I GET ALONG WELL with people who are smarter than me. That's good since most people -- except for ice fishermen -- are smarter than me. But they still make me uncomfortable.

So I compensate. I use wisecracks to tease smart guys.

Pocket protector jokes, fractured chemical compound pronunciations; I got a million of 'em. My personal favorite is the one about slide rules: don't slide into first because you'll never beat the throw from shortstop and always slide feet-first into second or you might get spiked on the hand.

There are just two problems with this sophomoric defense mechanism against the intelligentsia, and no, the problem is not that it's sophomoric. It's just that the jokes are getting old and no one uses slide rules anymore, except maybe the Mets, who still steal a lot of bases (sorry...old habits).

So I decided to become smarter.

STEP 1 WAS to read books. But for various reasons -- not enough time, the library no longer carries "Richie Ashburn, Pride of the Phillies" -- that didn't work out.

Which left only Step 2 -- Roger Falcone. Roger lives in Lafayette and we've known each other for a long time. His kids and my kids are all kids. Most important, Roger happens to be the second smartest person I know.

The smartest is Ken Fowler, a nuclear physicist from Walnut Creek who once blew up his lawn trying to catch gophers by pouring gasoline down the hole and striking a match. But Ken is retired now and barred by law from possessing flammable liquids.

Roger on the other hand, has two jobs.


He's a physics professor at UC Berkeley. He's also the director of advanced light source at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. So I called him.

"Roger," I said. "I want to be smart like you." "And my bald uncle wants hair," said Roger. "But neither one is going to happen." Nevertheless, he welcomed me to his laboratory at 1 Cyclotron Road high in the Berkeley hills.

ROGER HAS TRIED to make me smarter for years. And I've rebuffed his advances. Call me jealous. Call me envious. Just don't call me long distance and reverse the charges.

It began at the fourth-grade science fair 10 years ago at Burton Valley Elementary School. Roger walked around in a white barber's smock, judging projects and looking smart. I stared vacantly at experiments, looking like a guy who'd judge the peanut butter and jelly competition.

I wrote a piece about the experience. It pointed out that science is important. Without it we wouldn't have computers or margarine that tastes so good you can't believe it isn't butter. But it also pointed out that some people just don't have an aptitude for science, in the same way that Eleanor Roosevelt didn't have an aptitude for "Bay Watch."

Roger, a former school district trustee, is familiar with the juvenile mind. So he told me to come over and learn some science. Like any juvenile, I said OK, then waited a decade to show up.

NOW I KNOW WHY. There are geniuses working in Roger's enormous laboratory. They have got pencil sharpeners that are smarter than I am. If I had wanted to feel bad about myself I could have stayed home and looked at pictures of George Clooney's kitchen in Vanity Fair. I didn't need to go to Berkeley.

But it turns out the people who work there aren't smug and superior about their scientific knowledge. They're friendly and not a bit condescending. I think it's because they know the guys in the DNA Department and could have my gene pool drained whenever they wanted.

Roger showed me his advanced light source. It's a big X-ray machine that goes in a circle about the size of the Indianapolis 500 track, producing the world's brightest source of ultraviolet and soft X-ray beams.

How does it do this? By accelerating or "exciting" electrons inside the machine. I don't know what they do to excite them, but Roger said it wasn't by showing them Pamela Anderson's honeymoon video, which was my idea.

The advanced light source can examine the next generation of computer chips, new wonder drugs or even the entries in my peanut butter and jelly competition. The most intriguing research is into something Roger calls switchgrass.

SWITCHGRASS IS a weed that grows 14 feet tall. It's full of cellulose. If they can find an organic way to break down the cellulose, they can some day turn switchgrass into fuel and give the oil back to Iraq. Turns out scientists don't like $4 a gallon gasoline either.

You may have figured out that I have no idea what Roger and his colleagues do in their Berkeley laboratory. It's pretty clear, however that the work is incredibly difficult and potentially life-saving for the planet.

And that's no joke.

But this is: Guy walks into a bar with duct tape on his glasses, a pocket protector on his shirt, and a duck on his head. Bartender says "where'd you get that." Duck says, "Berkeley. They got hundreds of them."

Contact Mike Zampa at michaelzampa@yahoo.com.