Frenchman spreads his genius for the greater good

by - 15:10

“Back then, I could party until 5am, then play football at 10am.” Surely, he must have been the goalkeeper?

“No, I was a striker,” he pushed indignantly. How many he scored, isn’t really the point. But he’s scored enough in a Mensa test to earn the right of being recognised as a genius.

And in there is the profound point that geniuses are just like any one of us.

Even in the social media climate of moral policing and judgment calls, describing them as normal is still accurate. So, with myths busted and stereotyping hung out to dry, Frenchman Fabien Bouhier is your average, ordinary Joe, with an IQ of 148.

Astro physicist Carl Sagan’s classic Cosmos series, viewed through VHS video tapes rented by his science-loving grandmother, was his gateway into the fantastical realm of material science and the natural world.

However, his early upbringing in France couldn’t have provided the most encouraging environment for a budding genius.

“My mother and I lived in a 35sq m apartment where you could do the dishes, take a shower and have a meal at the same time,” he joked in a video of his TEDxKL (A Journey To Space) presentation three years ago.

It’s clearly an experience that has left a lasting impact on him because he repeated it during this interview, intimating that as challenging as it might seem, it was also some of the best times he had growing up in the Noisy-le-Sec suburb of Paris. His situation meant everything was about survival to him – having food on the table and clothes on his back.

But in time, Bouhier secured a degree in Marketing and Communication from Inseec Business School in 2006, and then spent at least six years in China … selling insurance over the phone, among other things. Later, he worked for Twitter and Google Malaysia.

Through his tertiary education, he was forced to consign his passion for science to the back-burner, until recently.

“When I was financially secure, I wanted to do something with science, and Malaysia is a great place for that with all the talent that’s here,” said the 31-year-old.

He has finally fulfilled his dream of making knowledge accessible to everyone for free through a science social platform he co-founded (with Aaron Shunk). At PubliSci, people without mathematical backgrounds are just as welcome to share their love of science.

“You don’t need to be a mathematician to be a scientist,” he asserted. Conversely, he also added, a person need not be a scientist to be a genius.

Through the course of the conversation, Bouhier references Albert Einstein numerous times … for obvious and elusive reasons – this interview was held in conjunction with National Geographic’s 10-part, scripted series, Genius, which details the life of the renowned scientist.

So, are geniuses born or made?

Bouhier adeptly answered that age-old question: “That really comes down to the integration of upbringing, nurturing, nature and genetics, which is why geniuses are rare. And geniuses can appear in art, music, science … (Vincent) Van Gogh and (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart had genius like Einstein. They were all a little bit crazy. I think you have to have a hint of craziness to be a genius.”

Bouhier’s right of passage to scientific nirvana had him thumbing through books on quantum and astro physics, and though language was a barrier (with most books written in English), he persevered with a dictionary in the other hand.

“I think what studying all this taught me was patience. Time is relative to people … what is your one minute, may not be my one minute.

“We could have an hour-long dialogue and not realise time went by, but for the guy holding his breath underwater for a minute, that can seem like an eternity,” he said, perhaps inadvertently explaining the “science” behind “Malaysian time”.

After receiving a Certificate of Completion in Quantum Mechanics and Computation (through an online course) from BerkeleyX, Bouhier entered and won the Try Zero G contest organised by the Malaysian National Space Agency (ANGKASA), and the Ministry of Science and Technology and Innovation (MOSTI).

His experiment, Growing Bubble In A Glass of Water, was performed in the International Space Station by JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut, Koichi Wakata, in zero gravity conditions.

“I was testing myself. I wanted to do a simple test with as few things as possible, something even kids could appreciate,” he said.

But he quickly levied credit at the people who came out second in the competition– two 19-year-old girls who seemingly come from conservative backgrounds.

“Those voices are screaming, but nobody is listening to them, which is why we want to create a platform for them to speak up and be heard,” he shared with gusto.

“I have met people here who are building real rubber factories, people who are making solar panels that are a tenth of the price of solar panels today.

“The next Einstein, the next Marie Curie and the next (Stephen) Hawking are all here. They just need to be heard,” he pressed, stressing the need for more of such platforms like PubliSci.

Judging from his TEDxKL presentation, Bouhier relies on humour to share science, which was a sharp contrast to his demeanour during this interview.

So, is science best served with humour, then?

“Humour is very important – it’s as important as science itself. The more people understand science, the more they can build things to make our lives easier.

“It’s really down to the odds of probability – if more people are aware, our chances of finding solutions grow,” he offered, breaking into a smile.

Even if his existence seems to be confined to some geeky universe, Bouhier doesn’t discount the need to socialise … and is pretty good at it, too. He can be found cruising around the watering holes of Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Bangsar, where some of his best ideas are hatched over “beverages”.

He breaks into a hearty laugh when queried on his current partying ways.

“I’ve toned it down, and I realise my choice of dialogue has evolved … I look for specific things in a conversation now,” he said.

Being a genius comes with the great weight of expectation, but even his shyness has not held him back from thriving, because he has, perhaps, summoned the most noble reasons to share his knowledge: “If I could use my genius to bring people together for a good cause, I’ll be a happy man.”

Genius airs every Sunday at 10pm on National Geographic (Astro Ch 553/HD Ch 573).

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