Who Is Adam Ezra Cohen?

A science winner in an age of gangsta rap

Who is Adam Ezra Cohen? Thus far, there have been no announcements about national or local plans to honor the scientific world's next potential Einstein, Tesla, or Hawkings.

But young Mr. Cohen has earned at least his 15 minutes of fame. By using playthings like Legos and clay, and adding a few electronic circuits, he fabricated a microscope capable of printing minute characters - an achievement for which he won first prize among all the high school competitors in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Still there's no Cohen ticker-tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes ... no motorcade down Fifth Avenue ... no sold-out theaters or arenas where Cohen's idolizing fans will pay exorbitant sums to ticket scalpers and wait in line for hours to hear the teen-age genius speak about his inventions ... no sexy posters to be gobbled up by an adoring public ... not even an invitation to sleep overnight in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House.

Don't ignore this 'cool nerd'

Cohen is what might be called a "cool nerd." He sports the short-cropped hair and the large rimmed eyeglasses of the stereotypical straight-A student, and he has been fooling around with batteries and hard drives for years. At the same time, he has participated in school sports, dates regularly, and is an avid fan of at least one professional sport.

But it seems that society is bent on ignoring the cool nerd. Cohen states unequivocally that he thinks most popular culture is dumb. His room is filled with posters of moonscapes. Maybe he knows something most of us don't - namely, that our eyes should probe the distance, searching for the unknown worlds, not wasting our time frivolously worshiping the ephemeral.

When schools are wastelands

There lies the rub, the greatest tragedy of all. What chance do Cohen and his like have of ever gaining public adulation and universal recognition when the public eye is turned to the mud below rather than the sky above?

When many of our schools are academic wastelands run by fund-raisers and politicians rather than scholars, where social promotion and athletic prowess are considered more important than academic achievement? When the entertainment media encourage acts of violence, including murder and rape?

When the monosyllabic mumbling of professional athletes, often college graduates, is aired as though it were of international importance?

When "Private Parts" and "Dumb and Dumber" have a greater viewing audience than any of our national monuments?

What chance do Cohen and other young scholars have when performers, athletes, and politicians have become our national monuments? When gangsta rappers earn more headlines than the winning of a Westinghouse prize?

Perhaps it is prophetic that Cohen's contribution deals with the microscope. His achievement warns us to look within our world, to peer deeply within ourselves, to examine our standards and values to find a possible answer.

The past no longer exists. The present is nibbled at by the future. How many of today's generation - those who are saying, "Adam who?" - would recognize the Couse, or Wilt the Stilt, or Doctor J, considered immortal sports legends in their time? How many young people today would be able to identify Cagney, Bogart, Hepburn, Gable, or Tracy, screen stars who were acclaimed worldwide? In 10 years, who will remember Tupac Shakur, Beavis and Butthead, or Michael Jordan (make that 50 years for Michael)?

If Cohen does not receive equal fame or equal treatment, he does have one advantage. His work will live after him. The song will disappear; the movie clip will fade; the winning shot will be forgotten. The microscope, the predecessor of which was made of Lego and clay, will still be with us, transformed and perfected by Cohen's successors, even perhaps bearing his name, though the easily distracted, quickly forgetting public will still be asking, "Who is Adam Ezra Cohen?"

* John J. Byrne is a professor of English at Bronx Community College in New York City.

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