Hollywood's Secret Celebrity Geeks and Closet Nerds

We at Computerworld would be the last to say that science and technology aren't creative pursuits. Still, when most people say, "Oh, she's very creative," they're probably not talking about the subject's ability to perform higher math or engineer a network. Such people might be amazed to learn of the remarkable number of actors, directors, musicians and other celebrities who nurture an inner geek.

We've done some digging and came up with a list of geek stars -- celebrities who work at traditional artistic pursuits to make their way in the world, but have been known to kick back with a little astrophysics or microbiology in their spare time. Some of these headliners do exude a distinct nerdy spark, but others in our list will undoubtedly surprise you.

NerdTube: Geek Television Actors

Alan Alda, photo by Alan Light, Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0
M*A*S*H's Alan Alda is well loved for his efforts to educate the general public about science and its joys, but Hawkeye may not have been the biggest geek at the 4077th -- Larry Linville (Major Burns) studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado (giving it up when he realized he was colorblind) and is said to have built and flown his own gliders.

Wil Wheaton, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2
Some geek TV stars are best known for roles that don't stray too far from type. Star Trek: The Next Generation vet, author and pioneering blogger Wil Wheaton has allegedly said that in his teenage years, "I was such a geek that if I could go back in time, I would kick my own ass."

Numb3rs' geek-friendly FBI agent Dylan Bruno (Colby) has a degree in environmental engineering from MIT. Heroes' every-nerd Masi Oka double-majored in math and computer science at Brown University and after graduation went to work at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, where as recently as last November, he was still putting in a couple of days a week.

Bill Nye, courtesy of Nye Labs
And what is there to say about Cornell University mechanical engineering grad, former Boeing employee, patent-holder, comedian and TV host Bill Nye other than "Science rules!"?

Other TV celebrities' geekish ways may surprise you. Soap opera heartthrob Drake Hogestyn (John Black/Roman Brady, Days of Our Lives) graduated from the University of South Florida with a double major in microbiology and applied sciences. John Astin (the original Addams Family patriarch) studied math, not theater, at Johns Hopkins University, though he's currently a professor in the latter department. And Lisa Kudrow (spacey Phoebe on Friends) has a biology degree from Vassar College.

In the "it's not TV it's HBO" department, Ally Walker , who currently stars in the racy Tell Me You Love Me, studied biology and chemistry at University of California, Santa Cruz, and was employed on a genetic engineering project until a Hollywood producer spotted her in a restaurant. Meanwhile, Dan Grimaldi (Patsy Parisi, The Sopranos) has a Bachelor of Arts degree in math, a master's in operations research and a Ph.D. in data processing. He teaches in the math and computer sciences department at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn.

Mayim Bialik, photo by Alan Light, cc-by-sa-2.0
But if one is keeping an honor roll of such things -- and we are -- there's a duo that takes the laurel for geek tendencies where one least expects to find them. Were they feeding those child stars of '80s sitcoms something special at the craft table? How else can one explain not one, but two excellent geeks emerging from the era -- Danica McKellar (Winnie, The Wonder Years) and Mayim Bialik (Blossom on, well, Blossom).

Bialik is currently a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at UCLA; McKellar started UCLA as a film major but clicked with calculus and has since co-authored both a statistical mechanics paper that led to getting her name on a theorem (the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem) and a new book for middle schoolers, Math Doesn't Suck .

Rowan Atkinson, photo by Gerhard Heeke, GNU FDL 1.2
Of course, some actors are equally well known for their work in the movies. Bridging the gap between television and film we have Rowan Atkinson , equally geek-beloved as Mr. Bean and Blackadder. Atkinson has a master's in electrical engineering from Queen's College, Oxford, which will lead us in a moment to a disturbing nest of engineering majors that fled for Hollywood.

But first ...

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