who began rhyming into his computer in 2000 as a joke, for an audience that he described as "a couple of Star Wars figurines." Another seminal figure in the movement is MC Hawking, aka Ken Leavitt-Lawrence, whose métier is satirical gangsta rap in the synthesized voice of physicist Stephen Hawking [source: Williams].

But 2011's rising star Nerdcore artist was Adam WarRock, aka Eugene Ahn, who abandoned a career as a labor attorney with a Washington, D.C., law firm in 2010 to pursue his passion for rhyming about comic books and science fiction [source: Hill]. In the summer of 2011, WarRock earned a glowing review on Wired.com for the "Browncoats Mixtape," a musical tribute to the TV series "Firefly," a short-lived, obscure mashup of science fictions and westerns that has developed a cult following among nerds [source: Z]. WarRock, whose voice brings to mind a younger, calmer version of Eminem, makes a plaintive appeal for the program to be revived: "Please, maybe you weren't a fan of westerns or the Fox channel / maybe you hated rap music that's understandable / maybe it opened your mind for all to see / and the sky's a place where you long to be free" [source: Z].

6
David Eagleman
David Eagleman, handsome neuroscientist
David Eagleman, handsome neuroscientist
David Levenson/Getty Images

Some might argue that neuroscientist-turned-bestselling author David Eagleman, with his lean, angular good looks and dark shirt-dark jacket hipster wardrobe, is a bit too conventionally cool to be a genuine nerd. But look at it this way: Anyone who wins a 2011 Guggenheim fellowship to research the topic of "neurobiology and genetics of synesthesia at the perceptual, neurobiological, and genetic levels, with an aim to understand differences in conscious sensory experience across the population," is blithely tap-dancing out on a ledge where mere non-nerdy intellects fear to tread [source: Guggenheim Foundation].

Indeed, Eagleman survived an actual childhood fall from a rooftop, in which his most vivid memory is of time seeming to slow down. That experience may be what ultimately inspired him to spend most of the past decade at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where he's an assistant professor of neuroscience, tracing the neural and psychological circuitry of the brain's biological clocks. In addition to his work as director of the university's Laboratory for Perception and Action, Eagleman also has become an accomplished writer. His 2010 story collection, "SUM," has been published in 27 languages, and a nonfiction digital book/iPad app, "Why the Net Matters: Six Easy Ways to Avert the Collapse of Civilization," was a finalist for the Digital Book World Innovation Awards. In 2011, he published "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," a look at some of the more mysterious areas of the conscious mind, which made the New York Times Bestseller List [source: Eagleman.com].

5
Jonathan Coulton

We previously noted that scientists, engineers and technology whizzes are the new rock stars, but perhaps we should qualify that, because we've also found a rock star nerd who actually is a rock star ... literally. To be sure, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton has pursued an unorthodox but cleverly paradigm-shifting route to his fame, one that certainly resonates with nerds everywhere.

A couple of decades ago, Coulton moved to New York City, where he hoped to make a living as a musician. Instead, he got a job as a software wonk. Show business rejection didn't crush his protean spirit, though. Instead, Coulton not only kept writing songs, but repurposed his own plight to write a semi-autobiographical song, "Code Monkey," about the loneliness of a computer programmer. Instead of cooling his heels in the waiting room of some record label, hoping in vain for a producer to listen to his demo, Coulton put the song up on his Web site for anyone to give it a listen. It soon was reposted to Slashdot, a tech news site that's long been a watering hole for nerds on the Net, and the next thing you know, Coulton had morphed into Bruce Geeksteen. Being reposted by Slashdot "was the equivalent of me being discovered by some impresario or getting to go on the Ed Sullivan show," Coulton later explained to NPR [source: Blumberg].

He followed "Code Monkey" with a string of other similarly tech-nerd-themed songs, which NPR, that widely-accepted arbiter of musical taste, has praised as "funny, melodic and pretty nerdy." As an example, the song "Re Your Brains" imagines an e-mail written by a former work colleague who is now a cannibalistic zombie. But even more impressively, NPR reported in May 2011 that Coulton is making darn good money -- about $500,000 in 2010 alone -- despite not having a contract with a music label. And since he doesn't have to support a posse of handlers, most of that money goes straight into his pocket [source: Blumberg].

4
Jane McGonigal
Sony Computer Entertainment of America President and CEO Jack Tretton speaks with Jane McGonigal during the 2011 Web 2.0 Summit in October 2011.
Sony Computer Entertainment of America President and CEO Jack Tretton speaks with Jane McGonigal during the 2011 Web 2.0 Summit in October 2011.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you're a dedicated game geek, you've probably aroused dismay and disapproval from parents and peers who see controller addiction as the digital equivalent of the opium pipe -- the one that turned unsuspecting naïfs into addled fiends in Victorian horror stories. But thanks to Jane McGonigal's 2011 New York Times bestseller "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World," you now have a legitimate comeback. The book makes the paradigm-rocking argument that the 10,000 hours the average young person spends gaming by the age of 21 is actually a positive thing.

