Study Thrall

Brilliance is hip and even -- ahem -- sexy at Intel's Science and Engineering Fair

When asked about their future plans, they respond in harmony, "We're going to MIT, to become genetic engineers." They flash their pearly whites and flourish for the camera.

To these teens, science is sleek and sexy; it offers the sort of cachet once reserved for star quarterbacks and successful lawyers. And amid all the talk of patents and scholarships, there is flirtation. Tall boys with clear complexions and slicked-back hair relax around each other's displays, exchanging ideas and scanning the female participants. Over the course of six days, the boys and girls have exchanged school pins, affixing them to their badges as further evidence of their charm, intellect, and charisma. Some of the youths hook up, cuddling under their graphs and charts, kissing in the lobby. (I overhear a young girl demand that her new beau stop making fun of her project.)

Seventeen-year-old Ryan Pattersonof Grand Junction, Colo., has little time for himself as a growing crowd of judges makes clear he will be taking home a $50,000 scholarship. The slender, blond boy with the chiseled jaw line and large blue eyes has invented the "Sign Translator," a modified golfing glove that relays American Sign Language to a hand-held screen. He is elegant and calm as he poses for photos, spelling out his name for the throng. Rumor has it that Patterson's love of science started with an extension cord he requested from his mother when he was 2. By the time he was 5, he had rewired the house. His glove may be an economical answer to teaching deaf and mute students in the classroom (by eliminating the need for translators), as well as making their daily lives easier. An Intel executive gives him a business card and tells him to stay in touch, while a small clutch of smitten girls looks on from across the aisle.

"He's brilliant," says the executive. "Really brilliant."

One of the girls agrees.

And what of the science geeks of my memory?

"I like science," says Hur, "but I like music better."

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