Phenom ZeNan

The nerd shall inherit the Earth. This much is clear at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where the regional finals of the high school National Science Bowl are in progress. There are nerds aplenty and of every conceivable variety. Asian nerds. Caucasian nerds. Tall, lanky, pimply nerds. Nerds in glasses and badges that say, “We Have Friends in High Places.” They are the best and the brightest. They are elite. They know the length of a lunar day and can name the most common elements in the universe — in order of quantity. This is where nerds come to test their mettle.

I sit down next to a slouchy guy clasping a Barron’s AP Biology workbook as the students file into Von Karman Auditorium. Off to the side, near a half-scale model of the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, is a whiteboard with a double elimination grid detailing the teams that have faced off against each other. Matches have been happening in various JPL buildings since 7:45 a.m., but only the remaining six get to go onstage at Von Karman.

“Dude,” says one guy studying the early rounds, “Troy High got dominated.”

The school that did the dominating is Torrance’s West High. Team West has five members: three guys, two girls.

“I just want to be up on that stage,” sighs Benjamin, who is whippet-slim. His specialty is chemistry. “I’m also good at physics. Except for optics,” he clarifies. “Ask me anything but optics.”

He and ebullient Garo — team leader and biology expert — are the talkative ones. Helena (computer science) and Nicole (astronomy) are silent, but deadly. Alternate, Mark Woods, takes up the slack in physics and bears an uncanny resemblance to Napoleon Dynamite. His hair is simultaneously puffy and curly. Plus, he’s wearing a tie with green cartoon aliens.

“I’m kind of scared of Santa Monica,” says Helena, who is a sophomore and the youngest. “I heard they’re strong.”

“Stop,” says Garo. “Don’t think about that.”

After a break — with muffins, milk and cookies — Team West goes up against Santa Monica High. What’s impressive, beyond the difficulty of the questions, is the speed at which they are read and answered.

“Which of the following is a six-carbon monosaccharide?”

“Factor the following expression completely: 16x4 — 81.”

Santa Monica comes out swinging. Its team members answer all the questions right, and they get them first, sometimes buzzing in even before any multiple-choice options are given. Their team captain, who has a low, calm voice, is one with his buzzer. Close up, you can see small, spiky black hairs pushing out from his chin, a sparse beard growth that puts one in mind of a baby cactus. His name is ZeNan, pronounced zee-nuhn, like the element Xenon — atomic number 54 — a colorless, odorless noble gas most widely used in light-emitting devices such as stroboscopic lamps. Xenon, from the Greek, meaning “stranger.” Unlike Team West, Team Santa Monica — or SaMo — is dressed casual in jeans and zip-up sweatshirts, like they knew they were gonna win and couldn’t be bothered to make a fuss about it. Santa Monica is so good that for one round, they ended up playing against themselves — Santa Monica A-Team versus Santa Monica B-Team. Garo, over on the West High side, looks stunned.

“Which of the following is a winged, gliding or flying animal that lived in the Jurassic period?”

Garo jumps at the buzzer. “Pterodactyl?”

“Sorry,” says the announcer. “That is incorrect.”

“Pteranodon,” says ZeNan.

“That is correct. Bonus question: What is the most common name for the emission source of microwaves in a typical microwave oven?”

ZeNan and his teammates whisper among themselves. Bennett, their resident chemistry expert, and Ben, their history-of-science and astronomy guy, both shrug and turn to Dimitry, the engineering brainiac, who can do scary-fast math calculations in his head. He frowns, eyes unreadable beneath dark sunglasses. During the break I saw him flirting with a pretty brunette from another team.

“Uh,” ZeNan says slowly, a sheepish smile creeping across his face. “A . . . flux capacitor?” The crowd laughs.

In the end, Santa Monica’s A-Team takes home the gold and a shot at the nationals, Arcadia High the silver, and Team West the bronze. JPL’s chief engineer hands out medals and NASA calendars with pictures of planets.

“I’m surprised you didn’t get the leprosy question,” Team West’s coach says to Benjamin, consolingly. “Given your fascination with rotting diseases.”

It’s been four years since a California team won the National. Lately, Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High has been dominating. Last year, they won a research trip to Alaska. Come April, Santa Monica A-Team will fly to Washington for the final competition, all expenses paid. ZeNan, who graduates this year, is their secret weapon. He has already been recruited by Caltech.

“This is the best team we’ve ever had,” says their coach. “And we’ve had some good teams. This might be the one to take us all the way.” He ruffles ZeNan’s hair, as the team captain stands there obligingly, hands in his sweatshirt pockets, exuding that unflappable, quiet confidence. “This guy can do anything.”

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