In the middle-of-frackin’-nowhere Pennsylvania, Boy Genius is showing off his giant robot: It’s about 150 feet tall, God and the almighty engineers alone know how many hundreds of tons of steel, and four big, flat duck feet on bright orange legs. “Yeah, this is kind of cool,” he says of his supersized Erector Set project. “You can set those feet at 45 degrees, and it will walk around in circles all day,” a colleague adds.
But Boy Genius is not letting himself get too excited about all this — it’s pretty clearly not his first giant robot, and he’s a lot more excited about his seismic-imaging system: “It’s kind of like a GPS, but it’s underground and it works with the Earth’s magnetic characteristics.” Nods all around — that is cool. Everybody here has a three-day beard and a hardhat and steel-toed work boots, but there’s a strong whiff of chess club and Science Olympiad in the air, young men who are no strangers to the pocket protector, who in adolescence discovered an unusual facility for fluid dynamics and now are beavering away at mind-clutchingly complex technical problems, one of which is how to get a 150-foot-tall tower of machinery from A to B without taking it apart and trucking it (solution: add feet). That giant robot may walk, but it isn’t too fast: It can take half a day to move 20 feet, because this isn’t a Transformers movie, this is The Play, and Boy Genius is a member of the startlingly youthful and bespectacled tribe of engineers swarming out of the University of Pittsburgh and the Colorado School of Mines and Penn State and into the booming gas fields of Pennsylvania, where the math weenies are running the show in the Marcellus shale, figuring out how to relentlessly suck a Saudi Arabia’s worth of natural gas out of a vein of hot and impermeable rock thousands of feet beneath the green valleys of Penn’s woods. Forget about your wildcatters, your roughnecks, your swaggering Texans in big hats: The nerds have taken over.