Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Nerd History: Our Nerdy Presidents

This is not photoshopped. This is actually President Obama with a lightsaber

A lot of ink has been spilled about Barack Obama's nerd credentials. He collects comic books, poses like Superman, was featured not only in a Spider-man comic, but also an Archie series and his own series, Barack the Barbarian. Politics aside, I'd hope we all can agree that, yeah, the President might be one of us. But is he the only one? Let's celebrate President's Day 24 hours late and find out!

James Garfield is probably best known as being on the list of assassinated Presidents. What most people don't know is that Garfield is responsible for coming up with a unique proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. Because I can barely add, I'll simply quote Wikipedia: "In any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs (the two sides that meet at a right angle)." While the Pythagorean Theorem has the most proofs of any math theorem up to this point, Garfield's was unique on all its own, and deserves some attention.

While it's hard to really judge the intellect and interests of those who precede us by 200 years, even John Quincy Adams took the idea of a classical education to an extreme. He took an interest in politics as a teenager, and his letters are incredibly dense and heavily researched - try to get through a few paragraphs of this before your eyes glazing over. The references and notes that he put in his correspondence continue to be somewhat legendary.

Some may argue that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the original bromance. They were both Founding Fathers, they were political enemies, and yet they reconciled and corresponded until their deaths on the same day, 4 July 1826 - 50 years to the day that both men signed the Declaration of Independence. It's not their trajectory, however, that makes them so nerdy as much as what their correspondence toward the ends of their lives tell us. In these letters, they not only discuss the past, their lives, current events, but also new ideas about philosophy, science, etc. Even in their old age, after everything they had done, after all their influence on the nation and the world, they were still trying to learn more. If that's not a nerdy pursuit, I'm not sure what is. Right after President's Day, though, it is pretty inspiring.


  1. James Garfield is bad A. Did he also invent Garfield?

    And I read somewhere that in their latter day's Jefferson and Adams bitched a lot about Starfire's cleavage.

  2. Terrible article. No mention of Benjamin Franklin? No Woodrow Wilson? No Jimmy Carter? No Bill Clinton?