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Surprising Science

Moments of Genius

Today marks the first installment of Big Think’s newest series, “Moments of Genius,” sponsored by Intel. We sat down with math and science thought leaders—from the inventor of the very first portable cell phone, to the man who turned HIV into a manageable disease—to figure out when and how their passions were born. This first set of interviews features Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone; David Ho, the AIDS researcher famous for pioneering combination therapy in treating HIV-infected patients; and Arlie Petters, a mathematical physicist at Duke who’s out to prove that there’s a fifth dimension.

In his segment, Martin Cooper delves into the story behind the creation of the first portable cell phone. He says the idea for the device arose after talking to the Superintendent of Police in Chicago, who saw the shortcomings with car phones, which were then the only portable devices available. “Giving people communications in their vehicles: even then, it’s not much better than being tied to your desk. You’re still trapped in your car,” says Cooper. His mission: to put the device on the person. Cooper also discusses his early science education, and says he believes that if we treat science education like a game, more students will find it interesting. 

David Ho reflects upon what it was like coming into contact with the very first cases of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Looking back on the moment, he says that his AP math education was what helped him calculate what the turnover of virus was in a given infected person. That, in turn, helped him and his fellow researchers to understand that HIV was to be treated by a number of different drugs working together. Today, this standard approach is called “combination therapy.”
Arlie Petters is a mathematical physicist and professor at Duke University. He says discovered his love for math while gazing at the night sky as a boy growing up in Belize. Lacking a privileged education, Petters had to teach himself math and science. “With being self-taught, mathematics is such a rigorous and in some ways unforgiving medium that it allows you to quickly see when you are going down wrong paths,” he says. This early passion is what led him to propose the existence of a fifth dimension, which, if proven, would disprove the findings of one of his greatest role models, Albert Einstein.

“Moments of Genius” will run for the next eight Tuesdays. Get exclusive insight into the fascinating minds of our greatest math and science thinkers at This series is sponsored by Intel.


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