McGonigal writes that we're drawn to video games because game designers have hit upon core truths about what makes us happy, and have created virtual environments that fill those needs adeptly, providing us with challenges, rewards and victories that are lacking in our real lives [source: Amazon.com]. In her own work, McGonigal, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., is focused upon elevating your consciousness beyond your zombie slaughter count on "Left 4 Dead 2." She's a designer of alternate reality games -- with names like "World Without Oil," "Cruel 2 B Kind," and "The Lost Ring" -- that challenge players to solve real-world problems, such as poverty, hunger and climate change through planetary-scale cooperation. Her games have been used as brainstorming and problem-solving tools by major organizations -- the American Heart Association, the International Olympic Committee and the World Bank Institute, among others. She's staged games in more than 30 countries. McGonigal doubles as creative director for Social Chocolate, a startup that aims to create games that ordinary people can use to improve their health and well-being [source: Janemcgonigal.com].

3
Cynthia Breazeal

Whether you're a sci-fi nerd or an ordinary civilian, whenever you hear the word "robot," you probably think of "Star Wars'" C-3PO or the profane, wise-cracking, booze-swilling Bender on the animated TV series "Futurama." You probably don't think of a Predator Drone, or some personality-less robotic arm toiling away in an auto factory in South Korea.

We like robots with anthropomorphic qualities, who look, act and communicate more like us than like soulless machines. That's where Cynthia Breazeal comes in. As the founder of the Personal Robots Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, she's leading a program to develop a future generation of personal robots, if not robots with personality. Already, Breazeal has some impressive achievements in the robotics field. Her lab has produced a number of robots designed to interact with people. For example, with the help of the late Hollywood special effects wiz Stan Winston, she created Leonardo, an automaton with plushy fur, capable of making facial expressions and complex gestures, and even of learning simple tasks. In 2006, Wired magazine chose Leonardo as one of the "50 Best Robots Ever" [source: Capps].

In 2011, Breazeal oversaw researchers' development of projects such as the Huggable, a teddy-bear-like therapeutic companion, designed to provide the same sort of emotional feedback to humans that they might get from a companion animal. Huggable's plush, cuddly appearance conceals a synthetic skin equipped with more than 1,500 sensors, video cameras, microphones and wireless networking capabilities, designed to perform movements, gestures and expressions in a way that conveys "a personality-rich character, not a robotic artificact" [source: Personal Robots Group].

2
Arun Mathews and Francis Kong

Dr. Arun Mathews, a New Mexico-based hospital intensive-care physician, and Dr. Francis Kong, a health information technology consultant in San Francisco, discovered back in medical school that they two things in common: a desire to help people and a love of fantasy gaming. The two stayed in touch as they embarked on their separate careers, and when Mathews got the idea to come up with a fantasy and sci-fi gaming study tool for medical students, he called his old pal to get him onboard as a partner.

In 2008, the outfit, which they dubbed Nerdcore Learning, debuted its first product, and in 2010, they unveiled The Healing Blade, a table-top card battle game that takes place in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world peopled two rival clans -- the Apothecary Healers, named after real-world antibiotics, and the Lords of Pestilence, who are stand-ins for actual disease-causing bacteria [source: Dolan]. One such villain, for example, is Proteus mirabilis, which also happens to be the name of a bacterium commonly found in the human gastrointestinal tract that can cause infections and the formation of stones if it reaches the urinary tract [source: Murphy]. The Healing Blade's flamboyant, flowery lore is encrusted with details about the treatment of such pathogens, so that the game can help medical students to commit critical information to memory as they take a gaming break from hitting the books [source: Dolan]. In 2011, the company released a beta of a Web-based version of the game.

Mathews told American Medical News that the concept came to him while he was making his rounds in the intensive care unit one evening, when he realized the similarity between the complexity of gaming strategy and the choices he had to make when he was deciding how to treat sick patients with antibiotics [source: Dolan]. A portion of the proceeds from Nerdcore Learning also supports a charitable venture started by the two doctors, which provides Internet-connected gaming consoles to patients in children's hospitals around the country [source: Nerdcore Learning].

1
Steve Jobs
Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs holds up the new Mac Book Air after he delivered the keynote speech to kick off the 2008 Macworld conference.
Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs holds up the new Mac Book Air after he delivered the keynote speech to kick off the 2008 Macworld conference.
David Paul Morris/Stringer/Getty Images North America

OK -- so choosing the late Steve Jobs for a list of the year's breakout nerds is a little like, say, declaring Eric Clapton to be the best blues-rock guitarist of 2011. The Apple co-founder and visionary behind such world-rocking innovations as Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad would have merited such a distinction just about every year for the past three decades. But 2011, alas, was the year that Jobs powered down at the too-young age of 56, and that event triggered a whirlwind accolades and emotion that established beyond a doubt that Jobs was the Michael Jordan of nerds, the standard by which all other geeks should be judged.

But it wasn't just the candlelight vigils, mementos left outside Apple Stores, and the memorial "iGod" T-shirts for sale on eBay that confirmed Jobs' status as the geek of all geeks [sources: CNET, eBay]. It was his 2011 authorized biography, by Walter Isaacson, that set in stone all of Jobs' nerdish eccentricities. For example, the book describes how Jobs, even as he lay terminally ill and sedated in the hospital, insisted upon critiquing the design of the oxygen mask on his face; after ripping off the mask and refusing to wear it, he demanded that nurses bring him five different options for the device, so that he could pick the design he liked best [source: Gladwell]. Oh, Steve Jobs, you will be missed.

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