John Cohn: Mad Scientist

John Cohn emphasises the importance of fun and experimentation in science. Photo courtesy of John Cohn

By Noemi Arellano-Summer
BU News Service

John Cohn looks exactly like who he is: a mad scientist. A bushy white beard dominates his face, while round glasses and an atom T-shirt finish off the look.

He often wears tie-dye for school visits — also fitting. Cohn is a self-proclaimed “mad scientist and dedicated maker.”

“Science was my play when I was a kid,” he said. “I loved making chemistry and I loved making things with sparks. It was personally entertaining, but other people thought it was cool, so it was very playful — to be able to show something that was amazing to someone, surprising to someone.”

Cohn said he can’t remember not loving science and that he’s wanted to be an engineer since the age of eight. The space program was a major element of his childhood, and he remembers how ingrained it became in the Texas culture he grew up in. His parents gave him and his brother free rein for tools and the library. 

Cohn is now famous for mixing science with play and for engaging school-age audiences with the combination. He discovered this when his own children were young and their friends became interested.

“We would go blow stuff up in the backyard,” he said. He then expanded the idea to school career fairs, where he could demonstrate scientific concepts.

In his own words, after a while a schtick built up, as well as his ‘”Doc Brown”-like appearance. In the early 1990s, Cohn developed shows based around specific types of science.

One show he continues to this day is called “Jolts and Volts,” where he works with small amounts of electricity. Upon discovering that fewer people were entering STEM careers, he began performing his shows on a national scale.

When Cohn’s 14-year-old son Sam was killed in a traffic accident in 2006, it was a difficult time for him.

“What purpose do you then remake for yourself? I found that that play around science made me feel human again,” he said.

It was a way to give back and also served as a healing process for him. Cohn began to hold international talks on science and play, including for TEDx.

John Cohn gives his TEDx talk “The importance of play.” Photo courtesy of John Cohn

In 2009, Cohn also participated in the first season of Discovery’s “The Colony,” a reality show based around building under constraint.

“My formula is kinda simple,” he said. “I like making stuff with people, and then telling other people about making stuff with people so they go and make stuff with people.”

He further noted the current modern culture that allows this to work, examples being “Mythbusters” and the media perception of science as something cool. 

A chief scientist for IBM, Cohn is currently working on several projects, one of which is for environmental awareness in Vermont. He is also redesigning a 30-foot playable keyboard for Phish bassist Mike Gordon that he originally built several years ago.

At the same time, Cohn is refining an application that combines artificial intelligence and music. A recent completed project was a computer-controlled flame thrower. 

On a more serious note, Cohn, representing IBM, is currently on a task force to maximize benefits and minimize problems for artificial intelligence in Vermont. He was surprised to learn about the fear and concern people have in regards to AI. It worried him that people weren’t excited about the possibilities for good.

He explained he’s been thinking of how to get Vermont students interested in learning about AI so they can make smart choices for their own futures, as well as show their parents both the positive and negative aspects.

“Kids are a great vector for change in society, and the idea of giving them the tools in a way that’s compelling and fun,” he said. “How do we actually do that?”

Cohn was just given permission to spend a quarter of his work time focusing on that very question. When his play and work intersect, Cohn believes he is at his most happy and productive.

Cohn, 60, mentioned how easy it was to tell his story in hindsight, though it wouldn’t have been were he still in the middle of figuring out his life.

“It probably wouldn’t be very fun if you could predict it,” he joked.

Looking back, he’s able to note when he should have balanced work and play more. Currently focusing on AI in the IBM lab as the “Yoda” of the team, he mentioned that he’s working with people less than half his age. Even though the topic is new for him, he still has more experience in the field. 

Cohn isn’t, however, in this business to get others to choose science as a career. “I think the world is a better place when you have a more informed population,” he said. “If you can get people to be interested, excited by, and curious about science and technology, it makes us more productive and safer, and [able to] make better choices than the alternative.”

Cohn sees science and engineering solely as a creative process. “It’s a human gift to create,” he said. “It’s intrinsically part of our being that we love making, and refining, and fixing.”

Cohn also enjoys helping people figure out why stuff works. He likes getting to the bottom of things.

He considers science and mathematics to be skills that are “great training for life,” and added, “Any job that has some element of surprise as part of it is pretty cool.”

“It’s not that I want to give people my own passion,” Cohn said. “I want to give people the gift of their own passion.”

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