Rogers was born in 1967 in Rolla, Missouri, the eldest of two sons. Two years later, on the day his father, John R. Rogers, finished oral exams for a physics PhD at the state university, the family piled into a car for Houston. Texaco’s laboratory there had hired his father to scout for oil by acoustically searching subsurface rock formations.
His mother, Pattiann Rogers, a former teacher, stayed home while the boys were young, and wrote poetry, often about science and nature.
The family settled in the Houston suburb of Stafford, in a new subdivision that bordered pasture. John and his younger brother, Artie, would venture into the fields and return hours later with snakes, snapping turtles and a menagerie of “varmints,” his mother told me.
Pattiann stoked her sons’ fascination with nature, taking part in their outdoor escapades and often jotting down notes afterward. She would go on to publish more than a dozen books and win five Pushcart Prizes, as well as a Guggenheim fellowship.
When I asked if any of her poems were inspired by watching John as a boy, she directed me to “Concepts and Their Bodies (The Boy in the Field Alone),” about the intersection of natural mystery and scientific abstraction.
“Staring at the mud turtle’s eye / Long enough, he sees concentricity there,” it begins.
Rogers told me that childhood dinner conversations “would range from physics and hard science with my dad, and more inspirational aspects of science through my mom. It instilled the notion that creativity and the arts are kind of a natural part of science. Not just the execution of it, but the implications and insights that flow from it as well.”
Rogers, who attended public schools and would become an Eagle Scout, entered his first science fair in fourth grade with “this gargantuan parabolic reflector that could take the Texas sun and just absolutely make it nuclear in terms of the power you could generate.” In fifth grade, he won a districtwide fair with a box of mirrors and light sources that created the illusion of a man stepping into a UFO.
He finished coursework so quickly that much of his high-school senior year was independent study. With supercomputers at his father’s lab and reams of unsifted depth-sounding data, he wrote new algorithms for mapping the ocean floor and discovered a giant salt tongue at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The results earned Rogers a raft of college scholarships at a Houston-wide science fair, held that year at the Astrodome.
In his undergraduate days at the University of Texas, Austin, he signed up to work in a chemistry professor’s lab. He labored shoulder to shoulder with senior researchers amid all that sparkling glassware, and was spellbound. Today he sets aside 30 to 50 spots for undergrads in his own labs, nearly as many as the rest of the materials science department combined. “I don’t need to look at grades: If they want in, they’re in,” he says. “It shows them that classroom instruction is important for science, but it is not science itself.”