Nerdly by Nature

I began as a zygote. A mere one-celled organism, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a being of my towering ambition. My chances for a successful modeling career seemed impossibly remote. I was about 5 feet, 11.99 inches short of the minimum height requirement for male models. Oh sure, maybe I could be featured in some medical textbook, but that would never interest Elite. Furthermore my appearance left much to be desired, coated as I was entirely in my mother’s endometrial mucus.

As for the rarefied intellectual heights to which I would one day ascend, let’s just say my only chance of getting into college then was via a Petri dish. At that point in my life no one would invite me to a cocktail party. I was such a lightweight a single drop of alcohol would have killed me instantly. And cell division, not witty banter, was my forte. In less than a year, however, my obsession with mitosis paid off. I grew, gained strength, and burst forth onto the world. To my dismay, I found myself to be the youngest son of a middle-class family in central New York state, and not the scion of a rich and powerful family of globe-trotting adventurers.

We’ll return to my struggle to rise from obscurity in a moment, but first, a caveat. Most memoirs rehash familial relations. This is not one of them. If tragic family matters is what you seek, I refer you to the splendid reminiscences of Augusten Burroughs and Dave Eggers. Lesser works often strike me as peevish, blame-shifting tracts. “I’m all screwed up because my parents didn’t buy me a rubber ducky when I was two.”

I’m going to gloss over family business for two reasons: (1) my childhood was spectacularly untraumatic (severely handicapping my prospects for a career in the arts), and (2) if my parents, brother or sister want you to know their life story, they can write their own damn memoirs. But there are a few incidents worth recalling because I think they reveal certain leitmotifs to come.

My father was an electrical engineer for General Electric in Syracuse, New York. In his forty-year career he had several important discoveries (in radar and monolithic microwave circuits) and a few blunders (“proving” to GE management in the fifties that color television would never work). But hey, in 1932 Einstein said we’d never split the atom either. It takes a great mind to make a great mistake. In any case, he is the most highly educated, innately intelligent person I have ever known. British history, quantum physics, classical music, plate tectonics, you name it, he knows it. He is a true “renaissance man,” before the term came to mean basketball players who rap. His brain belongs in a bubbling beaker at Harvard with electrodes coming out of it, solving all the world’s problems.

Here’s an example. My sister is a radiologist. Recently the MRI machine at her hospital broke and no one, including the manufacturer’s technicians, could fix it. Time for a new MRI, right? As a last-ditch effort, she called our father, who has never seen an MRI in his life. In five minutes he walked them through the repair over the phone.

From the time I was five, my father and I spent Saturday mornings together. While other kids were out playing Little League, my father briefed me on the latest developments in astrophysics, biochemistry, and paleontology—topics my Weekly Reader’s relentless coverage of Monarch butterflies and Pilgrims left little space for. Grasping the intricacies of a discovery relating to say, supernovae, would typically require mathematical concepts beyond “Johnny has six apples,” so my father held sidebar discussions on the finer points of calculus and analytic geometry.

I enjoyed these lectures even if I only understood one percent of what he was saying. They made me feel important, like I was his little colleague, like we might be huddling together over a book of early hominid skulls and I’d turn a page and he’d suddenly yell, “Eureka, the missing link! Well done, lad!”

Subject to my father’s relentless tutelage, even a cocker spaniel couldn’t help but learn a few things and it wasn’t long before I brought my supplemental education into school. I suppose I could have kept silent when Miss Long taught our fifth grade class that negative numbers did not have square roots. But I was pretty sure they did and that these so-called imaginary numbers inhabited the vertical axis of the complex number plane. Surely, Miss Long, you’re familiar with the Euler Equation, eiπ + 1 = 0.

Besides correcting authorities, I had two other hobbies: comic books and coin collecting. Sometimes my hobbies cross-pollinated. When I was eleven I noticed a mistake in the Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness claimed the world’s largest bubble chamber at the Argonne National Laboratory contained 5,330 gallons of liquid hydrogen at -476° F. I didn’t know then—and I don’t know now—what a “bubble chamber” is, but I knew it can’t be at -476° F because it’s impossible to reach temperatures below absolute zero (-459.67° F), the temperature at which all molecular motion ceases. This factoid I gleaned from Metal Men comics.

A year earlier I had put my coin collecting knowledge to good use. The Price Chopper food chain had a logo with a Peace type silver dollar, an axe chopping through it, and the date 1932. Fine except, as any rabid ten year-old coin collector knows, Peace dollars were only minted from 1921 through 1928, and again in 1934 and 1935. So I wrote the president of Price Chopper. He wrote back, explaining that 1932 was chosen because it was the year the company was founded, but in forty years no one had ever brought its numismatic impossibility to their attention. For my troubles, he sent me a genuine silver dollar. It would seem a career in fact-checking beckoned. Little did I know it was a harbinger of my madness for trivia later in life.

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If my father taught me value of pi, my mother taught me the value of publicity. After each fault-finding stunt she would take me to the local newspaper and trot me out for their obliging reporters. Articles followed and my reputation grew. Teachers became accustomed to me correcting mistakes in their textbooks. It’s good for your grade point average when teachers trust your response over their own answer keys.

My mother had a surprisingly liberal attitude toward actual school attendance. On beautiful days, she would encourage me to skip. “Give those knuckle draggers a chance to catch up,” she’d say.

My mother also abetted my entrepreneurial instincts. A child of the Depression she was always open to any idea I had for making a dollar out of fifteen cents. I think she fancied herself a grifter and me her little Addie Pray.

One of our best capers happened when I was thirteen. Canada Dry stuck two-for-one movie passes in their ginger ale six packs. I visited all the grocery stores in town and plucked the shelves clean of these coupons. I was too young to drive so my mom was the wheelman. Movies cost $4 then, so I figured I could accost moviegoers in theater parking lots and sell two-for-one passes for at least $2. Could I ever! “Wow, you could choke a horse with that wad,” my mother said, inspecting the $300 I garnered the first night. This went on for a week, until there were no more coupons left in Onondaga County.

I didn’t need calculus to see it beat the hell out of a paper route.

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About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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