MacArthur Mashup

The MacArthur Fellowships were announced today. These are particularly great, as it’s awarded across so many different fields, and I always learn about interesting work going on by reading the synopses at the website. Congratulations to all recipients!! Before I point to the list, I’d like to make a plea that will, of course, go unheeded.

Please please, people of the media, stop calling them “genius grants”. Just stop. By way of explanation, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the term just seems to strike the wrong tone about what these things should be about. It seems to me to push the recipients away as being “other” rather than encouraging us all to embrace the qualities that they are being encouraged to show by getting the fellowships. Ok, that’s the end of my plea.

Here’s a reminder of what the Fellowship is about (extract from their site):

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Anyway, here’s the list of this years MacArthur Fellowship recipients this year. Quite a varied and interesting bunch, by several measures. If you know more about any of the projects, or have some thoughts, don’t be shy – tell us a bit about it in the comments.


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12 Responses to MacArthur Mashup

  1. Sophia says:

    Paul Rothemund’s project is actually very neat — “DNA Origami” is what he calls it. He was a grad student under Len Adelman (Turing Award ’06) here at USC and then went to post-doc at CalTech. Aside from being a very modest guy, Paul’s work may one day help us build computer chips that are 10x smaller than what we currently use. He just uses random sequences of DNA to build elaborate nano-structures. It’s definitely worth looking into his research if you’ve got the time and inclination.

  2. Clifford says:

    I’ll have a look. Whenever I run into Len he always asks me good questions about cosmology and string theory, so in return I can ask him things about the basics of DNA origami…. A fair swap.



  3. Yvette says:

    Don’t know any from this year (though the projects all sound very interesting/ awesome), but I did know one recipient from a few years ago. She’d graduated from my high school twenty years prior and got the award for her microbiology work, and while she seemed very nice when she visited it got old very quickly as the school essentially beat the topic to death. (Private schools very dependent on image tend to do that, particularly when it’s an all-girls one and they get a “genius” in science who graduated from there. But I digress.)

    I always love the MacArthur awards though, to be honest, because it always allows for me to take a look into some things I hadn’t thought about before!

  4. Michelle says:

    There is a problem with the “genius” term. It evokes someone who is different and special and fantastically talented in a way that is beyond the reach of ordinary individuals. Over-emphasizing talent relative to curiosity, effort, and determination can discourage anyone not confident of their own innate brilliance. Among physicists, there is a certain cult of greatness surrounding Einstein, and also Feynman to some extent, that I don’t find very helpful. While some do take inspiration from “geniuses” and aspire to be like them, it takes quite a bit of ego to pull off.

  5. Clifford says:

    Hi Michelle… that’s pretty much what I was getting at. Thanks!


  6. Michelle says:

    I don’t like Hollywood movies about child prodigies much, either. 🙂

  7. Just Another Grad Student says:

    That’s odd, I didn’t see Lee Smolin on the list…

  8. Clifford says:

    To be fair, lots of the planet’s population of 6 billion (or so) did not make the list of 24. Taken on its own, that’s not evidence that they’re not doing good work…


  9. jay says:

    This year there isn’t any recipient whose field of research is physics related while I see many biologists or bio-related researchers. Does this also tell us this century will be that of biology?

  10. Clifford says:

    I don’t see why any one year (or any one fellowship awarding body) can really give that indication. You’d have to look over a number of years and over a number of awarding bodies and identify a trend. My own feeling is that there’s so much out there that is blurring the borders between biology and the other fields (including physics, chemistry, various forms of engineering, etc) that it is hard to legitimately make the “century of biology” remark that is so often made in the sense that there’s so much of everything else all nicely tangled up.



  11. jay says:

    Yes, you are right. We have to see the trend reavealed only by observing for many years. Biology is certainly at the crossroad of everything even including arts and humanities. And our brain activity and thus the process of knowing something is none other than biological processes. (Of course, who can deny every cell consists of atoms?) Understanding what we mean by understanding is becoming more and more important. In this sense biology is playing ever more important role in our efforts to grasp our surroundings as well as ourselves.

  12. John Branch says:

    Another problem with the phrase “genius grant” is that it sounds like an award in recognition of something that one is. Instead, a MacArthur Fellowship recognizes what one has done and facilitates what one may do. It’s not about being a genius.

    As Forrest Gump (or his mother) might say, genius is as genius does.