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'Mad scientist' here for IBM anniversary

Drawing interest to science is what IBM scientist is all about. For fun, during a recent interview Cohn fries a pickle with an electrical charge.

Seeing wild-haired John Cohn grinning as he runs 110 volts of electricity through a pickle, causing it to glow and then burst into flames, it is not hard to accept his self-description as a "mad scientist."

In fact, the IBM Fellow and former reality television personality even has a business card that says "Mad Scientist" with further description of "Gadgets, Gizmos, Mischief."

"I've always been a geek. I'm a proud nerd," he said.

The always-in-motion Cohn was at the Rochester IBM campus this week to help celebrate Big Blue's 100th anniversary.

In fact, he did his glowing pickle trick while speaking to the gathered employees. As the tortured dill ignited, it drew gasps from the crowd and left behind a scorched podium and two blackened cafeteria forks.


While the frenetic Cohn uses humor to talk about technology, the core of his message is about passion for the thrill of building something that could change the world. Or at least fry a pickle.

Cohn's official title at the Vermont IBM campus where he works is Chief Scientist of Design Automation, but he has come to embrace his crazed inventor persona since appearing on the first season of the Discovery Channel's post-apocalyptic survivor reality show, "The Colony."

For the show, he and nine other people spent about a month and a half living in Los Angeles in a warehouse area set up to simulate life after a global catastrophe. That meant using limited resources to survive and to protect their band from "marauders."

Nicknamed "The Professor" during show, Cohn built a solar-panel array that tracked the sun, a Tesla coil and a "gasifer" contraption that used wood to create fuel to run the groups generator and later a flat-bed truck.

And the self-described hippie pacifist also found himself building shock rods and a flame thrower to scare away the fake bad guys.

He even ended up on TV completely naked as he took advantage of a rainfall to get clean.

"It was really edgy stuff, and they (IBM) really embraced it," Cohn said. "It is really about sustainability."

He sees a thread tying his creations on show, IBM's Smarter Planet initiative and his outreach of bringing the excitement of science to kids through tricks like the glowing pickle.


"If you think about computers on their own, they are a little abstract. But this is concrete stuff," he said. "It is not just about peace and love and things like that. It has real world application."

For his IBM Centennial talk he looked back at the company's history of building new things and he says it left him feeling pretty good about the future.

"Starting with making meat slicers, how did we go from there to end up with a supercomputer that kicked butt on 'Jeopardy!,'" he said. "Looking at everything on a day-to-day basis, you may not have the confidence that the next generation is going to be cooler than we are. But stepping back, I have really come away with that."

So what does that mean for the future?

"It is only going to get cooler," Cohn said with wild grin.

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