In praise of nerd culture

This blog post has two introductions:

1) When I grew up in the far suburbs of Los Angeles, I was surrounded by aerospace culture. It drove our economy and employed many of my friends’ parents. Or,

2) When I was searching for an “expert” to help me in my epic 1980s journalistic debunking of Rose Parade size claims, I turned to a clever and witty local skpetic named Al Hibbs.

Which brings me to this lovely essay in Zócalo about the way aerospace culture helped define Southern California:

Consider Al Hibbs, whose papers recently arrived in the aerospace archive. As a young mathematician, Hibbs calculated probabilities in Las Vegas casinos and sailed the Caribbean for a year on his winnings. (Along the way, he trapped alligators to sell to zoos.) He went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics at Caltech and to help design the early space program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also popularized science on radio and television, flew sailplanes, invented an electronic trombone, applied to the astronaut corps, acted in local theater, and pursued underwater photography and kinetic sculpture.

Hibbs may be an extreme example, but Southern California aerospace abounds with ostensible nerds who designed new ways of having fun when they weren’t designing airplanes and spacecraft. Bob Simmons, a Caltech engineering student who moonlighted at Douglas Aircraft during World War II, applied aircraft materials—fiberglass, polyester resins, polystyrene foam—and advanced hydrodynamics to revolutionize surfboard design. A couple decades later, another aerospace engineer, Tom Morey, combined his knowledge of advanced aerospace composites with a quirky sensibility to invent the Boogie Board; another aerospace engineer at the Rand Corporation invented the windsurfer. And so on.

The father of my best childhood friend was an inventor. I never fully understood what that meant, but their garage was awesome.