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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 Mastermind

In 1988, four years after his computer game, “The Black Onyx”, was ranked as the No. 1 game in Japan, Henk Rogers came across Tetris at an electronics show in Las Vegas. “When I first saw it, I thought it was too simple a game, but then I came back to it like four or five times during the show and played it over and over again,” says Rogers. “I thought, ‘This could be something.’ So I went after it.”

After a year of searching for the intellectual property owners, he flew to the Soviet Union and got the Game Boy rights for Tetris. He then licensed them to Nintendo, causing millions of children to skip doing their homework.

He’s also responsible for creating many of the game’s engaging aspects. For example, Rogers added the goal of clearing more than one line at a time. “People would get themselves into trouble by setting it up so they could score more points by clearing four lines at once,” he explains. “That’s what makes Tetris unique, you have to think every time a piece comes into the playing field.”

His latest inventions include a virtual world on Mars, called “Avatar Reality,” in which you can go shopping, date and even buy the ability to dance as well as Michael Jackson.

In 2005, after suffering a heart attack, Rogers came up with four missions, two of which he plans to accomplish during his lifetime. The first, end the use of carbon-based fuels on Earth, thus, founded the nonprofit Hawaii-based organization Blue Planet Foundation. The second, end war. The other two? To make Mars inhabitable; and figure out how the universe ends. He attests, “These are real missions. I’m working on my bucket list.”


Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Particle Astrophysicist

Listening to University of Hawaii at Mānoa professor Peter Gorham talk about physics will make your head spin. And he’ll likely come up with a good explanation for that, too. His interest lies with neutrinos, which, to put it simply, are subatomic particles that are high in energy, yet are so tiny, they slide through matter—walls, our bodies, even Earth—without hitting anything at all. “Because their interactions with matter are so rare, they are extremely hard to observe and make them the least understood of subatomic particles,” says Gorham.

In 2000, years after earning his Ph.D. in physics from UH Manoa and working as a senior scientist for Caltech, Gorham, along with a colleague, performed an experiment to see if a 1960s theory called the Askaryan effect was correct. “The effect basically predicts that neutrinos could collide with atoms in large bodies of matter, such as ice, and make intense radio noises that might be detectable from great distances.” The team was successful.

Gorham then received grants from NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy to go to Antarctica to detect neutrinos in ice, which he’s done twice.

Why should we care about neutrinos? “Here’s an analogy,” he says. “In the 1930s, the average person had no idea why the study of quantum mechanics mattered in their life … but, as a result [of that research], decades later came the invention of computers, cell phones, you name it.”


Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Molecular Biologist

Too much selenium can be bad for you. Too little can do damage. What the heck is selenium, anyway? Marla Berry Ph.D., professor and chair of the Cell and Molecular Biology Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, explains, “Selenium is a trace element that is essential in our diets. It’s in the soil and in the ocean, so all sources of food that are derived from plants and animals contain varying levels of selenium.”

In the early ’90s, when Berry was a professor at Harvard, she pioneered research on the role selenium plays in chronic diseases. “In our studies, one selenoprotein looks like it may be coming to the rescue in Alzheimer’s. Another may be significantly involved in cardiovascular disease, and yet others respond to inflammation,” she explains. “It’s a long, slow process trying to determine just exactly which selenoproteins are doing what in different organs and different diseases.”

In 1999, when Berry’s father was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, she began to focus on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “I would have liked to have found something that could have prevented or reversed the damage that was occurring with his disease,” says Berry. “In the longer term, our studies will hopefully allow us to understand the underlying processes better.”


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