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Yau-Man Chan ’74

Reality TV contestant uses celebrity to teach science

Fans of the TV show Survivor probably remember Yau-Man Chan. During season 14 in Fiji, he was the self-proclaimed “old guy” (he was 54 during the 2006 filming) who bested much younger and stronger contestants at many physical challenges using his knowledge of physics. When players had to throw a flimsy javelin at a target, for example, Chan was the only one who reasoned that a running start was essential.

Producers recruited Chan for the show after seeing him play competitive table tennis. His age, Asian heritage, and hometown caught their attention, he says. Chan, who grew up in Malaysia, had no trouble adjusting to Fiji’s steamy climate. He finished in fourth place and made a brief appearance in season 16, filmed in Micronesia.

This story is part of the January/February 2013 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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Being a reality TV star has afforded Chan the opportunity to travel, including a trip to Afghanistan to entertain American troops, and to promote interest in science. He speaks to children and adults regularly at libraries and Rotary Clubs near his California home. “I tell them a couple stories about Survivor, then hit them with science,” he says. His education also helps attract crowds: “As soon as people find out you have a degree from MIT, there’s an awe factor.”

Chan had never been to America before he went to MIT, where he majored in physics. He continued studying the subject at the University of California, Santa Barbara, earning a master’s in scientific instrumentation there in 1977. He then worked at the University of Colorado’s Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics building high-precision instruments, such as a lambda meter to measure the speed of light. In 1984, he began running the electronics shop for the chemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley. As technology evolved, his job morphed into a computer service role. Establishing the computer network—including literally wiring the College of Chemistry complex—is one of the accomplishments of which he’s most proud in his 28 years there. These days, he’s the chief technology officer for the College of Chemistry. “I love being the computer geek,” he says.

Chan and his wife live in Martinez, California, and have two daughters. He played table tennis doubles with one of them, and they made it to the U.S. Open and U.S. Nationals. Chan has also served as a division director for the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. Other interests include his involvement with the James Randi Educational Foundation, which promotes critical thinking and works to expose paranormal, supernatural, and pseudoscientific fraud.

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