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.

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.



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.”



Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Social Entrepreneur

Olin Lagon has lived a long life for a 37-year-old.  He grew up in Honolulu public housing projects, flunked out of high school and at 17 was sent to Mississippi, where he joined the military and inexplicably scored a perfect score in a diesel mechanic course, breaking the school’s record—all this without studying. His teacher was impressed and told him to consider becoming an engineer. “It was the first time in my life anyone had ever told me to try,” says Lagon. He enrolled at Honolulu Community College and graduated from UH Manoa with a 4.0.

During his senior year, Lagon discovered his entrepreneurial knack. To list all of the companies he has been involved with would take up more room than we have, but to be brief: He helped create WorldPoint, a Web translation software company whose clients included Nike, FedEx and Kodak; he served as the CEO of Hawaiian Homestead Technology, which creates technology jobs in Native Hawaiian communities; and he co-founded ChipIn/Sprout, a widget management platform used by Disney, Coca-Cola, MTV and others.

Today, he’s the co-director of the nonprofit organization Kanu Hawaii. “I’ll probably start another 20 companies that focus on social impact before I die,” says Lagon, “but I’ll never forget where I came from.”


Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Dog Whisperer

In Maureen Maurer’s line of work, she takes the phrase, “Man’s best friend” to a whole new level. In 2000, she launched her Maui-based nonprofit Hawaii Canines for Independence, and, since then, she’s trained and placed more than 40 service dogs with physically disabled people in the Islands. But wait, there’s more.

In 2008, a man with cerebral palsy was in need of a service dog. The problem: The man could think normally, and had the use of his right hand, but he wasn’t able to speak, making it impossible to communicate with a dog. Not so, thought Maurer. She developed a new type of communication in which the man used hand signals to tell the dog what to do. That same year, she figured out a way for people who are completely paralyzed, but have the ability to move their eyes, to communicate with dogs. “When dogs are bonded with partners they watch their faces, and research studies show that dogs will actually follow a person’s gaze,” she says. Maurer has now trained canines to do things like open a door or turn on a light just by seeing a person stare at an object.

Today, she’s working on a project involving scent-detection, in which she’s researching new ways that dogs can provide early detection of medical conditions, such as skin cancer. (FYI: A dog’s sense of smell is 200,000 times stronger than a human’s.)




Sakamaki Extraordinary Lectures 2010

The Sakamaki Extraordinary Lectures are an annual summer series extending the intellectual resources of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa to the community. The 2010 series was inspired by this article and provides an opportunity to meet some of the gifted individuals profiled here. Let them share with you their passions and endless curiosity and lead you to your own discoveries of the genius in us all.

Here is the schedule and topic of the lectures:

June 2 – The Nature of Giftedness, The Nurturing of Leaders
June 9 – Encounters at the End of the World
July 7 – From Blue Planet to Blue Mars: Avatars and Replicants for Alternative Realities
July 21 – Stories of Social Entrepreneurship in Hawai‘i
July 28 – Unleashing Abilities: The Genius of Dogs

Lectures are FREE and open to the public
Events begin at 7:00 pm in UHM's Architecture Auditorium (unless otherwise noted).

For more information, call 956-2729 or visit outreach.hawaii.edu.