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Our Geniuses

They give voice to paralyzed patients, detect exotic particles, solve mathematical conundrums and more. You can even blame one of them for all the hours you spent playing Tetris. Meet eight Islanders who are, quite simply, geniuses.


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Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Math Whiz

James B. Nation plays trumpet in a jazz band, referees soccer games and runs five miles every morning before he goes to work. He seems like a pretty normal guy. But put a math problem in front of him, and you’ll witness his brilliance firsthand. In 1979, Nation, who’s a professor of mathematics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, solved the Jonsson conjecture, a math problem that had baffled his colleagues around the world for 20 years. (The problem involves lattices, or mathematical systems, and Nation proved that a certain characterization, which was thought to be wrong, was actually right.) “I just worked on it every day for about seven years until I understood it,” he says.

Then in 1995, while in Australia on a university work exchange, he solved a 25-year-old math problem called the finite height conjecture. “One night, I said, ‘I know how this has to work.’ I waited until the kids went to bed and I tried different numbers.  Finally, I tried seven, and it worked,” says Nation, who had been plugging away at this particular problem for 15 years. “It’s not about being a genius, it’s just working hard and consistently and not giving up.”


Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Seaweed Guru

If you think Isabella Abbott is the kind of 90-year-old woman who takes long, midday naps and crochets blankets for babies, think again. Abbott is the world’s foremost expert on Hawaiian seaweed—and her accomplishments are as numerous as her years.

In 1950, she became the first Hawaiian woman to receive a Ph.D. in science, an accolade she earned from the University of California, Berkeley. She’s written eight books on Hawaiian seaweed, from scientific reference guides to books about her ethnobotanical studies—which reveal that under the kapu system, women in ancient Hawaiian culture were the community’s seaweed harvesters. (Before her publications, no extensive resource existed on Hawaiian limu.) She’s a professor emerita of the University of Hawaii, as well as Stanford University, where she taught for 32 years, and was the first female professor in the school’s biological sciences department.

For the past 10 years, out of her lab at UH Mānoa, she’s been investigating seaweeds from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, an area where algae had not been previously studied.

How does she manage to stay this sharp at 90? “It’s good genes, but it’s also encouragement,” says Abbott. “No matter what I wanted to study, my mother and father would always say, ‘Go for it. Give it all your energy.’ And look, I still enjoy the topic.”


Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Chess Champ

He’s 11 years old, weighs 76 pounds and he can kick your behind in chess with his eyes closed. In April 2009, Ford Nakagawa beat competitors in his age bracket to earn the title of United States Chess Federation 2009 national champion. (He’s actually co-champion since he shares the title with a kid from Massachusetts.) His parents taught him how to play when he was 8 years old, and, after roughly seven months, he entered his first tournament—a state scholastic championship in which he tied as the winner. He’s been the state champ or co-champ of his age group for three consecutive years since. “We don’t even try to play him anymore; we’re not even a challenge,” says his father, Bert, who adds that the game has helped Ford improve his concentration and schoolwork. So what does Ford think about when he’s knee-deep in a match? “Winning and the trophy,” he says, grinning.


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