On White House science day, Obama displays his geek-in-chief side


When President Obama heard about an awkward middle school student from Texas who had gotten into trouble with a big idea — a science project in the form of a clock that a teacher thought looked like a bomb — he identified.

“Cool clock, Ahmed,” Obama said in a Twitter message last month, inviting 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed to Monday’s Astronomy Night at the White House.

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The message, aides said, reflected in part a fascination with all things scientific on the part of a president whose favorite annual White House event is the Science Fair.

When NASA astronaut Scott Kelly headed off this spring for a year-long mission on the orbiting International Space Station, Obama asked him to send him Instagrams from space.

Obama got an early viewing of “The Martian” and reportedly loved it.

When Leonard Nimoy died, the president sadly told his staff, “I loved Spock.”

Many successful politicians feign lack of understanding of complex scientific topics — the better to seem just like the average voter. Obama, particularly in his second term, doesn’t seem to worry much about that. He has been proud to be the nation’s geek in chief.

On a trip this year to Boise State University, he listened as Amy Moll, the engineering college dean, told him about the promise of nano-manufacturing to help build cheaper, thinner computer chips.

Obama responded by invoking Moore’s Law, the observation that the number of transistors per square inch on circuits had doubled roughly every two years since their invention.

“Did you go to engineering school?” Moll asked, apparently impressed that Obama was familiar with the concept.

“No, but I know this stuff,” Obama said.

Ernest J. Moniz, the nuclear physicist from Stanford and MIT who serves as Energy secretary, shies away from calling the president a geek.

But “across the board, he does know a lot of stuff about a lot of things,” Moniz said. “I can vouch for that.”

Obama “firmly believes in technology as solution,” Moniz said. That belief informs the president’s thinking about policy, he said, whether contemplating new job-creating industries in the U.S. or looking for ways to combat global warming.

The administration’s policy toward tackling climate change is driven by faith in technology. Obama’s hope is that once countries start seriously trying to remake their energy systems around renewable resources and energy-efficient practices, the rapid growth of new technologies will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases without the need for the kind of binding international agreement that has proved impossible to negotiate.

“You see it out there with solar energy, with LEDs, how the costs are coming down through innovation,” Moniz said. “The point we’re trying to make is that that is what can give many more countries confidence in ambitious targets.”

That interest in science is a side of the president’s personality that will be on display Monday as he hosts back-to-back science-oriented events at the White House.

Obama plans to discuss technology and climate change with corporate chief executives Monday afternoon, part of the run-up to international climate negotiations in December.

Later, he’ll host Astronomy Night, an event designed to bring NASA officials and scientists together with teachers and talented students, this year including Ahmed.

Obama “was so excited about it,” said one advisor, referring to the Twitter invitation to the student from Texas. “It’s his thing.”

Obama’s fascination with all things scientific often shows up in the rhetoric of the presidency. Obama came into office declaring that he would do something about climate change because, he said, he believed the scientists.

He has prodded NASA to hatch plans to put an astronaut on Mars and has proposed a hefty increase in money for scientific research and development in his budget, although critics note that the proposal is likely to be whittled down significantly in Congress.

His interest can also be seen in his travels around the country. During a visit to a manufacturing innovation hub in Tennessee early this year, he inspected a replica of a Shelby Cobra sports car produced entirely by 3-D printing.

“Where do I get one of these?” Obama asked his tour guide. “My birthday is coming up.”

For more on the White House, follow @cparsons and @mikememoli.


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